Lebanon and Syria may just scare themselves into peace

Since a series of dramatic developments late last week, Lebanon has been relatively quiet -- a situation felt here either to be the calm before a major new blow-up or the prelude to a genuine, lasting cease-fire.

Much depends on the outcome of May 4 talks between Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam and leaders of the various Lebanese parties, including the rightist Falange forces whom the Syrians have been fighting since the first week of April.

All sides appear, as one observer says, "to have scared themselves silly" by last week's rapid escalation of fighting.

I visited the Bekaa Valley May 1 and found it swarming with Syrian soldiers and tanks. The embattled town of Zahle was quiet, and we were able to enter a factory district on its northern edge.From the valley floor, it was apparent that Syrian tanks were ringing the town, and we were told that Syrian soldiers controlled the slopes above Zahle.

In the same area we came across three transporters equipped with three Soviet-made SAM-6 missiles each. These missiles were deployed in the Bekaa by Syria since last week, after Israeli fighter-bombers shot down two supply helicopters.

The Israeli air activity and the SAM-6 missiles have threatened to cause serious escalation of the Lebanese crisis. In order to neutralize the missiles, Israel would have to pound the valley with bombs, causing a more direct Israeli-Syrian confrontation.

At the diplomatic level, Israeli, American, Lebanese, and Syrian officials are working to defuse the situation. But in cases of this sort, saving face is very important.

Still, the violence of the past month seems to have stirred many Lebanese to turn toward diplomacy.

Khaddam's visit to Lebanon last week went down well with all parties, and much hope is being placed in his return visit.

Arab sources predict that Khaddam will be asked by the government of Elias Sarkis to allow Lebanese police to move into Zahle, to bring Syrian troops down from the hills around the town, and to allow the Lebanese Army to deploy into the central highlands.

The airport, which has been closed for almost two weeks because of shelling, might be allowed to open this week if the fragile peace holds and if the Falangists are allowed to cross from east to west Beirut to use it.

One hopeful sign occurred May 2 when a Red Cross plane, carrying eight tons of supplies, landed at the airport.

Although Syria appears to have gained the strategic advantage over the Falange in its Zahle and Sannin Heights campaign during the past month, many non-Falangist Lebanese -- including both Christians and Muslims -- appear to have been galvanized by the recent events and say they now sympathize with the Falange.

This may stem not from an ascendant Falange as much as from a growth in Lebanese nationalism, which in the long run could be turned against the 24,000 Syrian forces stationed here. The Falange has taken care over the past month to avoid a Muslim-Christian divide , and many observers say the Falange is prepared to scale down its recently revealed ties with Israel.

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