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Gemayel turns from US to 'Arab option'

By Robin WrightSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 1, 1984


President Amin Gemayel has finally decided on the so-called ''Arab option.'' By flying to Syria Wednesday, apparently ready to tear up Lebanon's US-orchestrated pact with Israel, the Lebanese leader has moved sharply away from American efforts to secure peace in the region.

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And, as diplomats were quick to point out, the trip also means Syrian President Hafez Assad has won another round in the regional struggle to establish influence in Lebanon, defying two years of effort by the United States to squeeze Damascus out of the picture.

There is strong evidence that turning to Syria was Mr. Gemayel's least-favored option. Diplomats and local officials say Gemayel was forced to turn to Syria - the Soviet Union's closest ally in the Mideast - after the US and Israel turned down requests over the past two weeks to help his beleaguered regime hold off further assaults from opposition forces. Two presidential advisers dispatched to Jerusalem and Washington reportedly were bluntly told there was no enthusiasm for fresh efforts to get more deeply embroiled in the Lebanese quagmire.

Gemayel's visit, his first to Syria since he took office in September 1982, was the first step of a Saudi-mediated plan to end nine years of civil war by reconciling the Christian-led government with the Syrian-backed opposition.

Lebanese officials said Assad and Gemayel would discuss:

* Stabilization of a cease-fire between government forces and Muslim and Druze militias, including the possibility of deploying United Nations troops to replace the mostly departed multinational force.

* Normalization of relations. This is significant because Syria has never formalized diplomatic ties with the territory that was historically part of ''Greater Syria.''

* The Israeli-Lebanese troop withdrawal accord signed May 17, 1983, and the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

* The presence in eastern and northern Lebanon of some 40,000 Syrian troops, who arrived in 1976 as a peacekeeping force under an Arab League mandate.

* National reconciliation efforts to change the power-sharing formula between minority Christians and majority Muslims, which would pave the way for a new government.

Although it is now accepted that Mr. Gemayel will follow through with a formal cancellation of the so-called May 17 accord, Lebanese sources claim he does not want to act without guarantees from Syria first that Mr. Assad will agree to pull out his troops.

The news flash on local radio stations of the President's midmorning departure evoked almost visible sighs of relief around the capital. After months of procrastination and stalling on various US and Saudi proposals, Gemayel was seen to be finally doing something concrete to end the escalating crisis. The delays most recently cost him half the capital, and mass defections from the Lebanese Army.

But Gemayel's journey to Damascus is by no means the end of his troubles, which are certain to take, at a minimum, many months to unravel.

Cancellation of the May 17 pact will mean that there is no provision for withdrawal by Israel of its estimated 25,000 troops, which now occupy one-third of Lebanon. Israel has already announced that it will take matters into its own hands, including possibly prolonging its stay, if the accord is abrogated. This has triggered renewed fears that southern Lebanon will become, de facto, the ''north bank'' of Israel.

It is also doubtful that President Assad will agree to withdraw his forces before Israel, even if he is prepared to pledge an eventual withdrawal in principle. He has consistently opposed withdrawing his forces since Israel's 1982 invasion.