Secretary of State George P. Shultz, following a long and apparently fruitless meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad today, said he sees no prospect of an immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Shultz's statement followed nearly five hours of meetings with Assad at which the secretary said there was "no agreement really at all" about the Israeli-Lebanese pact that he helped to negotiate two months ago. Later a Syrian spokesman said Syria's rejection of the Israeli-Lebanese pact was "final" and "irrevocable."
Israel has made the withdrawal of its military forces, as called for in the pact, conditional on a parallel Syrian pullout. Shultz's failure to nudge the Syrians toward troop withdrawals or at least toward serious negotiations on the matter suggests, in this perspective, that the Israeli-Lebanese pact will not be fully implemented for a long time, if ever.
United Press International quoted the official radio in Damascus as saying in a broadcast as Shultz left that the United States was Syria's "permanent enemy."
In the meantime, Israel is taking increasingly open preliminary steps toward a partial pullout of its forces to more easily defended positions for the long haul.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir was quoted as telling French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson shortly before Shultz's arrival here that "for the time being, the reasonable thing to do is to redeploy our forces." A senior Israeli spokesman, disclosing this exchange, said "it is certainly our firm intention to go ahead with redeployment" and adding, "a redeployment there will be."
The Israeli Cabinet's defense committee, which operates in secrecy, is reported to have taken up the re- deployment question this morning. But evidently to avoid presenting a fait accompli to Shultz, and thus posing a dramatic public challenge, no action was announced.
Shultz's attitude toward such an Israeli partial pullout is ambiguous and unclear, at least in public. Just how far and how fast Israel intends to go, and how the United States reacts, is at the heart of meetings with senior Israeli officials that began here tonight and will reach a climax early Thursday in a session with Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Israeli radio, quoting official sources, reported tonight that Shultz had told Shamir that his talks in Damascus left the door open for further discussion about a Syrian withdrawal, and that Israel therefore should refrain for the time being from any steps that would complicate the situation.
The unseen party at the U.S.- Israeli discussions, as at the earlier U.S.-Syrian meetings in Damascus, is the Lebanese government of President Amin Gemayel. The Lebanese are anxious for both the Israelis and the Syrians to leave. But they made clear to Shultz yesterday their strong objection to any partial Israeli pullback that is not part of a phased and scheduled total pullout, for fear that Israel--once behind comfortable and defensible lines--will stay in Lebanon permanently.
The major question hanging over the meetings here is whether or to what extent Israel can redeploy its troops on a partial basis without destroying the Israeli-Lebanese agreement that Shultz laboriously negotiated in his April-May shuttle. The answer depends on attitudes in Beirut and Washington as well as actions by Israel.
In order to take better account of Lebanese concern, Shultz and Assad agreed to establish a special U.S.-Syrian committee to discuss questions regarding Lebanon. An official in Shultz's party characterized this as "a faint glimmer of light" in an otherwise bleak picture, suggesting that this committee could serve as the venue for later efforts to persuade Damascus to withdraw its forces.
Shultz told reporters that he did not wish to make "a big deal" of the establishment of the committee. He did appear to take some comfort that Assad, while rejecting his pleas in categorical fashion, expressed willingness to continue the dialogue with Washington.
The "fundamental point" for Assad, Shultz told reporters, is the contention that the Israeli-Lebanese pact is a challenge to the sovereignty of Lebanon. Other officials said Assad also argued that Israel should not reap military or political benefits for invading another country.
Most of the talk with the Syrians involved the rationale for and interpretation of various provisions of the the Israeli-Lebanese pact, officials said. Assad was depicted as seeming to feel that time was on his side in sitting tight while the pact encountered increasing trouble and pressure within Israel against maintenance of large forces in Lebanon.
Shultz said there was little discussion with Assad of an Israeli re- deployment within Lebanon, as currently being fashioned here. An official in Shultz's party said such Israeli action would "give the greatest of pleasure" to Assad because it would relieve the pressure on Syria to remove its forces.
This prospect, of Israel holding large areas of Lebanon and Syria holding separate areas in a de facto partition of the country, alarms the Lebanese.
Shultz, in a last-minute addition to a two-week trip that has already taken him from Washington to Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan and now the Middle East, has scheduled two more quick stops Thursday--to see Jordan's King Hussein in Amman and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on the way back to Washington.
The wearying secretary of state and his increasingly tired aides and press contingent are now scheduled to return to Washington in the early hours of Friday.