The Soviet Union -- militarily and diplomatically, the Middle East's odd man out
Washington — As the evacuation from Lebanon approaches, some of this capital's foreign-policy experts are taking a look at winners and losers.
There is much disagreement on how much the United States has won or lost in this situation, but there seems to be something close to a consensus that the Soviet Union has been a loser - at least in the short term.
Throughout the more than two-month-long Lebanon crisis, Moscow's warnings have been received with a calm in Washington which contrasts markedly with the superpower military alerts that occurred during the 1973 Middle East war.
What the Lebanon crisis seems to indicate, according to several Soviet watchers here, is that the Soviet Union's influence over Middle East events is now even more limited than it was a decade ago when the Soviets had a foothold in Egypt. Given the current turmoil in the unpredictable Middle East, the Soviets could still stand to gain from a breakup of Iran or from the ''radicalization'' of certain Arab nations which might be part of the fallout from Lebanon.
But for the moment at least, the Soviets do not look like heroes to most of their Arab allies. At the very least, they have been embarrassed over the Lebanon crisis. They have shown themselves unwilling or unable to respond forcefully to cries for help from their Arab allies. They have been long on rhetoric and short on action.
This limited Soviet influence has not been a result of a lack of military power in the region. According to US Defense Department sources, the Soviets currently have 38 ships, including the Kiev, the Soviet aircraft carrier, deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. They outnumber the 30 American ships in the Mediterranean, although the ratio of combatant ships to supply ships is higher on the American side.
In the eyes of the unsophisticated, the Soviets suffered a serious loss of military credibility, because the Israelis, with their American weapons, were so easily able to beat back the Soviet-armed Syrian Army and Air Force. In the eyes of US Defense Department analysts, the Israelis' superior training, tactics, and morale counted more than American equipment did. And the Soviet equipment was in most cases not a one-on-one match for the American equipment possessed by the Israelis.
According to State Department sources, the Soviets during the Lebanon crisis have flown some 50 military resupply flights into Syria in order to replace equipment lost during the fighting. But the sources say that the Soviets have not fully replaced what was lost.
One State Department analyst said that the Soviets were ''scrambling to get in on the action'' in Lebanon but without much success. He said that they were at the same time looking for openings to expand their influence in Iran, but again without success. The Iranian leadership is regarded as deeply suspicious of Moscow and has recently been cracking down on the pro-Moscow Tudeh party.
In Lebanon, the negotiating activities of American envoy Philip Habib seem to have demonstrated that when the Israelis and at least some of the Arabs want to find a diplomatic solution to a crisis, they turn not to Moscow but to Washington.
At the same time, however, a number of experts are warning that a Lebanon setback for the Soviets in this region does not necessarily mean a long-term gain for the Americans.
''We shouldn't be complacent,'' said Talcott W. Seelye, a consultant and former ambassador to Syria. ''A wave of anti-Americanism has been fanned in the Middle East by our implicit acquiescence with Israel in the Lebanon invasion.''
''Clearly, in the short run, the Soviets have proved irrelevant to the Lebanon situation,'' said Dimitri K. Simes, executive director of the Soviet and East European research program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
''But I don't think most Middle East governments are particularly bitter at the Russians,'' said Mr. Simes. ''The Arabs themselves didn't fight. They didn't break relations with the US. They didn't use the oil weapon. So the Soviets don't come out looking any more impotent than the Arabs do themselves.''
Simes fears that because of anti-American fallout from the Lebanon invasion, the US will have greater difficulty over the long run strengthening defenses in the oil-rich Gulf against the Soviets. In his view, America's friends in that region may be even more reluctant to grant the US access to military base facilities for its so-called Rapid Deployment Force.
The Soviets, meanwhile, are clearly not happy with their Arab allies.
On Aug. 10, the Soviet news agency TASS said: ''The division within the Arab ranks, their lack of confidence in their own forces and often a desire to please Washington complicated the struggle of the Palestinian people.''
There has been some speculation here that Soviet caution in Lebanon derives in part from the Soviets' preoccupation with sorting out a succession to the current leadership.