Despite persistent reports of Syrian involvement in recent terrorist incidents, the Reagan administration has not reached any conclusions about the accuracy of the allegations or whether they indicate an escalation of Syria's past, selective use of terrorism, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, spoke in the wake of reports that Britain has information linking Syria to an aborted attempt to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli airliner in London last month, and to the April 5 bombing of a West Berlin discotheque. President Reagan, blaming the Berlin attack on Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, subsequently ordered U.S. warplanes to attack Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya.
The New York Times reported yesterday that the sole survivor of the terrorist group that attacked the Rome airport last December told Italian authorities that Syrian agents had trained him in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and escorted him to Rome.
However, the U.S. officials said, continuing British and West German investigations have not yet produced clear evidence of Syrian involvement in the El Al or Berlin incidents. These officials also said that the New York Times report was what one called an exaggerated account of what Italian authorities have told the United States about the Rome attack.
According to the officials, the terrorist captured in Rome, Mohammed Sarham, told Italian police that he received training at a camp in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley and subsequently flew to Europe from the Syrian capital of Damascus. But, the officials insisted, the information given to the United States by Italy did not say that Syrian agents gave Sarham a false passport or accompanied him to Rome.
Secretary of State George P. Shultz said yesterday during an appearance on Capitol Hill, "We have the same attitude toward terrorism from whatever direction it comes." But he stressed that the administration "doesn't want to prejudge the results" of the European investigations.
In a sharp break with Shultz's cautious approach, Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey last week publicly lumped Syria together with Libya and Iran as states that have "enormously enhanced the capability of the terrorist to kill, maim, kidnap and torture his victims."
"Libya, Syria and Iran use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy," Casey told the American Jewish Committee. "They hire and support established terrorist organizations . . . . These countries make their officials, their embassies, their diplomatic pouches, their communications channels and their territory as safe haven for these criminals to plan, direct and execute bombings, assassinations, kidnapings and other terrorist operations."
Other U.S. officials pointed out that while these countries frequently have worked together and have employed the same terrorist groups, each views terrorism as a means to different and sometimes conflicting ends.
Qaddafi, motivated by mystical, vaguely defined ideas of pan-Arabism, seems intent on attacking foreign influences by striking against U.S. and Western interests in what U.S. officials contend is a pattern of indiscriminate, random terrorism spreading from the Middle East to Western Europe. Iran uses terrorism to spread Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's precepts of Shiite Islamic fundamentalism and has confined its activities largely to those Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and the Persian Gulf states that have large Shiite populations.
Syria traditionally has regarded terrorism as a weapon to be used in precisely defined and coldly calculated ways to wage war against Israel and to intimidate or eliminate forces resisting Syrian President Hafez Assad's drive to make Syria the dominant force in the Arab world. Unlike Qaddafi and Khomeini, who make frequent public calls for attacks against their enemies, Assad denies that he supports terrorism, except in the case of Israel, and has sought to conceal Syria's ties with terrorist groups.
The Syrian mode of operation has been most evident in Lebanon where, for years, Damascus has arranged the murder of factional leaders resisting Syrian influence. U.S. officials have no doubt that Syria incited the 1983 and 1984 Beirut car bomb attacks against the U.S. Embassy and Marine encampment that took a heavy toll of American lives and ultimately forced President Reagan to withdraw the Marines from Lebanon.
But, U.S. officials note, Syria used terrorism against the United States for the specific policy reason of preventing the American presence in Lebanon from threatening Syrian hegemony over that country. In the opinion of U.S. analysts, when the United States pulled out, Syria no longer had any reason to move against American targets.
Given that pattern, the analysts said, some of the incidents being ascribed to Syria -- notably the December attacks against the Rome and Vienna airports and the Berlin discotheque bombing -- do not seem to square with past Syrian practice of avoiding random violence that does not serve one of Assad's specific goals.
U.S. officials said it is possible to make a case that Syria was involved in the attempt against the El Al jetliner because that was an attack against Israel. But, they added, the other incidents were much more typical of Libya, and they reiterated that there is strong evidence -- the use in Rome and Vienna of passports known to have been taken from Tunisian workers in Libya and intercepted messages in the Berlin situation -- tying Libya to those attacks.
A further complication is the U.S. belief that the airport attacks and other recent terrorism were carried out by an extremist Palestinian faction headed by Abu Nidal. It originally worked from Iraq but more recently has been associated with Syria and Libya in what some terrorism experts have called "a time-sharing arrangement."
In an interview last week with The Washington Post, Assad acknowledged that Abu Nidal has an office in Damascus, but insisted it is engaged only in "cultural and political" activities. U.S. officials believe that in the past year, Abu Nidal has moved increasingly into Qaddafi's orbit, and they said that the best U.S. intelligence information indicates that he was working with Libya when his agents allegedly staged the airport attacks.