US, Syria flex muscles in Mideast

Lebanon's troubles have intensified in a number of areas as concerns of a total breakdown in the country increase. The common thread is the manipulating hand of Syrian President Hafez Assad. Like a master chess player, he appears to be taking piece after piece in a daring confrontation against the United States, its partners in the multinational force, and moderate Arab states.

In each area of conflict, Syria ultimately pulls the strings of the various different forces facing down PLO chief Yasser Arafat, the Marines, Israel, and Lebanon.

* In Tripoli, Mr. Arafat has been forced to retreat from the second of two Palestinian camps, Baddawi, to his last stronghold in the city. Palestine Liberation Organization rebels led by Abu Musa have now cornered the last groups of Arafat loyalists.

* In Beirut, an entire United States Marine company of roughly 200 men was evacuated from the most vulnerable US position around the international airport to Sixth Fleet ships offshore. This came after the fiercest fighting since the cease-fire went into effect six weeks ago. US officials said the two events were unrelated, although other multinational sources said the heightened tension clearly played a role in the decision. Beirut airport was closed because of the fighting.

* In the Shouf mountains overlooking the capital, the Lebanese Army came under artillery and rocket attack from Druze-led militias. The booming cannons roared even louder than the deafening autumn thunderstorm.

* In Beirut's southern suburbs, the Army also engaged in major conflicts with Shiite Muslim gunmen.

* In southern Lebanon, the Israeli-occupied zone was hit by a general strike called to protest an Israeli security clampdown and large-scale arrests after the bombing last Friday of military headquarters in Tyre. Three Israeli soldiers were injured and a leader of the local pro-Israeli militia was assassinated in further attacks Monday.

The guns seemed to be out all over the country, with growing indications that the diverse conflicts could hook up and evolve into a broader regional military contest.

In a move reflecting Damascus' commitment to carry through its interests, the Assad regime Monday ordered a full mobilization of all reservists, which will increase its military strength by 100,000 to 350,000, according to the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.

The call-up was interpreted as a diplomatic signal that Syria is prepared to face down the recent warnings from the US, Israel, and Arab countries. But it was also regarded by Damascus radio as preparation for a joint onslaught by the US and Israel.

The broadcast warned of major new concentrations of forces from both countries, and charged that the US was attempting to ''exploit'' the Marine bombing by launching an attack, with Israeli help, against Syria.

The heightened anti-US propaganda campaign out of Syria, countered by repeated hints from Washington of imminent retaliation for the Marine blast, led one neutral diplomat to express deep concern that the two sides would talk themselves into confrontation.

In fact, the US is not increasing its presence, but merely preparing for a normal rotation of the marines and naval fleet in mid-November. The overlap will be less than one week. But, as is common in the Middle East, facts are often shaped to fit political fears, and their importance eventually grows way out of proportion.

As war rumors increase, Syria appears to be working hard to put the opposition in check, even though publicly denying direct involvement in any aspect of the match:

Syrian-backed rebels appear on the verge of success in overwhelming Arafat, who pulled his big guns out of Baddawi Monday to the commercial and residential districts of Tripoli. Tuesday witnessed the most ferocious fighting in the six-day conflict, leading local Lebanese leaders - his allies - to pressure the PLO chief to spare lives and abandon the city.

A delegation from six Gulf states was attempting Tuesday to hold talks with Mr. Assad on Arafat's behalf. But there were serious questions about success, since the Syrian leader at one point said he was too busy with ''previous engagements'' to see the group. At most, Arab envoys feel the delegation might eventually be able to negotiate for Arafat's life, through safe passage out of Tripoli, but not his leadership.

The link between clashes involving the Lebanese Army and Syrian-backed opposition groups is a message from Damascus: The Christian-led government must come through with pro-Syrian compromises when reconciliation talks reconvene later this month. The alternative is all-out warfare, the kind Lebanon witnessed Monday.

The reconciliation conference has been suspended while President Amin Gemayel tries to find means of resolving major differences over the Lebanon-Israeli accord, which Syria wants totally scrapped. The US and Lebanese governments argue there is no alternative.

In the south, Syrian-backed Lebanese militias are also squeezing Israel, making the cost of remaining in Lebanon higher every day. Despite a massive security crack-down, the Israelis have been unable to stop the attacks.

The US Marines, too, are feeling the Syrian grip. Although a Marine spokesman , Maj. Robert Jordan, claimed the evacuation from the airport area was made as ''the position no longer served a useful purpose,'' it amounted to abandonment of a front-line post where US troops continually took sniper fire from Syrian-backed local militiamen. Other multinational force sources suggested the withdrawal would not have happened without the bombing of the Marine complex, which some US officials have tied indirectly to Damascus.

The overall consensus in Beirut is that major political moves, involving some concessions to Syria, will have to be made soon to prevent the confrontations between Syrian proxies and their various opponents from evolving into a single, bigger, face-to-face fight.

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