AFTER vicious artillery duels last weekend and Monday in Beirut, a relative lull fell on Lebanon's battered capital in mid-week. Observers caution, however, that the calm is tenuous. There are few signs of progress toward ending the five weeks of shelling between Christian forces led by General Michel Aoun and the Syrian army and its Moslem allies who surround the Christian heartland.
For Syrian President Hafez Assad, Lebanon is vital to Syria's security, says Patrick Seale, a British writer and biographer of the Syrian leader. ``If he is driven out of Lebanon, his whole regional strategy will collapse and he might even collapse at home. So he believes he has to reaffirm his control there [and] to discipline General Aoun.''
Aoun has similarly continued his tough line, urging all Lebanese to rise up and expel the 40,000 Syrian troops in his country. An estimated 230 people have been killed and about 900 wounded in the fighting, which began when Aoun tried to assert his authority over ports run by pro-Syrian militias.
Meanwhile, what hope exists for a diplomatic solution is focused on the Arab League mediation and the United Nations.
The Arab League, however, which has been meeting leaders of both sides for several weeks now, was forced to delay until next Wednesday an emergency meeting called for today ``because of Syrian dithering,'' says a diplomat involved in the process. The Arab League has been unable to bring about a ceasefire despite repeated efforts.
But over the past several months its mediators have polled a broad range of Lebanese political and religious mediators. They plan to offer a framework for addressing Lebanon's problems to the Arab ministers. Arab and United States diplomatic sources in Washington say this path offers the best hope for a workable solution with the weight of Arab opinion behind it.
At France's urging, consultations have begun in New York to see if the United Nations Security Council can agree on a peace mission by Secretary General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar. Agreement seems unlikely. The Soviets may well oppose the initiative to protect their Syrian friends, French sources say. Arab countries are expected to oppose the UN mission while the Arab League is still trying to find a solution. But they are willing to accept a statement by the Security Council president supporting their efforts and the need for a ceasefire, diplomats say. Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar is also not eager to go, they say.
Last Monday, French President Fran,cois Mitterrand called President Bush seeking support for the French efforts. Mr. Mitterrand also called the leaders of the Soviet Union, Britain, Egypt, and Algeria, and conferred with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The French have been trying to energize the US and others on Lebanon for several weeks, but have received little support from Washington. The US has preferred to give the Arab League's peace effort a chance, US officials say. Even President Bush's agreement to support the French when Mitterrand called him is not seen as more than a small change in US policy.
``Bush really couldn't say no, it was such a modest proposal'' according to a knowledgeable French official reached by telephone. ``So he said, `OK, if you take the lead in getting the Security Council mobilized, we'll follow.''' Indeed, the State Department said Wednesday that the US would support a visit by P'erez de Cu'ellar, if he thinks such a visit will be worthwhile.
French sources say their initiative has little chance of breaking the current logjam if Washington is unwilling to support the idea energetically. ``All of our efforts to date have been completely blocked,'' the French official laments. ``Our aim is not, as some press reports suggest, to reestablish French influence in the region. It's to end the bombardment of civilians.''
While the Bush administration has increased its calls for a ceasefire with the recent escalation in Beirut, it is still very hesitant to get drawn in. When queried during congressional testimony this week, Secretary of State James Baker III responded by recalling ``what happened to the United States when we got more directly involved in the tragic affairs of Lebanon in 1982 and 1983.''
Mr. Baker was referring to the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Informed administration officials say that catastrophe weighs heavily in Baker's view of Lebanon. It may well be reinforced by his reputed tendency to stay away from areas that don't have a high chance of success, several speculated.
In his testimony, Baker also told the gathered senators that issuing statements calling for an end to the fighting was about all the US can do given the intractable nature of Lebanon's problems. ``I don't know what else, frankly, Senator, that we could do. We have scant influence, as you know, with Syria.''
Some US officials privately bristled at their boss's remarks. While US levers over Syria are limited, several say, they still exist and can have an impact if brought to bear, especially in concert with others. The US used them in 1986 and 1987 to get Syria to expel the Abu Nidal terrorist group from Damascus, for example, one administration source said.
A more accurate explanation of US hesitancy to act, suggests the Western diplomat in Washington, is that the US doesn't want to have to take on Syria over Lebanon. The Middle East peace process is a bigger line item for them, he says, and the administration wants to save its leverage for what may become a tough US-Syrian contest there.
During the past week Washington has, however, begun to publicly single out Syria for its role in the shelling, reinforcing private urgings that Syria cool things down.
Mr. Seale, Assad's biographer, was in Damascus last week. He found Syrian officials worried they had erred in taking General Aoun's bait and beginning the artillery barrages. And the Syrians say they are searching for a way to pull back from the brink. But these Syrian officials also signaled that they could not foresee any compromise with Aoun, given his virulent anti-Syrian statements, Seale says.
Rather, the Syrian strategy, Seale says, is apparently to send private messages to Christian leaders offering peace and guarantees for the Christian community if Aoun steps down. A Christian official reached by phone says those overtures sparked several Christian deputies to meet and call for peace earlier this week. But they were forced to pull back when many in the Christian community interpreted their move as caving in to Syrian pressure, he says.
Somehow, this Christian official says, a way has to be found to let both sides back down. If Syria wants Aoun to leave, he adds, the best solution would be to let Lebanese presidential elections take place.
The current crisis began last year when the Christians refused to accept Syria's candidates for president and an election became impossible. Two rival governments - one led by Aoun and one led by Moslem politician Selim Hoss - then emerged.
On a broader scale, Seale says, Lebanon has long been the principle battlefield between Syria and Israel. Assad believes he must maintain his influence there to contain Israel. In addition, Assad's arch rival, Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein, began last year to pump weapons into Christian arsenals. Syrians see this as an effort to topple Assad, Seale says.
``This is why Assad feels he has to respond so vigorously,'' even though he acknowledges there is no military solution to the problem, Seale says. Indeed, he says the Syrians are so ``paranoid'' about Lebanon that they have missed several opportunities for a solution. He cites Syrian mishandling of last year's effort by the US to mediate reform of Lebanon's constitution and the choice of a presidential candidate. He also points to a secret peace offer by Aoun in February which Syria rebuffed.