Syria ready to step into Lebanese crisis. Even Lebanese who have long resisted Syrian influence now say it is only salvation

Lebanon is in dire need of salvation -- and Syria is standing in the wings, apparently ready to step in once Israeli troops pull out from the south. Parties here are increasingly turning to Syria in their search for relief whenever a crisis erupts. There is now almost universal recognition in Lebanon -- even among those who bitterly resisted Syrian influence in the past -- that Syria is the only power capable of even trying to end the Lebanese conflict.

The Syrians are deeply involved in contact with all sides -- the Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Palestinians -- both in the political arena and in dealing with the violent upheavals.

Battles continued to rage Thursday between Shiite Muslim militiamen and Palestinians in and around Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, after Wednesday's massive car bomb killed at least 34 people in Christian east Beirut. Thousands of Christian refugees are still bottled up by hostile Muslim forces in the southern Jezzin area. The Cabinet has not met since mid-April.

The Syrians have been biding their time before launching a major new political -- and possibly military -- initiative. A meeting between Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and Syrian President Hafez Assad was expected last week. But it has been put on the back burner and is not expected to happen until the completion of Israel's pullout, scheduled for early June.

The Syrians are believed to want other pieces to fall into place before meeting Mr. Gemayel and agreeing on a new concordat aimed at stabilizing Lebanon under Syria's wing.

The entente would have to involve at least three elements: a new accord between the Lebanese communities and factions on what political shape the country should take, agreement on the ``special'' relationship between Syria and Lebanon, and regulation of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon.

Tension has rarely been higher throughout Lebanon. Violence seems to erupt without apparent logic -- as with Wednesday's explosion, which had no obvious target apart from the hundreds of ordinary people thronging the street. The motivations behind the Palestinian-Shiite battles at times seem equally baffling.

However, some analysts here see a clear pattern in the often-confusing events. They say Syria is using Lebanese allies and proxies to secure indirect control of the Muslim and Palestinian sides of the equation, and to pressure the Christian camp, which revolted against Syria's settlement efforts in March, until it falls into line.

Since March, the Christians have suffered several disasters. By their own count, 57 Christian villages near Sidon were overrun by Druze and Muslim militias allied with Syria in April. More than 10,000 families fled their homes and many are in the Jezzin area, waiting for a deal to call off the pressure from hostile militias and allow them to return to their homes.

Any such deal would have to be guaranteed by Syria, which wants the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army to leave Jezzin and abandon its role as Israel's watchdog in the border ``security zone.'' Christian leaders of Jezzin have been to Syria seeking a way out of the problem.

Pressure on Jezzin is one way of bringing the Christian political camp in Beirut to heel. More direct pressure emanates from clashes on Beirut's confrontation line and the shelling of east Beirut from overlooking Druze-controlled mountains. Wednesday's explosion further demoralized the Christians.

The rebel Christian militia has already made an act of contrition by shunting aside ``uprising'' leader Samir Geagea, and electing a new figurehead Elie Hobeika, who has lost no time offering olive branches to Damascus. The Syrians may, however, want to see hard evidence to prove the sincerity of political turnabouts before stepping in to sponsor a new Lebanese coexistence pact.

There is no doubt in the minds of many Lebanese that the battles in the Palestinian camps fall into a similar pattern, with the Syrians encouraging the Shiite militia, Amal, to try to win control in order to prevent a comeback by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's supporters.

Once again, Syria has emerged as the arbiter of the crisis. If Amal wins, so much the better for Syria. But a suggested compromise giving the pro-Syrian Palestinian National Salvation Front control of the camps would also put them under indirect Syrian tutelage.

Informed officials of the Christian and Muslim factions do not rule out a direct Syrian role in restoring security, law, and order in Lebanon, possibly playing a muscular role in support of the Lebanese Army. Lebanese communities are weary of a conflict to which they see no end. As Faruk Abillama, Lebanon's ambassador in Paris, said: ``The Lebanese are opposed to a new Syrian intervention, but they are fed up with the war, and ready to accept anybody if peace can be restored.''

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