Syria's military pickle: it is pledged to fight, but wants to get out of Lebanon
Damascus, Syria — Syria knows it is in a military pickle. Only American negotiations or winter rain can bail it out now, Western and Arab diplomats agree.
Syria has roughly 35,000 to 40,000 troops committed to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and the north, but the government doesn't want to send them into battle against the Israelis, diplomats say.
Without the Syrians, the 6,000-odd Palestinians in the Bekaa do not stand a chance, they add.
Publicly, of course, the Syrians say they will fight. But diplomats - Western , Arab, and nonaligned alike - say Syria had decided by early July that it would leave the Bekaa and Lebanon altogether.
The Syrian-Israeli tank and air battles in the southern Bekaa in the opening weeks of the war convinced Syria there was no point, diplomats say. Syria has admitted losing about 60 aircraft and 400 tanks and armored personnel carriers.
Israel says it knocked out more than 80 planes and about 600 armored vehicles.
The decision to give up Lebanon was made personally by President Hafez Assad, who is known to be a pragmatist through and through, the envoys say.
The problem is how to get out gracefully without so exposing Syria that the Israelis could attack the homeland.
Military experts say Syria could acquit itself with honor in a ground battle in the Bekaa - even though it would probably still lose. But they say that once the Israeli Air Force is called in, the Syrians would be doomed.
Israel is on all the high ground looking into the Bekaa. It could use air and artillery and cause casualties with very little damage to itself, a military analyst says.
The diplomats expect more Israeli air strikes on Syrian positions as an impetus not only to negotiate, but also to make concessions more quickly.
The recent air raids exemply that. They were noteworthy because the Syrians did not reply with even one peep of anti-aircraft fire during the bombing runs, say diplomats and journalists who were in the valley at the time.
The troops spread through the Bekaa and north around Tripoli are there ''to ward off an attack on Syria only,'' says one military man.
Men have been pulled off duty from Damascus and the Golan Heights to stand guard at the border. ''Syria has denuded its defenses in Damascus to build up the Bekaa. It can't denude it any more,'' the analyst says. ''There is practically nothing on the Golan.''
''The Syrians perceive a real threat to Damascus and Homs,'' he added. If the Israelis took full run of the fertile valley, they could cut off major Syrian cities easily. More important, they could cut off the oil refineries.
An honorable retreat for Syria can be negotiated only by US envoy Philip Habib personally, diplomats say. ''They want an iron-clad American assurance that Israel will not march on Syria after they leave (Lebanon),'' a Western diplomat says.
By November, winter rain will rule out ground battles, as the Bekaa will become a quagmire for tanks. That gives Syria more breathing space to find a face-saving way out.
Although the Soviet Union might stir into action should Syria itself be threatened, the Syrians are less than pleased with their relationship with the Soviets.
Recriminations have been flying both ways.
''The Syrians complain they want better equipment and the Soviets say that the Syrians don't effectively use what they have already,'' says a nonaligned diplomat.
Diplomats from both the East and West cite the SAM-6 missiles as an example. Syria deployed the Soviet surface-to-air batteries in the Bekaa and the Israelis breezily wiped them out.
''SAMS have to be tied into radar and computers. They run on quick communications and quick decisionmaking in the field,'' a diplomat says.
''The Syrian Army is not well trained by Western standards. Its tactics are Soviet,'' he adds.
''You see it in the southern Bekaa, where they lined up everything in a row, and it probably only took one Israeli aircraft dropping one cluster bomb to wipe out an entire row of tanks.''
Despite the 80-odd planes lost, Syria seems to have lost only 20 or 30 pilots.
''You get the strong feeling that the moment the pilots knew the Israelis had spotted them, they simply ejected, realizing they could never win a dogfight,'' a diplomat says.
Diplomats blamed the Syrian defeats on: (1) low level of education and training among conscripts; (2) reliance on Soviet tactics and equipment; and (3) overwhelming superiority of Israeli forces equipped with sophisticated US weapons.
The Soviets have basically resupplied the Syrians,but one diplomat says Assad plans to put new emphasis on education, training, and generally improving the economy.