U.S. special representative Phillip C. Habib met today for two hours with Strian President Hafez Assad in Damascus amid mounting indications that his effort to arrange a peaceful settlement to the Syrian missile crisis is making little headway.
There was no official word on what the two men had discussed on Habib's fourth trip to Damascus in the past two months. But the state-run newspaper Tishrin today described his mission as "futile" and "no longer useful" while repeating once again the Syrian position that "it will not withdraw its missiles from Lebanon because they are defensive weapons."
The missiles -- Soviet-made, ground-to-air SA6s -- appeared to late April in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley after Israeli jets shot down two Syrian helicopters there, touching off the present crisis and fears of another Middle East war.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin has said repeatedly that if Habib cannot get Syrian agreement to remove the missiles, Israel will send planes to destroy them.
In the past several days, he has again indicated that his patience with the Habib mission is growing short. Habib is expected to go to Israel Wednesday.
Habib arrived in Damascus Monday night from Saudi Arabia, where he met with Crown Prince Fahd, who makes most decisions in the kingdom; Prince Sultan, the defense minister; and Prince Saud Faisal, the foreign minister.
The United States had been counting on Saudi help to persuade Syria of the need for a compromise to avoid a military confrontation with Israel over the missiles.
But statements from Saudi officials and the press there suggest that the kingdom, although a close ally of the United States, is no longer in a mood to exercise its influence with Syria on Washington's behalf following the Israeli raid with U.S.-made warplanes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor outside Baghdad.
In an interview Sunday on American television, Prince Saud called the prospects for the Habib mission "bleak," and the Saudi press has since described it as "irrelevant" in view of the latest Israeli action.
These comments stand in sharp contrast to official U.S. comments that Habib's talks with Saudi leaders were "very useful."
Wheter Habib is making any progress in his quest for a compromise solution is imporrible to tell in the absense of any substantive comment from any of the participants. But some observers here said the fact the Syrian government kept its silence after President Assad's meeting with Habib could be a sign that it was still willing to give the U.S. envoy a chance.