'For Children': What all the fighting is about in Lebanon, and why it's so important to Syria

Lebanon is a very hard country to find on a map of the Middle East. That's because it is so small. Rather like a mouse. Syria, which is next door, is so big. Rather like an elephant.

Actually, Syria used to be even larger. Greater Syria once included Lebanon, and parts of present-day Iraq, Israel, and Jordan as well.

Is it possible that a country as big as Syria might try to swallow up a country as small as Lebanon?

Lebanon's problem is not so much that it is small, but that it is so weak. For years now, its many different warring groups have been fighting for control of this land.

There is concern that Lebanon might not survive as a nation. Some fear that if Lebanon were to disintegrate, Syria might gobble up a chunk of the land. Israel might do the same.

The United States, which has tried to act as a peacemaker in the region, is especially worried about Syria, which is armed by the Soviet Union. The US thinks that Syria meddles far too much in Lebanon and that Syria has made it much harder for war-torn Lebanon to reach a lasting peace. Certainly Syria has a good deal to say about the outcome of events in Lebanon. Whenever possible, Syria likes to keep Lebanon pretty much under its thumb.

At one time, for instance, Syria backed the Christians in Lebanon. Lebanon is the only Arab country that has a large proportion of Christians.

In Lebanon today Muslims slightly outnumber Christians. The reasons Syria backed the Christians were obvious:

The Muslims were getting too strong and gaining the upper hand in Lebanon. Syria prefers to keep the various factions in Lebanon weak. So it came to the rescue of the Christians when the Christians were losing the civil war against the Muslims and the Palestinians in 1976. The Syrians, as the major part of an ''Arab deterrent force,'' were invited by the Arab League to go into Lebanon to help end the civil war. In doing so, the Syrians saved the Christians.

Syria later switched sides. And when the Israelis invaded Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, in 1982 because they believed that Lebanon was harboring too many anti-Israeli terrorists, the Syrians fought the Israelis.

While Syria finds it to its advantage to keep the various factions weak in Lebanon, it also keeps its eye on what Israel does.

Israel is Syria's major enemy. Syria has fought Israel several times in the past. The Syrians lost a strategic part of their territory, known as the Golan Heights, to the Israelis. They haven't got it back. They have not liked the way Israel and Egypt, which has the strongest Arab army, have made a separate peace. Egypt got back lost territory as a result of that agreement, but it did nothing for Syria. As a result, that treaty effectively removes the possibility of Egypt's joining up with other Arab countries to fight against Israel to win back other lost Arab lands. It leaves Syria feeling isolated.

So while the Israeli invasion of Lebanon helped put the Christians back on top there, the real significance was that the Syrians felt it gave the Israelis too much influence in Lebanon.

Syria has also been extremely unhappy that the future of Lebanon is sometimes mapped out without any regard to the position of Syria. This is what happened on May 17, 1983. On that date the US government and the government of Lebanon, with very little direct Syrian involvement or participation, decided on an agreement that anticipated both Syrian troops and Israeli troops leaving Lebanon at the same time. Israel would still be able to take care of its security interests in southern Lebanon, which borders Israel. And Lebanon and Israel would get the benefit of trading with each other.

But since it gave Israel some of the same kinds of benefits received from the earlier peace treaty with Egypt, as well as quite a lot of influence in Lebanon, Syria would have nothing to do with the agreement. Besides, Syria was displeased that its arch enemy, Israel, would have advantages in Lebanon which Syria itself would not enjoy under that agreement.

Syria was powerful enough to see that President Amin Gemayel of Lebanon canceled that agreement precisely because it was not helpful to Syria.

Syria also has ambitions to be the leading Arab force in the Middle East. National pride has something to do with it.

The Syrian culture is one of the most ancient in the world. The Syrian capital, Damascus, is believed to be one of the very oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Damascus, which is thought to date back to 3000 BC, was mentioned as early in the Bible as the Book of Genesis.

For historical reasons, Syria regards Lebanon as a region where it has the right to influence events.

After having a number of colonial masters in the past, including the Persians , the Macedonian Greeks, the Romans, and the Egyptians, Syria was under the rule of the Ottoman Turks for about 400 years, from 1516 to the time of World War I, which ended in 1918. It was this Great War, as World War I was sometimes called, that ended the rule of the vast Ottoman Empire. Greater Syria, as it was then called, was divided into four states. These were Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan.

The League of Nations gave France a mandate, or special powers, to manage separately Lebanon and Syria, which Syria resented. Palestine became a British mandate. Transjordan, also a British mandate, was to become the independent kingdom of Jordan.

In 1946 Syria became completely independent from France. The same was true for Lebanon. But Syria and Lebanon have strong cultural ties. For many years before they became independent, they even used the same currency.

All this helps explain why Syria wants to be very sure it is plugged into everything that happens in Lebanon.

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