2,000 rifles -- and a fading crisis in Lebanon

Probably the buyer won't need the rifles, at least not now. Lebanon's latest crisis -- which also involves some sabre-rattling by nearby Syria and Israel -- may not be over, but it seems to be fading.

Syria's sudden threat in early February to yank its roughly 5,000 peace-keeping troops from the Lebanese capital of Beirut is looking more and more like an elaborate, if dangerous, bluff. It is aimed principally at remedying Syria's growing diplomatic isolation.

Two perils persist:

The first is that the apparent bluff -- "tragic theater," one veteran Lebanese newspaper editor dubbed it privately -- may go on long enough for mere inertia and rhetoric to reignite the Lebanese tinderbox.

The second, deemed "very, very unlkely" by a close associate of Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, is that the Beirut government might actually call the Syrians' bluff, saying, in effect, "OK, leave. . . . For the first time since you Syrians came in to end our civil war in late 1976, a real Lebanese authority will take over again."

The second option is considered unlikely mainly because "Lebanese authority" still seems in no shape to fill a Syrian vacuum. "President Sarkis remains fundamentally in favor of the Syrian presence. . . . He will play along," the presidential associate says.

Over the past three years, Mr. Sarkis has managed to build an essentially nonsectarian Lebanese Army from the ruins of a military machine that collapsed during the civil strife. But most military analysts feel the Army still would have a difficult time reestablishing central government authority by force.

The reason is simple: There are too many guns in too many private hands. They are controlled by various Lebanese and Palestinian militia factions that battled in the 1975-76 war and have never been disarmed.

When a former Lebanese Cabinet minister was buried in the hills east of the capital Feb. 10, President Sarkis was not the only mourner with a bodyguard.

Teen-aged militiamen shared the stage, melting into the background only after a sharp reprimand from leftist leader Walid Jumblatt, himself backed by a militia, but one of the few political leaders here who seems tired of all the fighting.

"It was as sad as the funeral itself," said a Lebanese photographer who attended the ceremony. "For those of us who really want this country rebuilt, it is difficult to swallow the image of a presidential security force having to steal nervous glances at rag-tag militiamen with rifles and cowboy hats."

The guns keep coming. Telex messages like the one that arrived in Beirut Feb. 9 are nothing new, although their delivery is usually more discreet. Diplomats and an occasional, straightforward militia official acknowledge that the various militia groups have never really stopped arming themselves.

Worse, for Mr. Sarkis, they have never warmed to the idea of mutual disarmament -- one clear prerequisite for a resumption of government authority.

So the Syrians seem necessary, although they have made many enemies in clashing with virtually all sides in the Lebanese political arena. Indeed, most Lebanese pundits argue that the main reason for the threatened Syrian troop withdrawal was to reemphasize that "necessity" to the outside world. For example:

* To the Americans, described as "imperialist" and "pro-Zionist" in the government-controlled Syrian press, but clearly the only party that can hope to deliver eventual negotiating concessions from the Israelis.

* To Arab neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, the oil power that has long helped finance Syria but was less than happy over the Syrians' tacit support of Soviet moves in Afghanistan.

* To the Lebanese, who, in a rare foreigh-policy break with the Syrians, condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in votes at the United Nations and the recent Islamic summit in Pakistan.

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