US Navy firepower thunders in defense of a unified Lebanon

The booming of US naval guns off the Beirut shore heralded a new escalation in the use of American firepower in Lebanon. A US spokesman admitted that the American ships that pounded anti-Lebanese government positions in the hills above Beirut were no longer firing just to retaliate when US positions came under fire. Instead they were trying to rescue the beleaguered Lebanese Army from repeated assaults on a key ridge commanding a southern entryway into Beirut.

The reason given by the marines was that the fall of the hilltop town of Souk al Gharb to assaulting Druse Muslim militiamen would jeopardize the safety of US personnel in Beirut. But in reality the United States was openly joining forces with the Lebanese Army in an apparent effort to ensure that it would not lose to the Druzes, who are supported by the Syrians and by some Palestinians.

There are other more pressing reasons, however, why the US is anxious that the Lebanese Army not lose this tiny ridge ordinarily only a half hour's drive from the capital.

Whether or not the Lebanese Army retains this ridge may determine the political future of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, to whose survival the US is heavily committed.

Lebanese government officials express concern that a Druze victory would allow them to link up with Beirut's southern suburbs, which are controlled by militias from the Shiite Muslim sect. The Shiites have many grievances against the government and are loosely allied with the Druzes. Some sporadic fighting flared between the Shiites and Lebanese Army positions in the southern suburbs over the weekend.

Lebanese officials also claim that such a linkup would permit some Palestinian fighters, who they claim are fighting alongside the Druzes, to reenter Beirut.

Druze leaders in Beirut and the Shouf say their aim is not to link up with south Beirut but to control the roads within the Shouf which are cut by the ridge held by the Army. Taking the ridge would also give them a critical bargaining chip in their demands on President Gemayel to give them more political power and to take the Lebanese Army, which they consider hostile, out of the Shouf pending a political agreement.

But loss of the ridge would put President Gemayel in an extremely weak position that could conceivably lead to his resignation.

US prestige in the region is also heavily invested in the ridge. The Americans are retraining and rebuilding the war-shattered Lebanese Army. It is seen by the Americans as the potential backbone for a reunified Lebanon. American prestige would be eroded if the Army was defeated, even while that of Syria would rise.

A spokesman for the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia once headed by the late President-elect Bashir Gemayel and loosely allied with his brother, current President Amin Gemayel, forecast Monday that if the US permitted a Lebanese Army debacle, this would prove to the Arab world that the Soviet Union was a more trustworthy ally than the Americans. He said it would also boost the prestige of Syrian President Hafez Assad, who is supplying and - to a definite but unclear extent - influencing the Druzes.

The Syrian leader could have demonstrated, according to this reasoning, that he could stand up to both the US and Israel.

The apparent US commitment appears to have encouraged the tiny Lebanese Air Force's recent action for the first time in seven years in attacking Syrian artillery batteries in the northern coastal town of Batroun. These Syrian guns were pounding a new Lebanese Army airstrip, built on a stretch of coastal highway in Byblos, from which Lebanese planes were taking off to strafe Druze forces in defense of Souk al Gharb.

The Syrians have pledged to hit back at any strikes, Lebanese or American, at their air, land, or sea positions, raising the possibility of further escalation in the days ahead.

Even if it makes a commitment to save the Lebanese Army, however, the US will face a growing dilemma if the Army is hard-pressed or unable to hold its own in the mountainous Shouf Druze stronghold. Monday the Druze succeeded in entering Souk al Gharb, though at time of writing it was not clear if they had been pushed out as claimed by the Lebanese Army.

The debate in Congress over the American role in Lebanon will surely grow if the US becomes the dominant force in a battle that is still being fought predominantly against local Druze fighters, or if direct US confrontation with the Syrians should occur as a result of US shelling.

For the Americans the most felicitous way out of the dilemma would be a cease-fire that would allow the very real political and security concerns of the Druzes to be addressed while giving the Lebanese Army time to regroup. Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, the Saudi mediator, has returned to Damascus to renew attempts after a two-day break. But the current escalating of fighting leaves it unclear whether his already difficult mission will move ahead.

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