PLO leader cornered by Syrians

At the edge of this squalid refugee camp, PLO leader Yasser Arafat waits for what could be his last stand. Syria has just forced his last large contingent of troops in the Bekaa Valley to withdraw to Tripoli - Arafat's only base left in Lebanon. His back to the sea, he now waits to see if the Syrians will deliver the final blow.

''The situation with the Syrians is critical,'' says a thinner, more subdued Arafat, dressed in olive drab military uniform in an interview in a bare, newly painted office building near the camp. On one wall, a photo of Arafat bears the Shakespearean legend underneath, ''To be, or not to be: that is the question.''

His aide, Ahmed Abdul Rahman, says bluntly, ''We are in a bad situation. From here, it is to Palestine or to the cemetery. But if there is a new siege by the Syrians, don't forget that our blood does not come cheap.''

Under a long tent in the shade of ancient olive trees in the hills east of Tripoli, military officers of Arafat's Al Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization are celebrating the escape of 1,100 troops whom the Syrians had surrounded and tried to disarm in the Bekaa.

Senior officers doubt whether the Syrians will actually attack the Tripoli bases. But the latest Syrian ejection of Fatah forcescame the day after a US-Saudi-mediated cease-fire in Beirut, to whose success Syrian agreement was crucial. Hence, the Fatah leadership is convinced that the Syrians acted in return for American acceptance of a strong Syrian role in Lebanon.

Dipping his hand into the mansaf , a feast of mutton piled high on a tray of rice, Col. Ziad Atrash, leader of the 1,100 men, says with certainty, ''The Syrians want the Palestinian political position as a card in their pocket.''

The road to Tripoli began almost one year ago when Israel's invasion of Lebanon forced the PLO to dismantle its massive infrastructure in Lebanon and evacuate 12,000 men by ship from Beirut. Some were scattered to bases in eight Arab countries. But the bulk went to east and north Lebanon, and to neighboring Syria.

''It was a defeat for Yasser Arafat,'' says Mr. Abdul Rahman, in an admission few PLO men would make at the time. ''The whole system Arafat had built fell down.''

Arafat's pursuit of US diplomatic initiatives which did not include Damascus displeased his Syrian patrons. In May, the Syrians capitalized on a rebellion in the military ranks of Arafat's Fatah organization in the Bekaa, led by Col. Said Musa (Abu Musa), over issues of corruption and military appointments. Subsequently, they expelled Arafat from Damascus, helped the rebels logistically , and arrested Arafat's office director and scores of Fatah operatives.

Now they have finally used Syrian troops openly to push back Arafat's men to Tripoli. According to Arafat, the Syrians have just moved additional troops into the Tripoli area.

''The Syrians want to humiliate Mr. Arafat,'' says Abdul Rahman. ''They want to contain and control the Palestinian revolution and their last aim is to change the PLO chairman by a political coup.''

The once ebullient PLO leader is definitely on the defensive. ''Who knows how the Syrians will push?'' he asks, adding an ''appeal'' via foreign journalists to Syrian President Hafez Assad ''to solve this critical situation.''

The PLO chairman says he is in contact with Rifaat Assad, the Syrian president's brother.

Arafat's weak position stems in large part from his current irrelevance to the Mideast diplomatic scene. Over the past year, US diplomatic efforts depended on winning tacit PLO approval for Jordan's King Hussein to enter negotiations with Israel. But the PLO leader held back; the Jordanian monarch then backed off; and the US now appears to have relegated the issue to the back burner.

Instead, anxious to salvage a success in Lebanon out of a sagging overall Mideast policy, the Americans have had to court Syria whom they had originally left out of their plan.

Arafat's men have also been largely irrelevant during the latest fighting in the Shouf mountains, south of Beirut. Both the Lebanese government and US officials had said that Palestinian troops were in the forefront of the battle for Souk al Gharb, but Arafat insists that his troops did not fight the Lebanese Army during the past month's battles there.

Meanwhile, Arafat's traditional supporters among moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia have been surprisingly silent about the latest Syrian move.

''Look at the Arab map, you will see 23 big zeroes,'' says Abdul Rahman bitterly. ''We need swords, not words.''

Fatah's military position is not strong. Once reported to have 8,000 fighters in the Bekaa, Fatah now has virtually all its troops in Lebanon concentrated near Tripoli. There are about 60,000 refugees in two Palestinian camps here. The fighters based outside Lebanon are too far away to be of any use.

But the Tripoli area is virtually surrounded - with Syria to the north, the Syrian-controlled Bekaa and Hermil areas to the east, the Lebanese Christian-controlled areas to the south, and the sea to the west.

Arafat seems to have little option but to sit tight, send out emissaries to the Arab world, and hope the Syrians will not attack.

The Syrians, in fact, may prefer squeezing Fatah rather than fighting a pitched battle. The anti-Arafat rebel Palestinians, who provide political cover for Syria's anti-Fatah moves, number only a few hundred.

In addition, they have become increasingly divided and discredited among previously sympathetic Palestinian communities for having become subservient to Syrian policy.

The Syrians may also be concerned that if they make an assault in Tripoli it could rally fading Arab support for Arafat, who remains the most identifiable symbol of the Palestinian cause.

If the final battle should start, the Fatah forces in Tripoli are committed to stand and fight.

''I accepted to leave Beirut by ship for Tunis,'' says Abdul Rahman, ''but no one will accept again. We have no more ships out.''

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