The battle for Zahle

From fragments of news in daily papers it sounds simple.Syrian soldiers opened artillery fire on the Christian inhabitants of the town of Zahle in Lebanon. Many innocent civilians were hurt. US Secretary of State Alexander Haig, at that moment in Jordan, was told about it and called it an "unacceptable" "brutality."

He has modified his stricture somewhat since learning more of the facts.

The facts are more complicated than the daily news fragments tell. Among them are these.

Zahle is a town of about 20,000 people in the fertile Bekaa valley which lies between the parallel ridges of the Lebanon mountains. Baalbek to the north is better known to tourists for its prodigious temple of Zeus. Zahle is more important politically, being the main town of the valley.

Zahle is also important strategically. It lies about six miles north of the most important crossroad in Lebanon.The north-south road which runs along the valley crosses the main highway from Beirut, Lebanon's seaport capital, to Damascus, Syria's capital in the desert to the east.

There are about 20,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon. They are there under an original mandate from the Arab League. The supply line from Damascus to the Syrian troops in Lebanon is that single main road from Damascus. If that main road were cut just south of Zahle a large part of the Syrian Army in Lebanon would be cut off from its home base and from its supplies.

Last December the Phalangists, one of the several armies now operating in Lebanon, began to move into Zahle. The Syrians immediately reacted with heavy shelling and brought more of their own troops into the area. A truce was patched up on Dec. 23 and remained more or less in force until April 2.It broke out again then because the Phalangists had continued to improve their military positions in and around Zahle.

The citizens of Zahle itself are predominantly Greek Catholics and are largely innocent bystanders. The Phalangists are Maronite Christians who, of late, have been receiving weapons, with "advisers," from Israel. They are a separate force from other Maronite Christians operating in the south of Lebanon with the Israelis.

But they both are mostly Maronite Christian. Both receive weapons from Israel. In effect, they are Israeli auxiliary forces operating in Lebanon.

To the Syrians there is an obvious danger of the two forces linking up through the valley along the north-south road. The distance between the two Maronite forces is about 40 miles. The Syrian lifeline lies through the gap between those forces.This explains the vigor with which the Syrians have reacted to any move by the Phalangists around Zahle to move southward from Zahle to the crossroad. The Syrians have offered to cease firing provided the Phalangists pull back entirely from Zahle.

The Syrians have no quarrel with the Greek Christians in Zahle, but they are extremely uneasy about those Phalangists who show such continuing interest in Zahle.

The whole of Lebanon is tense and trigger-happy these days. An Israeli election is scheduled for June 30. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad said that the recent fighting around Zahle, in Beirut, and in the southern sector of the country was all part of an "imperialist-Zionist" plot to fragment Lebanon in order to be able to mount an invasion of Syria itself from Lebanon.

The situation in Lebanon has the earmarks of a proxy war between Israel and Syria being fought, so far on both sides, with Lebanese irregulars.

Obviously, a situation as tense as that now prevailing throughout Lebanon with fighting on three fronts (although the heaviest is the battle for Zahle) could escalate at any moment. And in that fighting the Reagan administration is , or appears to be, committed to Israel. Syria gets its weapons largely from the Soviet Union and would certainly turn to Moscow for additional help should the Israelis attack with US weapons and with the appearance of support from Washington.

But in the event of such an Israeli attack on Syria most of the Arab countries (Egypt is the only plausible exception) would certainly sympathize with Syria. Even Saudi Arabia, the most conservative and the most friendly to the US, would feel obliged to offer sympathy and probably guns and funds to help Syria repel an Israeli attack.

Would the Soviets enjoy an excuse to mo ve down among the date palms of Arabia?

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