Experts on Mideast See Retaliatory Strike as Risky and Not Productive
Faced with last-minute expressions of concern from Shia Muslims in Beirut about possible U.S. retaliation for the TWA hijacking, Reagan Administration officials and Mideast experts outside the government said Saturday that military action in Lebanon would be risky, possibly counterproductive and unlikely to deter future terrorism.
And, many said, it would be difficult to carry out any retaliatory strike with enough precision to guard against innocent casualties.
Retaliation became a renewed issue in the Beirut crisis Saturday when the scheduled release of the 39 Americans was stalled and Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri demanded a promise that the United States would not strike back in Lebanon after the hostages are freed.
President Reagan, who a day earlier had insisted that “terrorists . . . must and will be held to account,” offered no such guarantee. Although Administration officials believe that the retaliation issue is merely a smokescreen to cover friction between Berri’s leftist Amal militia and extremist Shias believed to be holding four of the hostages, White House and Pentagon officials refused to discuss in detail either retaliatory options or the likelihood of using them.
But one official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified by name, said, “I’m sure there are some very specific targets.”
Tracking Down Hijackers
In addition, it is felt that the United States could engineer retaliatory moves by tracking down the hijackers, waiting for them to leave Lebanon and then using allies--either in the Mideast or elsewhere--to capture them.
On the record, however, U.S. officials have been less optimistic about the potential for carefully targeted military measures in Lebanon. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, in one of the most recent statements on the subject by a senior official, told interviewers last Monday:
“Retaliation is not going to be effective unless it stops (terrorism). You aren’t interested in revenge; you’re interested in trying to do something effective that will get these hostages back and deter anybody from trying to do it in the future. And that requires a focused response--focused on the people responsible.
“It emphasizes the complicated nature of the problem that there are more than one group, with probably more than one spokesman, certainly more than one terrorist, involved in holding hostages.”
The original hijackers are thought to be members of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God). But Berri and his Amal militia took custody of most of the hostages shortly after they finally landed in Beirut, and Berri has sought to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
William B. Quandt, a Mideast expert who served on the National Security Council during the Carter Administration and who now is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cautioned that any retaliation in Lebanon could weaken Berri’s standing among Lebanese Shias by demonstrating his inability to protect his people.
“If people like Berri and the Amal are undercut and Hezbollah gains strength, we’ll have more terrorism, more violence,” Quandt said. “That ought to be a fairly weighty consideration. Berri may not have been an angel, but there are worse people than he.”
Similarly, the United States must worry about the reaction of Syrian President Hafez Assad, who has used his influence on behalf of a peaceful settlement.
Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where Hezbollah has its greatest strength, is largely controlled by Syria.
The United States faces a different risk in the densely populated Muslim neighborhoods of West Beirut, where a retaliatory attack against terrorists would kill or injure many civilians. That is a risk that Reagan has said the United States should not take.
“Retaliation is very difficult,” conceded a Defense Department official. “You’ve got one-half of Lebanon controlled by Syria. The other half is controlled by nobody but it is filled with people who are to some degree blameless. So what do you do?”
In this official’s view, the Beirut airport--which the Administration said last week it might seek to close if the hostage crisis continued beyond an unspecified number of days--would be a perfect target. Hijackers have used the airport as a landing point not only for TWA Flight 847, but for other hijackings as well.
“In a preemptive way, you take out the airfield,” the Defense Department officials said. “That is prime, preventive medicine. You remove that safe haven.”
Even that step poses military difficulties, however. While weapons could create craters that might make an airport runway useless, the holes could be filled relatively quickly and the runway repaved--leaving the United States with the unattractive option of bombing the facility repeatedly.
One expert said that retaliation in Lebanon would be an effective deterrent if it results in the assassination or seizure and trial of Hezbollah leaders and the hijackers.
Riyad Ajami, a Lebanese scholar at the Smithsonian Institution’s Wilson Center, said: “It’s not that difficult to find a target. There are some very visible targets.”
Among those he mentioned was Hussein Moussawi, a leader of a radical spinoff of Amal, the Islamic Amal, believed by U.S. officials to have been responsible for a number of terrorist incidents in Beirut. Other possible targets, he said, include the hijackers themselves and specific Hezbollah leaders.
“What you need to to do is target the leadership. That will send a signal that people in Lebanon will understand,” Ajami said.
If such assassinations are contrary to U.S. policy, he said, “that’s your problem.”