Kremlin skirts issue of Lebanese fighting

The United States has raised the issue of escalated fighting in Lebanon with Soviet officials, amid diplomatic speculation here that Moscow may see the crisis as a chance to eventually reenter the Mideast negotiating arena.

The Soviets are understood to have replied to the initial US feeler by saying that the fighting between Soviet-allied Syria and Israeli-armed Lebanese Christians was not an issue involving the Soviet Union.

Reports from the Lebanese capital of Beirut April 8 said artillery duels continued in Beirut and in the Christian stronghold of Zahle, an east Lebanese town near the main road to Syria.

Some Middle East diplomats here suggested that if the crisis continued to worsen, the Soviets might use it as support for their Feb. 23 proposal of an international peace conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The 1978 Camp David negotiating framework in effect excluded the Soviets, and the young Reagan administration has said it will seek to limit Soviet influence in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., in the Middle East on his maiden foreign policy mission, has reportedly devoted part of his time there to exploring avenues for defusing the explosive Lebanese situation.

Lebanon has all the potential ingredients for a wider Arab-Israeli conflict, ultimately involving Syria and Israel, rival allies of rival superpowers.

Syrian troops entered as part of an Arab League peace-keeping force to end Lebanon's 1975-76 civil war and have stayed ever since.

The Christian militiamen get some arms and general political support from the US-allied Israelis. Indeed, the last major round of Syrian-Christian fighting, in 1978, wound down after Israel fighter planes buzzed the Lebanese capital so low that they cracked window panes.

It is US Embassy policy here to make no comment on substantive contacts with the Soviet government, leaving this to Washington. But Western and Middle Eastern diplomats here confirmed that a senior US Embassy official had called on the Soviet Foreign Ministry to raise the issue of the Lebanese fighting.

One source termed the US approach "cautious," presumably to avoid the appearance of accusing the Soviets of involvement in the fresh Lebanese explosion.

Diplomats and other analysts said the US task was further complicated by the fact that, in keeping with grisly Lebanese tradition, it appeared very hard to determine precisely who or what had sparked the latest violence.

The major aim of the US contact was seen as exploratory, to see what prospects there might be for Soviet assistance in defusing the crisis.

The Syrians, increasingly isolated in the Arab world and beset by unrest at home, put aside their longtime reluctance to draw too close to either superpower and signed a friendship treaty with the Soviets late last year.

Soviet influence over Syria was widely believed to be one factor in defusing a brief round of sabre-rattling between the Syrians and neighboring Jordan shortly afterward.

The public Soviet stand on the latest Lebanese fighting has been to blame the Christian militia for having "provoked" it, and to hint at a dark US-Israeli plot against the Syrians.

But some diplomats here feel the Soviets may eventually join efforts to defuse the crisis, if in the process they can take a step back into the Middle East diplomatic arena.

When another diplomat raised the Lebanese issue with Foreign Ministry officials here before the reported US approach, he was referred to President Brezhnev's call made during the Soviet Communist Party congress in February for an international Mideast peace conference.

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