Syria's hard line dims Lebanon's hopes for defusing missile crisis

Lebanon's hopes that it would escape serving as the battleground for a Syrian-Israeli war have dimmed. Those hopes had been momentarily lifted by Israel's softer tone and the continuation of the diplomatic shuttle of US presidential envoy Philip C. Habib.

When Mr. Habib left Israel May 13 for Beirut (he returned to Jerusalem via Damascus abruptly May 14), the Israeli government said it hoped that envoy would be successful in his attempt to solve the three-week-old crisis between Syria and Israel over the positioning of SAM antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon.

Israel's gentler tones and the lack of an immediate military retaliation against Syria for firing SAM missiles at reconnaissance planes Tuesday gave Lebanon the first inkling of a feeling that it might be taking a minute step back from the precipice of war.

But the downing May 14 of the Israeli drone plane, a pilotless aircraft used to photograph the placement of weapons and troops, squashed that feeling.

Both Israel and Syria announced that the plane had been shot down over the fertile Lebanese Bekaa Valley while Habib was sequestered with Syrian President Hafez Assad in a three-hour meeting.

In shooting down the plane, Syria demonstrated for the second time this week its intention to stand up to Israel -- even if it requires a fight. Two days earlier, Syria had also shot down an Israeli drone plane.

Diplomats in Syria said the two incidents with the Israeli planes had propelled Syria into a state of confidence that negated even further any prospect of a negotiated settlement.

American diplomats in Syria also scotched reports that Habib was carrying with him a plan outlining how such a settlement could be reached peacefully.

Mr. Habib, as throughout his trip, made no comment on his discussions as he left Damascus for Israel.

Not only has Mr. Assad proved that he has a chance militarily at least to inflict some damage on the Israelis, he has also rallied the Arabs behind him. Iraq and Iran declared they would support Syria May 13. Iraq's alliance is noteworthy because Iraq and Syria cut diplomatic relations between their countries last year.

Libya had lined up with Syria much earlier in the confrontation, and some Libyan soldiers are stationed in the Bekaa.

Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat has demonstrated his support of Syria by shuttling around the Gulf soliciting moral and financial support for Damascus.

The Syrian news media have begun beating the war drums more loudly since the first missile firing incident May 12.

In a radio commentary by the state-run Damascus radio late May 12, the radio warned that an Israeli attack would be "met with a strong and effective retaliation which would turn into a war of resistance that would cover American interests and policies in the Arab homeland," including American oil interests, it added.

Al Baath, the newspaper of the ruling Arab Baath party in Syria, commented that a war would bring Israel up against what it called the "strategic impact" of the Syrian-Soviet treaty of friendship and cooperation.

Early in the crisis, Moscow sent Georgi Korniyenko, its first deputy foreign minister, to confer with its ally Syria.

Even more so than earlier in the standoff between the two nations, Syria has less to lose than Israel.

Syria has proved it can inflict some casualties on the Israelis in a military battle --something that could give Israeli Prime Minister Begin problems in the coming Israeli election.

And, although Syria is likely to take the greater beating militarily in the end, it will have proved to its Arab brothers and to the United States that it is a power to be reckoned with in the Middle East. The pride of that will more than make up for the loss es.

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