Soviets see gains, risks in Lebanon crisis

The war scare in the Mideast is both good news and bad for a Soviet leadership bent on reentering the Arab-Israeli diplomatic arena dominated by the United States in recent years.

The Kremlin, quick to focus on potential gains from the crisis, appears keenly aware of at least some potential dangers as well. While offering political backing for Syria in its dispute with Israel, the Soviets have publicly played down their military commitment to the Syrians.

The good news in the crisis for the Soviets is obvious: The Reagan administration, pledge to check Kremlin influence in the Mideast, has had to seek Moscow's help in heading off a major Arab-Israeli war.

But some diplomats here suspect the good news may ultimately be outweighed by the bad. The crisis pits Soviet-backed Syria against US-allied Israel, long sparring over the tiny battered state of Lebanon that borders both.

On April 29, Israeli jets downed two Syria helicopters in Lebanon, near Syria's western border. Syria replied by stationing Soviet made ground-to-air missiles in the area.

Israel wants the missiles out and has suggested that if diplomacy fails to achieve that aim, Israeli bombers won't. Syria says the missile deployment was a "defensive" response to Israeli aggression and that the missiles will stay.

At this writing, special US envoy Philip C. Habib is engaged in a Mideast shuttle mission aimed at piecing together a compromise. Reports from the area say he is not having much success. Both superpowers have warned, meanwhile, of the danger of wider conflict.

In their public statements, both the Soviets and the Syrians have been stressing that even the more conservative, pro-Western regimes of the Arab world are rankled by the immense US political and military support for Israel.

The Soviets' senior foreign press spokesman, Leonid Zamyatin, repeated in sharpened terms late May 16 what has become something of a refrain here during the crisis: that Washington, while playing the peacemaker, is backing the Israeli "aggressors" to the hilt.

So far, the only Arab state publicly to knock the Syrians has been Egypt, Washington's closest Arab ally. Iraq, on worsening terms with both the Syrians and Soviets, has suggested it will side with Syria in case of war.

The Soviets have been stressing their close relations with Syria, announcing accords in such fields as science, technology, even cinematography. But there has been no mention of any further arms accords, in that the Soviets have sought to portray themselves as necessary protagonists in the search for Mideast peace.

As Mr. Reagan dispatched Mr. Habib to the Mideast, the Kremlin sent First Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Korniyenko to talk to the Syrians. Mr. Zamyatin, in his May 16 remarks, stressed this facet of Soviet policy as well, saying the crisis called for "patient negotiations" and a resolution "by peaceful means."

A Soviet newspaper denied Israeli radio allegations that the Soviet ambassador in Lebanon had said that, in the event of a wider conflict, the Kremlin would weigh further military aid to Syria. And on May 16, the same ambassador was quoted as saying the current crisis had "nothing to do with" provisions of a formal Soviet-Syrian friendship pact signed here last October.

But the diplomats, Western and Arab, also say Moscow is sincere in wanting to avoid a major conflict. Among the reasons cited are:

*A war, if along the lines of recent major Mideast conflicts, could bring with it the danger of superpower confrontation.

*A peace after war -- again, if recent patterns are any indication -- could serve to reinforce US domination of Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Most analysts say Israel would probably win such a war, perhaps taking further Syrian territory. Washington's potential leverage with Israel, the argument goes, would give the US the central role in arranging a disengagement the Syrians could accept.

Indeed, some diplomats argue. the crisis has underlined the limits of Soviet influence in the Arab-Israeli diplomatic arena. Although Syrian President Assad has in recent years turned his back on US diplomatic approaches, he willingly received Mr. Reagan's special envoy for talks i n Damascus on the missile showdown.

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