Lebanon is unwilling pawn on Israel-Syrian chessboard

The streets of the Lebanese capital look a lot emptier these days, and it is not only snippers' bullets and exploding shells that are giving Beirut its ghost-town look.

Six long years of fighting have brought a numbness to the Lebanese. They are just plain fed up.

"We always have said, 'Next month it will be better.' And six months later, it isn't. There is no point in such hopes anymore," a secretary commented flatly.

As during the civil war, the present struggle between the Syrian peace-keeping forces and the Christian Phalangist party means that the secretary lives with friends in west Beirut during the workweek, and if the fighting is not too intense, travels to the east side for a few hours on Sunday.

Lebanon does not like the prospect of becoming the chessboard on which Syria and Israel have decided to play. But it seems Lebanon has little say in the matter.

Syria stationed the SAM-6 antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Israel demanded that they go. Syria, expressing Soiet backing, refused to take them away. Israel, backed by the United States, said unless the missile batteries go, air strikes would be ordered against them.

Whether the crisis is real or imagined, it has drawn in both superpowers, who have sent their diplomatic envoys to the area.

President Reagan brought Philip C. Habib out of State Department retirement to consult with Lebanon, Syria, and Israel, while the Soviet Union sent Georgi Korniyenko, its first deputy foreign minister, to talk to its ally Syria.

A Lebanese television commentator perhaps captured the Lebanese feeling of being used and miffed at suddenly finding themselves caught in an East-West crossfire. "We thought we were waiting for [Syrian Foreign Minister] Abdel halim Khaddam to return here to carry out practical measures on the ground for ending the tensions," the commentator for the state-controlled network said.

"Now, we are told to await results of a mission to the Middle East by Philip Habib and talks in Damascus by Georgi Korniyenko. We declare ourselves totally confused."

The troubles in Lebanon have always been complex -- knotting numerous religious and political groups and militias as well as Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians, not to mention a fair number of thugs taking advantage of the strife.

Many Lebanese will admit that much of the responsibility for that situation falls to the Lebanese themselves for failing to express an overriding desire for peace along with a surge of nationalism that would overcome destructive sectional interests.

Now, however, it is not enough to consider just this factionalism in the conflict.

Has the crisis hit such proportions to raise the possibility of another Middle Eastern war because Syrian President Assad wants to project himself as the leader of the Arab world against Israel?

Or is it because the Israelis believe the Syrians, and especially the Palestinians, have become strong enough that it is time to break their military strength, and the SAM missiles have provided the necessary, ostensible reason for such action?

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