Lebanon's communal strife threatens to engulf Middle East neighbors

Lebanon -- land of sun, sea, skiing, rifles, and hand grenades -- has battled itself to the brink of a war that could engulf its Arab and Israeli neighbors. Never since the bad old days of Lebanon's 1975-76 civil strife has the outside world seemed so nonplused by bloodletting here. Foreign journalists try with indifferent results to sort out the chaotic rivalries of leftists and rightists, Christians and Muslims, Syrians, Palestinians, and Israelis over control of Lebanon. The dispatches tend to get tucked away with the supermarket ads at the back of the newspaper.

"No one wants to hear about Lebanon," says a veteran Beirut diplomat scribbling a report for his home government. "We keep getting the same question: Lebanese have been killing themselves for a long time. What difference does it really make to the affairs of the world?"

The answer, more so with each new bout of violence, is: "A lot."

If politics and morality got along better, the very fact that a sovereign state named Lebanon has crumbled, that rivals Syria and Israel now control chunks of the country, and that teen-aged thugs of all persuasions manage to murder civilians with impunity should make some difference.

But another, more Machiavellian, argument seems to be becoming all but irrefutable:

Lebanon is a ready-made flash point for renewed Middle East conflict.

One problem for Beirut-based journalists and their readers back home is that the list of antagonists reads like a word jumble.

* The Lebanese are a patchwork of rival religious communities, all armed, all ready to fight.

Maronite Christians hold the east of the country's divided Mediterranean capital, much of northern Lebanon including some posh ski resorts, and a rugged hilly border strip in the south.

Muslims, whether of the mainstream Sunnite sect or of the Shiite strain that Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has splashed onto front pages worldwide, predominate elsewhere. The Shiites, largest and poorest of the communities, have been arming themselves as never before and seem to be fast approaching the point where they will ally themselves with whoever can best help them out of Lebanon's social and economic cellar.

* The Palestinians ended up here when Jordan's King Hussein drove them out during his own civil war a decade ago. Beirut has become home base for Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and for an alphabet soup of guerrilla factions. Lebanon's arid southern hills shelter Palestinian military pockets. The guerrillas battled alongside Lebanese Muslims against the Christians during the 1975-76 civil war. The Christian militiamen, now stronger than ever, want the guerrillas crushed once and for all.

* The Israelis, who live south of here, may just be willing to help. During and after the civil war, Israel has provided guns, training, and other backing for the Christians. Stars of David dot some East Beirut walls. In the south of the country, a renegade Christian Army officer named Saad Haddad has declared a "free Lebanon" in a five-mile strip of border teritory. He might more accurately have dubbed it "free Israel."

The Israelis invaded the south two years ago in reprisal for a guerrila strike against civilians inside Israel.

Israeli troops, asked out by the UN, complied. Almost. They turned over the border area to Major Haddad. The frontier with Israel is open. Israeli weapons and advisers remain in Major Haddad's "mini-state." Israeli troop units regularly cross into Haddadland. Israeli currency is legal tender.

* The Syrians, eastern Arab neighbors, have always considered Lebanon their own. They also don't like rivals, of whatever political coloring. Thus at the start of the 1975-76 war, Damascus helped the Palestinian-Muslim alliance against the traditionally dominant, and traditionally pro-Western, Christians. As the fighting dragged on, amid signs Mr. Arafat might emerge as prime victor, the Syrians discreetly switched sides and began helping the Christians.

Finally, with either tacit or explicit approval from all power brokers inside and outside Lebanon, the Syrian Army rumbled over the border and imposed peace. Nearly 30,000 Syrian troops remain in mostly Muslim areas of Lebanon, eased out of Christian areas as Damascus' alliance of convenience with the militias there turned sour.

* The legal Lebanese government controls little more than its offices, stationary, and pencils. Despite some military aid and statements of support from Washington and other Western capitals, President Elias Sarkis and his post-civil-war armed forces remain no match for the country's other rival armies.

The latest effort to bring the rivals into a "national reconciliation" cabinet had run into familiar rivalries by July 27 "The end of a dream" was the editorial epitaph offered by Beirut's leading newspaper, An Nahar.

As demoralized Lebanese civilians continue to sunbathe, eat, drink, and at least pretend to be merry, political signposts both inside and outside the country seem increasingly to point toward trouble.

In early July, the most powerful and pro- Israeli of the Christian militia warlords dispatched hundreds of his armed youngsters against their top rivals, the forces of Christian former President Camille Chamoun. The Chamounists were drubbed. The victorious fighters of Phalangist Party militia chief Bashir Gemayel had killed dozens of rival gunmen and, in grisly Lebanese tradition, a good number of civilians in the process.

Now in undisputed control of East Beirut and most other Christian areas, and egged on by his adoring militiamen, Mr. Gemayel vowed a further "war of liberation" against the Palestinians. Senior Phalangist officials spoke privately of repairing ties with the Syrians, presumably to ease that assault.

Syria, if its state-controlled press is any indication, wants no part of such a rapprochement.

But there are indications that might not faze Mr. Gemayel. Syrian President Hafez Assad has his hands full with a campaign of anti-regime violence officially blamed on Muslim extremists. "We don't have to worry about Syria," one of Mr. gemayel's top lieutenants argued July 22. "The Syrians are bound to be busy at home."

A jittery Yasser Arafat has meanwhile placed his guerrillas on full alert and hinted at an assault on Phalangist strongholds, an intimation he seems in no hurry to back with guns. Nevertheless that move has conveniently fanned Phalangist rhetorical fires.

Israel, bogged down in talks with Egypt on Palestinian autonomy and beset by economic and political problems at home, has shown no immediate indication it is spoiling for war. But Prime Minister Menachem Begin has vowed repeatedly not to "abandon" Lebanon's Christians. An official with the UN peace-keeping force in southern Lebanon reports "increased Israeli military movement" both inside and, occasionally, beyond Major Haddad's enclave. "But it is not yet clear what, if anything, this means."

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