Lebanon fighting opens Arab doors for Soviets
Nicosia, Cyprus — Recent clashes in the Middle East seem to be giving the Soviets more influence there. Western analysts are not suggesting that the Palestinian- Israeli flare-up of the past weeks was prompted or controlled by the Soviets.
But in recent months, Soviet backing has strengthened the Palestinians and their closest Arab allies, the Syrians and Libyans. This has been done by arms shipments and symbolic acts that show Soviet forces ready to intervene if necessary.
And it is often the message that is important in the Middle East. The message, in the Arab news media and from Arab officials, essentially is: The United States supports Israel, which is attacking us. The Soviets are the counterweight."
This is not to say the US has not won some favor by arranging a cease-fire in Lebanon. The truce between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was worked out by US envoy Philip C. Habib, the United Nations, and the Saudi Arabians. The Soviets are not believed to have been directly involved.
The Syrian newspaper Tishrin July 26 said the US nevertheless cannot disassociate itself from Israel's recent actions, "nor can Philip Habib, the American envoy to the region, be described as the maker of an alleged peace."
The extent of Soviet influence on the Middle East can be seen in the following.
* In the past six months a high level of Soviet arms have been moving into Lebanon to supply Palestinian guerrillas. Analysts say these include 130-mm cannons, with a range of 18 miles, Katyusha multiple rocket launchers, mortars, SAM-7 and Libyan-supplied SAM-9 antiaircraft missiles, SU-125 radar-controlled antiaircraft guns, and older Russian T-54 and T-55 tanks.
The weapons are considered no real match for the Israeli Army and Air Force. But from positions near the Israeli border, Palestinian forces were able to disrupt life in northern Galilee. Prime Minister Menachem Begin had promised northern Israeli settlers that such attacks would soon be ended. Thus he decided to try to neutralize the Soviet weapons.
"I'm sure it's very unsettling," says one Western diplomatic observer, "for the Israelis to see what looks like a real Palestinian ARmy on their northern border."
* The PLO, Syria, and Libya have aligned themselves even more closely with the USSR recently. Libyan radio July 13 spoke of the threat of Soviet intervention as a deterrent to an alleged Egyptian-Israeli plan to invade Libya. The charge was dismissed by Egypt, but it does show a certain Libyan reliance on its superpower ties.
In early July, Soviet-Syrian naval maneuvers were conducted in the eastern Mediterranean. While the maneuvers were discounted by Israeli and US state Department officials, they do seem to have had an effect on moderate Arabs.
"The Syrian-Soviet alliance has more teeth in it," a Jordanian official commented recently. "This can be part of a deterrence against the Israelis."
Jordanians and Syrians are still at odds with each other politically, but the Jordanian's statement indicates an acceptance of the Soviets as a counterweight.
On July 21, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas opined: "it would be useful if Kuwait and other Gulf countries could, if possible, advise the Lebanese authorities to begin a dialog of whatever kind with Moscow . . . . (this would) give a psychological and political shock to the United States akin to the shock caused by the Israeli raids on Beirut's residential quarters."
Earlier this month, Hani Al Hassan, a close aid to Yasser Arafat said it was his "hope that the Soviet Union will discuss with us (the PLO) the development of the confrontation with Israel and the US, as it is doing with syria."
In some ways, the growth of pro-Soviet sentiments in the Arab world are correlated to an anti-Americanism that has been detected lately. Several Arab officials have told the Monitor that moderates are being driven to the Soviets out of desperation. Says a Western diplomat stationed in an Arab country: "the old song here is 'America is forcing us into the arms of the Russians .' And the refrain is 'please don't let it happen.'"