Lebanon looks to US to broker withdrawals, fill vacuum

Lebanon is looking to the the United States for a final peace.

Lebanese hope the US can not only negotiate the withdrawal of Syrian, Israeli , and Palestinian forces from their country, but also help fill a power vacuum here until the Lebanese government and Army are strong enough to stand alone.

Lebanese political observers say that only the US - by acting as a sort of big brother to Lebanon - is capable at this point of appealing to and influencing the Syrians and Israelis to leave the country.

The Syrians, with an estimated 30,000 troops in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, have indicated they are willing to withdraw from Lebanon if and when the Israelis do. The Israelis, with an estimated 80,000 troops in central and southern Lebanon, have said they will withdraw simultaneously with the Syrians but only after the estimated 7,000 Palestinian guerrillas near Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley pull out. There are indications that Israel may drop this demand.

US negotiators have contended that if the Syrians pull out, the Palestinians will follow rather than stay, since they would be exposed to the larger hostile forces of Christian Phalange and the rejuvenated Lebanese Army.

In addition, Israel is reported to be calling for the relocation to other Arab countries of an estimated 7,000 Palestinian prisoners being held at the Ansar prison camp in southern Lebanon.

Observers here say that despite the proposed Israeli pullback, Israel would, as the primary power in the region, remain in a position to bargain concessions from the fledgling Lebanese government. Israel has said that in the absence of a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty it would establish a special security zone extending 45 kilometers (about 30 miles) north of its border. It has said the zone would be under the control of Saad Haddad, a renegade Lebanese Army major and longtime close ally of Israel.

The US has supported the Lebanese government position that it will return all of Lebanon to Lebanese sovereignty.

The Israeli concern is that Palestinian guerrillas will return eventually to southern Lebanon to harass and attack Israel's northern settlements. Observers here say the Lebanese government would prefer to handle the issue through US guarantees.

It is not yet clear whether those guarantees would include extending the mandate of the 7,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops in southern Lebanon or the deployment of troops from an expanded French, Italian, and US multinational force similar to the one in Beirut.

The Israelis are opposed to the extension of the UN peacekeeping mandate, which expires Oct. 19. Observers here also say Israel may try to reintroduce the issue of a peace treaty.

Lebanese President Amin Gemayel has responded to that issue by stating that there would be no peace treaty until all Lebanon accepted it. He has said that such a move must be acceptable to the prime minister (a Sunni Muslim) and should be submitted to a public referendum for the people to decide. Such a treaty, it is said here, would hurt Lebanon's standing in the Arab world at a time when it most needs to reaffirm business links, particularly with the wealthy Gulf states.

Part of the difficulty, according to observers, is that Israel is unlikely to consider a demand for the return of the Golan Heights as a reward for Syrian withdrawal. And the US is not expected to press Israel on this issue.

Rather, the Syrians are said to have been given US guarantees that Israel will not attack Syria. Lebanese analysts say that an Israeli attack, even a limited operation inside Syrian territory, is feared in Damascus for political as well as military reasons. Such an attack could be a catalyst for an uprising by the Muslim community against the Assad government, these analysts say.

An all-out attack on Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley is seen here as having the potential of crushing the Syrian military and thus also threatening the Assad regime. Observers believe such an all-out attack is unlikely.

On Monday, Israeli jets for the first time in three weeks attacked Syrian and Palestinian positions in central Lebanon. The Israelis said they attacked and hit a Syrian SAM-9 missile launcher. The raid came a day after an Israeli troop bus was ambushed near Aleih, killing six soldiers.

There was concern that the incidents might lead to an escalation of fighting but so far it hasn't. The Israelis have repeatedly stated they will hold Syria responsible for any guerrilla attacks on its troops. They have also said they will not tolerate the redeployment of Soviet-built surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon.

The Israelis have destroyed more than 30 such missile batteries in Lebanon since their June invasion.

Observers here say that if the US is successful in Lebanon its credibility in the Arab world will be very high.

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