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US, France in step on Lebanon

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1983


Despite some misgivings, France is standing strong alongside the United States in Lebanon. At time of writing, there had been no official comment on the American raid against Syrian emplacements. That itself was significant. Unlike Italy, France is not considering withdrawing its soldiers from Beirut. Unlike Britain, there have been no angry parliamentary demands here for such a pullout from the multinational peacekeeping force.

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Privately, the French plead for more nuanced American diplomacy in the Middle East; more talking with the PLO, the Syrians, and the Soviets; less cooperation with the Israelis.

But the French share overall American goals in Lebanon. And as their bombing of Shia barracks two weeks ago showed, they agree that force is sometimes needed in Lebanon to teach lessons.

''We have a large convergence of views with the Americans,'' a French diplomat explained. ''Sometimes, might is the only message heard in the Middle East. But it must be used skillfully, combined with negotiations.''

Specifically, the French feel that US military pressure might hurt the Syrians just enough to encourage them to enter into serious negotiations.

They see Syria as weakened by the serious illness of its leader Hafez al-Assad, who is described here as blind and unable to walk. Below President Assad, they say, a power struggle is being acted out. While this makes Syria unstable, the French think it also makes Syria susceptible to pressure. But, it is asked here, will the Reagan administration be able to take advantage of this opening? In particular, the French worry that the Americans are risking a wider escalation of the conflict without any real intention of dealing with Damascus. Their fears center on the May 17 Israeli-Lebanese pact.

''A piece of incredible naivete,'' a top official says. ''By refusing to deal with the Syrians, it let them block everything and increase their power throughout the region.''

For any hope of peace in Lebanon, French officials say that the pact must be renegotiated to satisfy Syria. So they were upset with the result of the visits last week to Washington of Israeli Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.

They feel America sided too openly with Israel by increasing military cooperation with the Jewish state - while refusing to consider a renegotiation of the May 17 pact.

Both Paris and Washington say all foreign forces must leave Lebanon. But instead of the simultaneous withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian troops that the Americans favor, the French believe the Israelis must leave first. The Israelis are illegal invaders, they explain, while the Syrians were invited in to help end a civil war.

More broadly, the French see no alternative but to give Syria a primary role in Lebanon.

''We don't think the Syrians want physical control of the country,'' an official explains. ''But they want a type of tutelage of Lebanon and we have no choice but to give that to them.''

The best way to moderate this tutelage is to bring the Soviets into the peacemaking process, the French say. Such a proposal draws immediate American anger. But the French lament the tendency in Washington to assess every regional conflict in global, East-West terms.

''The Soviet Union plays a moderating role on Syria,'' a top French official asserts. ''The Soviets know they cannot let Damascus be too destructive because that would foreclose any hope of them playing a role one day with the moderate Arabs in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.''