Syria and Mr. Reagan

By , Mr. Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As the American death toll in Lebanon continues to grow and the success of the Marines' mission - whether military or political - is nowhere in sight, disturbing questions are increasingly raised about Ronald Reagan's policy in the Middle East. Some criticize the President for being ''trigger happy'' and relying too heavily on military power.

But the Syrians are not the Americans. Those who rule in Damascus do not share the US liberal dogma that when guns are used it means diplomacy has failed. Military force is a traditional and much respected tool for settling disputes in the region. Those reluctant to employ power should stay away from the Middle East.

Nor can the President be fairly charged of recklessness in handling the Syrians. Once the Marines arrived in Lebanon they had to be protected against hostile attacks. There is little doubt that most of these attacks are, if not directly orchestrated by Damascus, at least organized with its knowledge, approval, and support. A great power like the United States cannot afford to give the impression that a small but assertive Soviet ally can push it around with impunity.

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Similarly, I would not blame Mr. Reagan for putting too much emphasis on the East-West dimension of the Lebanese situation. The administration, on the whole, recognizes that deep divisions between Lebanese factions are not Moscow's invention. And officials in both the White House and the State Department realize that Syria has its own agenda and is not a Soviet puppet.

Syrian leadership in Damascus consists of tough and pragmatic men. They would probably never dare to challenge the US and Israel if they did not feel that the Soviet superpower was behind them. At this point - regardless of historical rights and wrongs - success for Damascus means a gain for the Kremlin and a loss for the US.

But while a lot of liberal criticism of the administration's performance in Lebanon is off the mark, there are indeed good reasons to worry. The President does not seem to know exactly what America is doing in Lebanon or what the consequences of US actions are. This kind of analytical blindness is frightening considering that the lives of American marines are on the line, that US credibility as a superpower is at stake, and that the risk of a direct military clash with the Soviet Union is growing every day.

Mr. Reagan declared that the US does not want a military confrontation with Syria. According to him, Syrian antiaircraft fire against US surveillance planes represented an unprovoked attack. If the President made this statement exclusively for public relations purposes it would still be appropriate to ask whom he thinks he is kidding. But White House aides insist that Mr. Reagan was truly appalled by the Syrian action. If that is so, we are really in trouble.

Just look at the facts. Here the administration is proceeding with practical steps to develop strategic cooperation with Israel. Against whom? President Assad does not have to be paranoid to assume that he is the most immediate target. And there is indeed a lot of talk among senior officials in Washington about using the Israelis to cut Syria down to size.

Just a few days after Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens returned home from the US, the Israeli Air Force proceeded with bombing raids against positions of Palestinian and Lebanese radical factions, positions located well behind Syrian lines. The same day US reconnaissance planes flew over sensitive areas. Are the Syrians obliged to know that this was not a prelude to an actual American attack? Are they supposed to believe that information about Syrian positions collected by the planes would not be passed to the Israelis? And remember all this is happening literally at Syria's doorstep, just about 30 miles away from Damascus.

Surely, President Assad and his colleagues feel threatened and provoked. A case can be made that such a feeling in Damascus may be entirely constructive. Intimidating the opponent is a perfectly acceptable technique when the forces of the two sides are eyeball-to-eyeball. But then the administration has to explain the purpose of the intimidation. There should be a connection between the magnitude of the threat made to an adversary and the concessions you want him to make.

What is Reagan's threat to Assad? More military pressure in Lebanon? But that only makes the Syrian leader a hero in the eyes of other Arab nations and his own people. Any military equipment Assad loses is going to be quickly replaced by the Soviet Union. And the prospect of suffering casualties among Syrian soldiers never seemed to deter those who ruled in Damascus in the past.

However, neither the Reagan administration nor the Israelis are prepared to launch a major war against Syria. If that is the case, there is no alternative to making a serious effort to reach an agreement with Syria. A deal does not preclude attempting to squeeze Damascus as hard as possible. But it also requires realism and flexibility. And all the Reagan administration is willing to offer to Syria is essentially - if rhetoric about respecting legitimate Syrian interests is discounted - to get out of Lebanon on terms developed jointly by Israel and the US. To expect Assad to oblige is daydreaming.

Unfortunately, this would not be the first time that the White House has appeared to be living in a world of fiction. Mr. Reagan fails to see why calling Soviet leaders liars and cheaters and promising to put their regime on the ''ash heap of history'' should complicate arms control negotiations with Moscow. He does not see why most states in the world see US action in Grenada as an invasion rather than a rescue mission.

Up to now, a remarkable combination of luck and Soviet ineptness has saved the US from foreign policy disasters. Relying on luck is no substitute for a foreign policy. If there is a banana peel in Mr. Reagan's political future he may well find it in Lebanon. The trouble is that if he slips in that war-ridden land, chances are that US standing in the Middle East and elsewhere may go down with him.

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