Washington — Round 1 of the crisis in Lebanon goes to that great survivor, Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad. As President Reagan's special envoy, Philip Habib, returns to the United States, a conviction is growing in Washington that no matter how the Lebanon crisis is resolved, the wily Mr. Assad will be a winner.
The Syrian leader has played his cards well, American officials say. In so doing, he has gained recognition from the US, increased stature among the Arabs, and possibly additional aid from Saudi Arabia. Thanks to its current confrontation with Israel, Syria has edged a few degrees out of its isolation within the Arab world.
But some of Syria's gains, particularly as regards its Arab neighbors, are still tentative. And the diplomatic game is far from over. Although he has been called back for consultations, Ambassador Habib can be expected to return to the Middle East.
In Washington's view, Habib has succeeded, in the short term, in helping to avert a Middle East disaster. The long-term US aim apparently is to use a resolution of the current Lebanon crisis to foster a disengagement by the Syrians and Israelis from Lebanon.
"I think we're seeing patience, and that's a good sign," said one well-placed US official concerning the results of three weeks of Mideast shuttling by Ambassador Habib.
In the absence of Habib, Saudi Arabia appears to be playing the most active diplomatic role on the scene at the to Lebanon has returned there after a long absence. Much may depend on the Saudis' ability to work behind the scenes and possibly bring their own and other forces into a new Arab "peace-keeping" mission for Lebanon. American officials fear, however, that another wealthy Arab country, Libya, may be playing a disruptive role.
While President Assad may be the biggest winner so far in the crisis, Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin also appears to have made political gains. Facing an election in five weeks, Begin has benefited from the crisis by looking both tough and diplomatic at the same time. But some Israelis are complaining that while Begin and his political coalition may have profited, Israel itself has been damaged by the crisis.
The biweekly Middle East Policy Survey in Washington, D.C., quotes military analysts as saying that proposed restrictions on Israeli overflights of the Bekaa Valley will severely impair the flexibility of Israel's Air Force. It quotes one analyst as saying that to the detriment of Israel, Assad's "adroit use of power has propelled him to center stage."
But one American official suggested that the crisis in Lebanon may end with no clear winners or losers. This would allow face-saving all around, with tensions gradually subsiding. One problem, however, is that Syria has been building up its military forces in Lebanon, including the number of surface-to-air missiles it now has in place. If the missiles stay, Israel might inevitably appear a loser in a part of the world where face counts for a great deal.
A State Department official said on May 27 that Syria's main supporter and supplier of arms, the Soviet Union, had been playing a role that was "not particularly helpful." The Soviets are believed to have cautioned the Syrians against expanding the crisis at this stage. But they have apparently done nothing to get the Syrians to remove from Lebanon their Soviet-supplied SAMs. To the extent that President Assad consolidates the political gains he has made from the crisis, the Soviets might stand to gain as well.
From the US point of view, this is not the most desirable outcome. But if it means avoiding a war between Israel and Syria that would threaten American ties with key Arab nations, then it could be the lesser of two evils.
Reagan administration officials had hoped to exclude the Soviets and Syrians from their Middle East diplomacy. But despite tough rhetoric, they have ended up consulting more with the Soviets on the Middle East than the Carter administration officials ever did.
Some State Department officials believe that in being forced to deal with Assad -- and with the Soviets -- the Reagan administration is merely waking up to reality. With or without Lebanon, they say, the administration would have had to take the Syrians and Soviets into account eventually. One official said that the current visit to Moscow by Jordan's King Hussein signified recognition by Hussein that the Soviets do play a role in the region and are "too important" to be excluded from Middle East diplomacy.