Syrian officials are showing rising frustration with the U.S. effort to resolve the Lebanese crisis.
In interviews here after last Friday's four-hour meeting between Syrian President Hafez Assad and American negotiator Philip C. Habib, comments by government officials and foreign diplomats reflected the Syrian belief that Habib's efforts have been misfocused on the PLO rather than on the Israelis.
When Habib first arrived in Syria shortly after the June 6 Israeli invasion, said Information Minister Ahmed Iskander Ahmed, "we understood his task was to stop the invasion and institute common work" between the American and Arab governments "to evacuate the invading Israeli troops" from Lebanon.
Instead, Iskander continued, Habib has concentrated on getting the Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas out of Beirut and Lebanon.
The almost two months of suffering of Lebanese and Palestinians in war-wracked Lebanon "is the responsibility of the United States because Habib did not start correctly" by focusing on an Israeli withdrawal, Iskander charged. The Israelis "must be evacuated first; then the Palestinian and Lebanese relationships must be left to the Lebanese government and the PLO," he added.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, however, Syria was among the signers of a joint Arab League statement providing for the withdrawal of PLO forces from Beirut.
Syria, with more than 30,000 soldiers inside Lebanon, has a strong stake in the outcome of the present crisis. Its Army fought two major battles with the Israeli forces in June and a skirmish at the end of last week. Syrian and Israeli troops now face each other along a long, tense cease-fire line stretching from Sofar, on the Beirut-to-Damascus Highway, southeast across the Bekaa Valley up to the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Exactly what happened in Habib's talks here with Assad and Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam is hard to establish in this secretive capital. But it is clear from a number of sources that the talks did not go well.
The Syrians "look upon us as trying to save Israeli lives" by working toward a peaceful PLO withdrawal, explained a senior American diplomat who declined to be identified. On the Israeli threat to attack PLO strongholds in West Beirut, "the Syrians feel we can just tell the Israelis not to do it," the diplomat added.
The Syrians "are more concerned to get the broader issues of an all-around Middle East settlement on the table now because they feel that if they don't, after the crisis is resolved everyone goes back to business as usual," said the high-level American source. To Syrian officials, the source continued, the real issue is where the Palestinian refugees will go.
"They want to link a PLO exodus from Beirut to something more substantial," the source added. They also feel that the United States has to recognize PLO leader Yasser Arafat "because he is the one who is in a weak position" and that such a move would allow all parties, including the Israelis, to begin broader discussions on the Middle East dilemma.
Iskander's comments reflected just that. "We concentrate on the roots of the problem and the core of the struggle, whereas the United States, in support of Israel, wants to forget the core of the cause," a homeland for the Palestinians, he said. "This logic is the wrong logic."
America's "unlimited" military and economic support of Israel "has led to Israel becoming a rogue" nation, he said, "invading and occupying Arab territory."
Iskander indicated Syrian troops will not withdraw from Lebanon although the Arab League mandate for their peace-keeping mission expired on Wednesday. Syrian troops first entered neighboring Lebanon in 1976 to put an end to the 1975-1976 Lebanese civil war. The Israelis demand that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon ahead of their withdrawal. Syria has rejected the demand.
Iskander also repeated charges made by Assad in mid-July that in both major encounters with Syria's Army, the Israelis used "nerve-gas" bombs. Asked for evidence, Iskander said that the casings of antipersonnel cluster, phosphorus and nerve-gas bombs used against Syrian troops "were seen" in Lebanon.
The senior American diplomat said Palestinian doctors treating civilian victims of the Israeli shelling at a Damascus hospital have claimed to have seen "evidence of the use of some type of gas," but that it is still unclear if any gas was actually used. "We don't have any information on it," he said.