Recent suggestions that Syria has become ''helpful'' to United States objectives in Lebanon were shattered by the bombing of the American Embassy in east Beirut. According to credible reports, Syria had permitted the overland transfer from Iran of the explosives that killed at least 13 people at the embassy. Given Syria's longstanding Lebanese and regional policies, such involvement should not have come as a surprise to observers of the Middle East scene.
Syria has always regarded Lebanon as its own front yard. Claiming that Lebanon is ''not a foreign country,'' the Syrians have refused to exchange diplomatic representatives with Beirut. Under the guise of an ''Arab Deterrent Force,'' Syria has maintained a large occupation force in eastern and northern Lebanon since 1976. And the Syrians have systematically assassinated Lebanese opponents of their policies, including such prominent leaders as Kamal Jumblatt (Walid's father) and President-elect Bashir Gemayel.
Moreover, the Syrians have gone to extremes to eliminate any trace of foreign influence other than their own in Lebanon. Thus, evidence points to heavy Syrian complicity in the bombing of the US Embassy in west Beirut in April of 1983 as well as in the destruction of the US Marines compound and the French headquarters in Beirut and the Israeli headquarters in southern Lebanon later that year. Syria later forced the Lebanese government to cancel its American-brokered May 17, 1983, security agreement with Israel and to shut down the Israeli liaison office in Beirut.
Despite the Syrian crowing over the withdrawal of the Marines and the other multinational forces from Lebanon, there remained in Beirut what the Syrians regarded as a fly in the ointment. The large US Embassy in Beirut, with more than a hundred staff members, was seen as more than an ordinary diplomatic mission. Washington's efforts to retain a measure of influence in Lebanon through the embassy were viewed by President Assad as an unacceptable challenge to Syria's hegemony. His dissatisfaction peaked when Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel resisted Syrian pressures to turn to Moscow, asking instead the US ambassador in Beirut for a resumption of US aid to Lebanon.
In the effort to put together a national reconciliation government in Lebanon , the Syrians in no way promoted the US vision of a free, pro-Western Lebanon living in peace with Israel. Instead, the Syrians worked for a docile, pro-Soviet Lebanon adhering to a formal state of war with Israel. Therefore, the suggestion that Syria's pacification efforts in Lebanon are helpful to the US is no more valid than would have been a US view in 1947 that Soviet pacification of civil-war-ravaged Greece would serve American interests.
In a revealing commentary on April 28, the official Syrian newspaper, Tishrin , disclosed President Assad's broader goals in attempting to quiet Lebanon. Tishrin called for ''the Lebanon file to be closed'' so that Syria could tackle its next task - destroying the US-sponsored Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel.
The scope of Syria's regional intentions has been revealed in unusually candid high-level Syrian statements to the Western press. In an interview with the Washington Post on May 15, Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Charaa, declared that Syria was planning to rally conservative Arab regimes to a united Syrian-led front ''capable of challenging Israeli intransigence'' and to persuade them to give up their ''illusions'' about counting on the US to make a comprehensive peace in the area. According to the minister, it would be ''a catastrophe'' for the Arab cause if Jordan's King Hussein attempted to deal with the Israeli government after the July elections. And in a recent interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, Syria's defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, called on other Arabs to ''work more closely with the Soviets.''
Given Syria's anti-US policies, reinforced by Syrian cooperation with Libya and Iran and backed by Moscow, with which Damascus concluded a ''friendship'' treaty in 1980, the tragedy of east Beirut may at least serve to disabuse those who believed in Syrian ''helpfulness'' of their will-o'-the-wisp. A firm US policy of opposing Syria's Lebanese and regional designs with the help of the Israelis and other friendly forces is clearly called for.
Those averse to the achievement of peace in the area are counting on our abrupt departure. On the other hand, Israel's recent call upon the US to mediate an agreement with Syria for the withdrawal of Israeli troops demonstrates the importance of a continuing and credible US presence in the region, not only to demonstrate our steadfastness in protecting our interests and principles, but also to move between the parties in order to effectuate a transition toward equitable peace. The buildings of our embassy may have been partially destroyed, but our influence and our standing remain intact.