President Hafez Assad said today that there was no agreement to end the war-threatening confrontation between his nation and Israel and that he had not yet been presented with any specific proposals by U.S. negotiator Philip C. Habib for easing the crisis.
He added, however, that it is still too early to say whether Habib's mission will succeed. "It is better to wait a few days," the Syrian leader said in an interview, his first direct word to Western reporters since the crisis started more than three weeks ago with the Israeli downing of two Syrian Helicopters inside Lebanon and the subsequent movement of Syrian surface-to-air missiles into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
In the interview, Assad insisted that the SAMs were placed inside Lebanon only because they are required to defend Syrian soldiers there from what he said were daily overflights by Israeli jets.
One of the ideas reportedly under discussion for easing the crisis is for Israel to end its daily reconnaissance flights over the Bekaa, which runs alongside the Syrian border, thereby allowing Syria to remove its missiles since they would no longer be needed.
An easing of tensions "all depends on the aggressive intentions of Israel," Assad said. "If the matter was up to us," he added later, "I could say there would be no war."
Assad insisted in the interview that the three long meetings he has had with Habib so far were "general discussions," with the only "definite points" made by Habib centering on "demands of Israel rather than proposals on his behalf or on behalf of the American government."
"I keep hearing about this so-called American proposal," Assad said later, "but the plan in the Western press has not been presented to us. All the talk is about Israel's demands so far. Perhaps there are other things they [the Americans] have not talked about . . ."
"There are many factors which have a role to play in the decision of war which Israel may take or perhaps has taken already. The conclusion is that the possibility of war exists, and the possibility of peace also exists."
Assad said the mission of Habib, whose presence in the region for the past 13 days, shuttling between capitals, is seen here as the main factor in preventing armed conflict until now, "is making efforts and for that he is to be thanked."
He conducted the interview, done on a pool basis with questions submitted by all American reporters here, in a drawing room of the presidential palace. He defended strongly the placing of the missile batteries as necessary to protect Syrian troops operating in Lebanon under an Arab League mandate to try to prevent another bloody civil war.
The missiles were deployed April 29, the day after Israeli jets downed the Syrian helicopters.
"Israel," Assad said, "feels free to attack our forces but if we provide our forces with weapons to defend themselves, Israel says we have no such rights. The missiles are defensive. They are deployed near the Syrian border. They cannot strike targets inside Israel.
"I want to make this clear," he continued. "They strke only at planes which attack our forces, which means that Israel not only wants to attack us but also to attack us while we raise our hands in submission."
It is seen here as unlikely that any limitation of overflights for a pullback of the SAMs would be publicly announced because it would require both Israel and Syria to back down from previously stated fixed positions.
Assad's government has never refused to remove the missile batteries. It has said it would not take them away under Israeli or U.S. pressure.
Assad did not hold much hope that Habib's visits here -- the first by a high U.S. official in many years -- would do much to improve the badly strained relations between the United States and Syria. On the other hand, Assad portrayed the Soviet Union, Syria's major arms supplier, as a good friend "who stands on our side against aggression."