Lebanon: peace search

On the surface the day-to-day news from Lebanon seems a crazy quilt without a pattern: shellings and cease-fires; advances, retreats, and stalemates. A central government but rampant factionalism.

Yet in the long view there is a pattern to what is happening in that troubled nation. Its inherent contradictions, compounded by the stress of external interference and military occupation, are bit by bit threatening to tear the nation apart. Less evident is what steps can be taken to reverse this, to bring about permanent peace in a reunited Lebanon.

Most fundamentally, Lebanon's turmoil stems from the fact that the country is torn among several different religious or ethnic factions. There are half a dozen separate groups of Christians - the Maronite Pha-langists the strongest; and three sizable Muslim groups - including the Druze, now fighting the Phalangists in the Shouf Mountains. Plus smaller factions. Plus a sizable Palestinian element. None is strong enough to fully dominate the others, and no major faction seems currently willing to combine with others to achieve a dominant coalition.

This conflict is exacerbated by foreign support, at present chiefly from Syria and Israel, for various factions. And by foreign troops in the country - Syria in the east (with some PLO forces), Israel in the south.

For Lebanon to pull itself together - literally - a national identity must be developed that is stronger than the pull of the factions.

In a sense a small beginning already has been made: development over the past year of a small but increasingly effective national Army. It acquitted itself respectably recently in taking charge of west Beirut. But it has yet to rid itself of its Christian-dominated character. And for the foreseeable future it will need further internal bolstering, American training and a continued commitment of peace-keeping help from the current international force of American, French, Italian, and British troops.

Nevertheless the Lebanese Army is the key. If it holds together, expands its authority, and wins respect, it may foreshadow a more united nation. But the Army is only as strong as the central government which controls it. And in the final analysis establishing that central government, reflecting a genuine national identity, is something only the Lebanese themselves can do.

Meanwhile, there is an important diplomatic step that others urgently must help with, and which the US already is working on: persuading Syria to lessen its aggressive support of the Druze faction, and to pull its troops back from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in concert with an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Secretary of State George Shultz and US Middle East envoy Robert McFarlane are attempting to establish a long-term relationship with Syrian President Assad, with an eye toward achieving ultimate Syrian withdrawal.

The question today is what leverage the US has with either Syria or, indeed, Israel.

At the same time, the Reagan administration needs to move promptly at home to prevent a potential domestic problem. It must make clear to Americans what it realistically expects the US to achieve by its policies toward Lebanon, including contributing troops to the peacekeeping force which has experienced recent shelling and fatalities.

Unless the administration then develops a national consensus to support that policy, it runs the risk that - especially with an election year coming up - there may be an outcry of protest from the public and some politicians that could force the administration to pull US troops out of Lebanon. This is particularly important now that the administration is believed reviewing the whole question of the proper role of American forces there, including the possibility of increasing their number.

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