Washington — The United States is reacting calmly to reports of a Soviet airlift of military supplies to Syria.
The Soviets appear to be moving with too little, too late. The superiority of American weapons used by the Israelis over Soviet arms used by the Syrians has dealt a blow to Soviet prestige in the Middle East.
Washington's main fear at the moment is that the fighting around the city of Beirut will escalate, causing an even greater loss of lives and property in Lebanon than has already occurred. American officials have been cautioning the Israelis not to move beyond the positions they now hold on the outskirts of the Lebanese capital.
Israeli Embassy officials, for their part, have been denying that Israel has any intention of going into the heart of Beirut. In order to underline its concern in this regard, the Reagan administration on June 15 described as tentative the President's scheduled meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin next week and ordered what amounts so far to a symbolic delay in the delivery of 75 F-16 fighter planes to Israel.
The administration had formally disapproved of the Israeli invasion, but then began to argue that it could serve as a catalyst for the creation of a new stability in Lebanon and a revival of talks aimed at resolving the Palestinian question.
Egypt's foreign minister, Kamal Hassan Ali, has been in Washington for the past few days, urging the Americans to prepare a new push to resolve the Palestinian problem. The Egyptians fear that if the Israelis stay in Lebanon and no progress is made on the Palestinian issue, it will have a ''radicalizing'' effect on many Arabs and provide the Soviet Union with new openings in the Middle East. At the same time, given the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, they see no alternative to suspending the Egyptian-Israeli negotiations over Palestinian autonomy.
As the Egyptians see it, an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and progress on the Palestinian issue are needed to restore American credibility. In the absence of such a withdrawal and progress on the Palestinian question, they think the US will be seen throughout the Arab world as working in collusion with the Israelis rather than as opposing the invasion of Lebanon.
Recently Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak told a Cairo visitor that American efforts to resolve the Palestinian question inadequate. But Egypt was slow to react to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and has been cautious in what it has said on that subject. Everyone from Mubarak down insists that the ''normalization'' of Egyptian relations with Israel will continue no matter what.
Some US State Department officials are struck by what they call a relatively ''muted'' Arab reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They suspect that some Arab leaders, regardless of their public position, were just as happy to see the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) take a beating in Lebanon. These officials, therefore, hope that rather than having a radicalizing impact on most of the so-called moderate Arab nations, the new situation in Lebanon will help bring them into a broadened Middle East peace process that will include Palestinian autonomy and an independent Lebanon.
Critics of such an analysis say that it is short-sighted and amounts mostly to wishful thinking. Vice-President George Bush returned from Saudi Arabia on June 16 with a warning from the Saudi leaders: US-Arab ties will suffer if Washington fails to do more to end the Lebanese crisis.
Administration officials agree a new push must be made toward Palestinian autonomy, or it will benefit the Soviets and Arab radicals. But they do not see the Soviets necessarily benefitting from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. As they see it, the Soviet armaments have been defeated in Lebanon.
For the past several days, Soviet planes are reported to have flown military equipment into Syria to help replace equipment lost to the Israelis. A US Defense Department official said that the move was expected and was the least the Soviets could do in order to maintain of credibility in the Arab world.