A senior Soviet official says the real aim of an apparent American military buildup in the Middle East is ''confrontation with the USSR.'' However, he added, his government has drawn no ''line in the sand'' over which the United States cannot cross without provoking a Soviet response.
Would direct US military action against Syria escalate into direct US-Soviet conflict?
''In the final analysis, of course,'' he said without hesitation.
However, he added, ''we don't want confrontation. We want to cooperate with the US in the Middle East.'' Further, an earlier Soviet offer to work jointly with the US to create a ''demilitarized area'' in the Gulf still stands, he said.
The official, although not directly involved in the execution of Kremlin foreign policy, is intimately familiar with official Soviet thinking regarding events in the Middle East.
His comments came as the Soviet Union continued a propaganda offensive against US actions in the Middle East, and as the Kremlin maintained official silence regarding the state of President Yuri Andropov's health.
President Reagan has linked events in the Middle East to ongoing tensions between East and West, and said that US actions in Lebanon were ''central to our credibility on a global scale.''
This official conceded that the US does have vital interests in the Middle East, but added that the Soviet Union does, too. ''This region is next door to us.'' And ''when the Soviet Union feels that its vital interests are at stake, it will act to counter the threat,'' he added.
He said there are now some 7,000 Soviet citizens in Syria - advisers, mainly involved in construction work. ''Not troops.''
He flatly denied that the Soviet Union was following an ''expansionist'' policy in the region. ''Where is the Soviet expansion over there? If we help or cooperate with the Syrian government in their defense preparations, is it Soviet expansionism?''
On a related subject, he denied that the Soviet Union is encouraging in the violent struggle within the Palestine Liberation Organization. On the contrary, he said, the Soviet Union is even now acting as an intermediary between the warring factions, urging them to settle their differences by ''democratic'' means.
The bloodletting within the organization, he said, ''is in the interests of the US and Israel - not of the Palestinian people.'' The entire Middle East, he said, is now ''boiling.'' And a stepped-up American military presence only further inflames the situation, he added.
He said the Soviet Union conceded that the US, Japan, and Western Europe clearly have a vital stake in the Middle East. And he noted that the Soviet Union would, even now, work to bring about the ''demilitarized area'' it had offered.
Is that same view shared by the Kremlin? ''Certainly,'' he said.
One quid pro quo the Soviet Union would almost certainly want to extract, of course, would be diminished US military assistance for Israel and Egypt.
If the Soviet Union is interested in helping calm tensions in the area, however, it is not immediately apparent in the official press. Statements issued here have generally reflected the bitter state of US-Soviet relations.
The official Soviet news agency Tass said in a statement Sunday, ''Interventionist plans of the US in Lebanon - (those) already executed, and the planned ones - are part of the generally aggressive, militaristic course of the present Washington administration, which made terrorism and subversive activity its state policy. . . .''