Jerusalem — Just as the Reagan administration is stepping up its diplomatic interest in the Middle East, a new crisis is developing in Lebanon that is threatening to steal the show.
For five days, despite two cease-fire agreements, Syrian and Falangist artillery have dueled for control of the strategic Lebanese Christian town of Zahle. Clashes also have continued intermittently in Beirut, and shelling between Palestinian and Israeli forces has picked up in northern Israel and southern Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who discussed the Lebanese crisis with his Cabinet April 5, has reiterated his country's pledge to come to the aid of the Christian Falange forces if they are unable to hold their own against the Syrian Army. (The dispute, however, is not simply Christian vs. Muslim, since a great many Palestinians and non-Falangist Lebanese are Christians, too.)
Syria reportedly sent more tanks and soldiers into Lebanon over the weekend to supplement the 22,000-man Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) soldiers already there.
The escalating crisis came as United States Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was arriving in Israel from Cairo on his first official tour of the Middle East. Mr. Haig's original mission was to discuss US security and peace-insuring agreements with the pro-Western leaders of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
In Cairo, he discussed a multination buffer force for the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Camp David agreement. Egypt opposes a large American part in the force, since this might appear to be a hand-over of Sinai to the US. Egypt also is seeking more and cheaper US military hardware.
In Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, Haig is expected to emphasize the Reagan view that the prime Middle Eastern concern is the threat of Soviet expansion. But in all of these countries, he also is expected to test the sentiments of leaders about a Camp David follow-on involving the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Jordan.
But with the Lebanese crisis worsening, US State Department officials said Haig was turning his attention to it. Further deterioration holds out the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian clash, which could precipitate a new Mideast war.
Israeli government officials signalled Sunday their increasing inclination to join the battle. Reuters quoted one spokesman as saying the Syrians had crossed the so-called Red Line drawn by the Israelis in southern Lebanon in 1976 to limit Syrian operations in that sector. Pro-Israeli Lebanese leader Saad Haddad , meanwhile, gave Israeli military authorities what he said was a request for aid from residents of Zahle.
Leftists and rightists in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world argue that the Lebanese government will continue to be beset by dozens of insoluble disputes until the Paletinian homeland problem is solved. While Haig was in Cairo, for example, Al Ahram newspaper, which reflects official Egyptian policy, warned the US that stability in the Middle East will not be won simply by focusing on the Soviet threat to the Gulf but by settling the Palestinian problem.
The Lebanese crisis is directly related to the Palestinians: 350,000 Palestinian refugees and guerrillas in the small coastal country are constantly opposed by the Maronite Christian Falangists, and at times by the Shiite Muslims of southern Lebanon. The 1975-76 Lebanese civil war began as Falange against Palestinians. The Syrian Army, with international approval, moved into the country in 1976 to keep the two sides from tearing the country apart.
But as time has passed, the Syrians have been drawn into the chaotic vortex, fighting at various times the Falangists, the Palestinians, the Lebanese Army, and the two dozen Nasserite, Baathist, and Muslim-sect militias. Many Lebanese accuse the Syrians of seeking to annex all or part of the country as an extension of "greater Syria," or at least of militarily securing the Bekaa Valley, which affords an easy approach to Damascus from Israel.
Syria's presence in Lebanon is estimated to cost aid-dependent Damascus $1 million a day. Syrian soldiers have become involved in Lebanese smuggling operations. And the Syrian public is dissatisfied (though not expressing it openly) with "Syria's Vietnam." A further reduction of troops inside Syria could cause security problems at home for the minority military regime of Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Meanwhile, in Lebanon, the Falangists accuse the Palestinians of seeking to create their homeland in the southern part of the country, which they effectively control. Palestinians and Lebanese leftists warn that the Falange wants the same for the Mount Lebanon region, because it is losing its political hegemony in the "confessional system" of the Lebanese government.
Already both sides have their own ports: the Falangists being supplied through Junieh and the Palestinians through Sido n.