War-by-proxy in Lebanon grows hotter

Israel and Syria are locked tighter than ever before into their war-by-proxy in Lebanon. And there is little hope in this beleaguered nation that this war can be brought to a speedy end.

Israel and Syria right now are each run by hard-bitten governments fighting for their lives. Each feels it has something to gain from attacking the other's interests. Yet each, for one reason or another, is unwilling as of now to mount a direct attack on the other.

The result?

Each side attacks the other's proteges in Lebanon. And this tiny country, whose 3.5 million residents have not yet healed the wounds caused by the 1975-76 civil war, is locked again into mounting violence. Already, more than 300 have been killed since April 1.

Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin is facing a difficult election battle this June. His government therefore is eager to appear "tough" before the electorate on Mideast issies, and eager to continue its alliance with the right-wing Lebanese Christians it has built up over the past five years.

But Mr. Begin's deputy premier stressed April 22 that Israel would not go to war "against other nations" to protect the Christians' interests. This means Israel would not, according to this statement, be drawn into open battle against the Syrians, who are the Christians' major foes.

But they can, and do, still step up their actions against the Palestinians -- Syria's proteges. The Palestinians do not, according to Israel, constitute a nation.

On the other side, Syria, according to all military analyses, has much to lose in any open confrontation with Israel. But Syria still sees no peaceful way at the moment to regain the Syrian national territory occupied by Israel in 1967. The Camp David accords made no direct mention of Syria's occupied Golan Heights.

So, unable to strike Israel directly, Syria strikes Israeli proteges in Lebanon, those same Christian right-wingers.

When the battles between Palestinians and Israelis in south Lebanon abate for a few hours, the battles between Syrians and right-wingers further north resume.

There appears little hope of finding a way out of the cycle of violence, which is feeding upon itself and escalating. All major parties involved, according to senior Western diplomats here, appear "intransigent."

There was some hope in mid-April that the Saudi Arabian government could broker a lasting cease-fire between the right-wing militias and the Syrian troops of the Arab Deterrent Force here, and later lead the sides to the negotiating table.

Saudi Arabia is the only country with sufficient influence with each of these parties to have hope of achieving this.

But when there was some hope that Saudi efforts might succeed, Israel, which was not party to the deal, struck back by making public the open secret that the right-wing militias throughout all Lebanon were receiving Israeli military aid. This made it harder for the Saudis to proceed.

Ang though the Syrians gave the rightists one last chance to make a decisive choice between the Israeli and Arab camps, the Israelis meanwhile stepped up their attacks against the Palestinians and their allies in south Lebanon. The atmosphere for dialogue was destroyed.

there now is a paradoxical situation where two perfectly legal bodies of troops here, supposedly taking orders from the same commander in chief, are fighting each other.

These are the Syrian troops of the Arab Deterrent Force, here under an Arab League mandate, and some units of the Lebanese national Army. Several Army units appear to have joined ranks with the rightist militias in the past fortnight, and visitors to the rightists' military headquarters report a constant stream of Army officers visiting there, too.

The Lebanese Army was slowly being rebuilt, on a nonpartisan basis and with considerable American help, to take over eventual security duties throughout the country But it is still, by Western consensus here, unequal to that task. And if some units have been drawn into the present fighting, this will further set back the program to rebuild the Army.

With the Lebanese Army unable to take over from the Syria peace-keepers yet, then some formula plainly is needed to stabilize the existing situation here. Most analysts are pessimistic that this can be achieved in the short term.

Now that the fighting has become more and more a war-by-proxy between Syrians and Israelis, these are the two key sides to be approached. But the problem is: Who can do it?

The United States government is the main party which could influence or restrain the Israelis -- but it has lost most of its influence with the Syrians.

If the Soviet Union, which has a treaty of friendship with Syria as well as supplying most Syrian arms, is drawn into finding a solution in Lebanon, the Kremlin would probably demand a role in wider Mideast peace talks as well.

A useful role as intermediary between Israel and Syria could perhaps be played by Europe, though emotional French expressions of support only for Lebanese Christians tended to diminish French usefulness as far as Syria was concerned.

But most analysts here seem to agree that the prime role must be played by the United States, on the basis of clear definitions of its attitude toward the two main protagonists here. Only then, and only when the lines of clear US policies toward the greater Mideast problem as well as the Lebanon problem are defined for the parties here, can the bloody Lebanese clashes finally be contained.

It looks as though the summer here, which already is stiflingly hot, could be a long hard one, t oo.

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