Syrian mobile antiaircraft missiles deployed in Lebanon shortly before Christmas have been withdrawn in a new maneuver of the war of nerves between Syria and Israel, State Department sources said yesterday.
There was no official comment by the United States or Israel about the latest move of the missiles, which have been shuttled into Lebanon twice since Israeli jets shot down two Syrian MiG23 jets in mid-November. The situation between Syria, Israel and various Lebanese factions in southern Lebanon remains tense and fluid, according to a State Department official.
Officials confirmed reports that U.S. intelligence, apparently through satellite photography, had detected the withdrawal of the Soviet-made SA6 and SA8 antiaircraft missiles. The reports were broadcast by U.S. television networks Friday night.
Israeli Army sources last night confirmed the movement of the Syrian batteries from Lebanese territory, although they discounted the tactical significance of the maneuver, Washington Post correspondent William Claiborne reported from Jerusalem.
One army source in Tel Aviv said the missiles still cover the same Lebanese airspace that was protected when the batteries were deployed along the Damascus-Beirut highway and around Baalbek in eastern Lebanon.
["Strategically, the difference of whether they are just inside the (Syrian) border or six kilometers inside Lebanon is not very important. The game is political," an army source told Claiborne.]
U.S. diplomats reportedly asked the Syrians to withdraw the missiles in view of Israeli vows to use force against any threat to Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon. The Israelis were also upset over Syrian deployment of more powerful SA2 antiaircraft missiles in fixed installations just inside its border with Lebanon. No change is reported in these deployments.
Syria has sent mobile antiaircraft missile batteries into Lebanon several times in the past few years, officials said. In the two most recent episodes, Damascus has not explained why the missiles were removed from Lebanese territory, in late November and again in the past few days. U.S. analysts assume that the maneuvers are part of the cat-and-mouse game played between Israel and Syria for years.
Several officials said they assume that Syria has sought through the recent missile movements to assert its ability and right to deploy antiaircraft batteries in Lebanon, where Syrian military forces and political power have become dominant following the withdrawal of U.S. peacekeeping forces and Israeli troops.
A U.S. statement Dec. 16 asked both sides to exercise restraint in military activities. Aside from this, Washington has had little to say though diplomats are believed to have been active behind the scenes with several governments to ease tensions and return the situation to the status existing before the Nov. 19 Israeli downing of the Syrian MiGs.
Friction between Israel and Syria is considered by U.S. policymakers to be among the serious flashpoints now threatening violence in the world.
In addition to the missile maneuvering, an increase in guerrilla attacks against Israeli and Israeli-backed military forces in southern Lebanon and renewed shelling and rocket attacks of northern Israel from Lebanese territory have added to the tension.
Some reports had identified the Golan Heights as another possible area of irritation. But a U.S. official said there had been no military buildup by Israel or Syria in that area, although he noted that some troop manuevers had taken place recently.
The most recent Syrian movement of the mobile missiles was reportedly closer to the border than the mid-November deployment. By moving mobile missiles on trucks or tracked vehicles only a few miles one way or another, Syrian commanders could aggravate or ease tensions in the region.
U.S. involvement in the current situation, though apparently substantial, does not appear to rival in intensity or importance the 1981-82 shuttle diplomacy of special U.S. Ambassador Philip C. Habib, who traveled through the area repeatedly trying to negotiate withdrawal of Syrian antiaircraft missiles from Lebanon. Habib was unsuccessful. Israel destroyed the missiles by air attacks early in its June 1982 invasion of Lebanon.