Lebanon could wobble blindfolded back into war. That is the danger as rival parties scramble for position before a threatened pullback of Syrian peace-keeping troops in Beirut.
The game is a perilous one. If any reminder of this were needed, the rugged hills of north Lebanon provided it early Feb. 7. There, gun battles erupted between rival pro- and anti-Syrian militia factions.
Arab diplomats, meanwhile, worried that any major unrest could tempt Israel to intervene on behalf of its own Christian militia allies inside Lebanon. Twin Israeli reconnaissance jets overflew Beirut shortly after midday Feb. 7, drawing bursts of groundfire from Palestinian guerrilla positions in this Mediterranean capital.
Reports from Jerusalem said that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin vowed Israel would not stand by passively if Christians in Lebanon were attacked after Syrian troop withdrawals.
"We shall not allow the Christians to be subjected to pogroms, either in north Lebanon or in the south," Mr. Begin said.
Syria still could change its mind about withdrawing its troops, which act as a buffer between the rival Beirut forces that battled in the 1975-76 civil war. Some diplomats suspect that the Syrian threat is a complicated, if dangerous, political maneuver. But Syrian leaders still say it is not.
The problem, as of this writing, seems to be that even if syria reconsidered, it might do so too late to avoid violence.
No one -- not the Syrians, the Palestinian guerrillas here, nor the rival Lebanese Christian and Muslim militias -- seemed to want a return to the civil strife that took some 40,000 lives in 1975 and 1976.
But no one, except for Lebanon's vulnerable post-civil-war government, seems committed to the most obvious antidote -- a reassertion of what the government terms "legitimate Lebanese authority." That entails the disarming (or at least, the quieting) of various militias and private armies, and the piecemeal, peaceful withdrawal of the 30,000 Syrian troops that thundered in to end the fighting three years ago.
Lebanese President Elias Sarkis wants to send his Army -- still being rebuilt from its virtual collapse during the civil war -- into any positions ceded by withdrawing Syrians. But a contradictory Cabinet communique late Feb. 6 seemed to signal that even he knows how difficult that may be.
On the one hand, the Cabinet ordered the Army to make "preparations" to take over. On the other, it directed officials of the Army, the Syrian force, and the Lebanese police to decide jointly just how that could be done.
And the most controversial Cabinet move -- a verbal "rejection" of any militia presence on Lebanese soil -- was all but retracted by the prime minister hours later, following a protest by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian guerrillas.
Most Lebanese political analysts suspect that if the Syrians really do withdraw completely from Beirut, the Army will be kept mostly in the wings.
No one could say for sure what prompted the threatened redeployment by Syria -- a hard-line Arab state fearful of Israeli attack, isolated diplomatically in its failure to condemn Soviet action in Afghanistan, and nagged by internal dissent.
Among the reasons suggested by diplomats, jittery Lebanese, and veteran Arab political analysts here:
* Syria's desire to reemphasize to Lebanon, to fellow Arabs, and the rest of the world its crucial role in preventing yet further Middle East violence.
* A related desire to remind the United States of Syria's importance, presumably in the hope that Washington eventually may press Israel for negotiating concessions.
* a desire to beef up Syrian troop strength in Lebanon's Bekaa valley, the area to which most of the Beirut troops would be shifted, and one likely corridor for any Israeli ground strike into Syria.
* A feeling that renewed violence in Lebanon would benefit the Soviet Union by diverting angry world eyes from Afghanistan. This theory has been stressed by some Western analysts.