Lebanon's Zahle: a city besieged and nearly overwhelmed by Syrians

It was not the Syrian-Israeli missile crisis that set the Lebanese pot boiling, but rather, a dirt road coming from a mountainside town called Zahle. Zahle, a predominately Greek-Catholic city of 200,000 begins in the Bekaa Valley and edges its way up to the Sannin Mountains. The Bekaa Valley, once considered the dairy, fruit, vegetable, and wine "basket" of Lebanon, has newfound notoriety as the station for the Syrian SAM-6 missiles, placed there in April to shoot down Israeli planes.

Last summer, a series of escalating steps led to the current missile crisis.

The Christian Phalangist party, the leading Christian group, attempted to rid Lebanon of the Syrian Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) stationed in Lebanon during the 1975-76 civilwar. The Phalangists considered the Syrian troops, not peace-keepers, but an army of occupation.

During the winter, the Phalange began paving and widening a dirt road connecting Zahle, the provincial capital of the Bekaa, To Niha, about five miles northeast in the foothills of the Sannin Mountains, intending to link up Christian Zahle with the heart of the Christian enclave.

But the Syrians -- trying to prevent the strengthening of the only Christian stronghold threatening Syrian contol of the valley, bombed the road.

On April 1, the Syrians began their siege of Zahle to wipe out an estimated 1 ,000 Phalangist militiamen in the town.

The Syrians have kept Zahle tightly sealed off, allowing in only a few Red cross ambulances with basic food and medical supplies.

Until about two weeks ago, there were no signs of the civilian population escaping. Now, residents are reported to be leaving at night, drawing the population down to about 120,000.

However, these figures, just as casualty figures, are impossible to cite accurately because of the effective vacuum the Syrians have created in Zahle and the lack of authoritative, official agencies within the country to keep such information.

Through phone conversations with Zahle residents and talks with Phalange soldiers, it appears that some 300 to 500 Christian militia are still holding out.

Reports from Beirut residents with family in Zahle say water and electricity are scarce but the spirit of resistance is plentiful.

"The Syrians can come over our bodies," one woman in Zahle told her sister in Beirut in a phone conversation. The Beirutie also reported that the various Zahle families she spoke to were under no illusions about why Israel was providing aid to the Phalange.

"We don't matter. Lebanon doesn't matter. The Syrians and Israelis are playing a game -- a wicked game using us," the Zahle relative told the Beirutie.

Israel and the Phalange also have admitted that Israel committed itself to defending the Christians in Lebanon from air attack.

The two Syrian helicopters, which Israel shot down April 28 in the Bekaa, were said to be in defense of the Christians. That atattck led to the SAM-6 missile deployment in the valley.

The siege of Zahle now appears to be all but over. The Phalangist troops in the Sannins admit they can no longer get military supplies in. When the mountain snows melted in April, the syrians captured the key positions in the heights.

The Phalangists are hoping instead for a political solution bringing in the Lebanese Army to take over the mountains and end the Zahle siege.

But that is not likely to happen. The Syrians do not need to bargain when their job is nearly finished.

[Reuters reported June 3 that the Syrians fought new artillery battles with Christian militiamen. Sources in Zahle said there had been heavy bombardment of the city for about one hour. Exchanges then died down but heavy machinegun fire continued.]

The fact that Zahle's population is now escaping at night could be a sign that the Syrians are ready to end Zahle -- which lasted much longer than they expected in the first place.

It is likely that the Syrians are letting the people escape so they make a final assault thay will flush out the last remnants of Christian militiamen and restore Syrian supremacy in the valley and the mountains.

Not only will that supremacy reassert the strength of the Syrian position in Lebanon, but also it will keep the only direct road link (the Beirut-to-Damascus highway) to Syria and the Bekaa in the right hands should the Israelis attempt to attack Damascus and Syria by a southerly land route through Lebanon.

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