Fierce Fighting, Fading Hopes


LEBANON remains politically deadlocked, despite an escalation in fighting between Christian-led forces and Syrian troops and their local allies. Four days of almost unremitting bombardment began Aug. 10 and continued yesterday. The fighting was the worst since Gen. Michel Aoun and his mainly Christian units of the Lebanese Army began their ``war of liberation'' on March 14 against Syria, which has 35,000 or so troops occupying two-thirds of Lebanon.

The bombardments engulfed all parts of Beirut and almost all areas of the Christian coastal and mountain enclave, as well as the surrounding Syrian-controlled mountains and the eastern Bekaa Valley. Nearly 100 people were reported killed since the shelling began five days ago.

The abrupt escalation of the shelling war spurred France to launch a multi-pronged diplomatic action aimed at halting the carnage and getting political talks under way. There were also urgent informal consultations at the UN Security Council.

The general believes that a combination of Christian military defiance on the ground and international diplomatic pressure will induce the Syrians to give way and agree to withdraw.

``The Syrians will try to destroy our will to resist, but they will make some concessions before that happens. They are not comfortable. They are threatened everywhere. They have to program their withdrawal, that's all we ask,'' General Aoun said as Syrian shells fell around his headquarters at the Lebanese presidential palace last Friday.

The general's bristly defiance, and the backing he and his Christian militia allies are getting from Iraq, seem instead to have persuaded the Syrians to dig in deeper and to step up their efforts to unseat Aoun.

A new element was added to the conflict on Sunday, when Syrian-backed forces for the first time launched a ground offensive on the Christian-held town of Souk al Gharb, in the hills 10 miles south-east of Beirut.

Christian sources conceded that the attackers managed to penetrate some positions near the town, but were driven back by a counter-offensive.

Damascus denied that its own forces were involved and described the engagement as a clash between rival Lebanese militias.

Whether or not Syrian troops were directly engaged in the ground attack, there can be no doubt about their logistical and artillery support for the offensive, carried out by Druze and Palestinian forces closely allied to Damascus.

Lebanese political leaders allied to Syria said the aim was to signal to the Christians that there were no ``red lines'' - in other words, that they should not count on any outside guarantees of the integrity of their enclave should Aoun's defiance continue.

After lengthy talks Sunday between Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara and a senior French envoy, Fran,cois Scheer, Syrian officials said only that the two sides had ``exchanged views on Lebanon and agreed to continue consultations.''

Syria and its Lebanese allies have signaled clearly that they will not entertain any intervention by the Security Council while its own resolutions calling for full and unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon remain unimplemented.

Syria also insists that the withdrawal of its forces can only be discussed once the Lebanese themselves have agreed on a new power-sharing accord, and reunified their government, Army, and capital on that basis.

Aoun, however, says there can be no dialogue between the Lebanese ``in the shadow of the Syrian occupation.'' He is reported to have rejected cease-fire proposals that do not specify a timetable for Syrian withdrawal.

That is the fundamental deadlock that led the Arab Foreign Ministers in charge of the Arab League's peace initiative for Lebanon to announce on July 31 that their efforts had reached ``dead end.''

French envoys are consulting with the Arab leaders involved in the initiative, trying to assess the prospects for reviving the effort, perhaps with the addition of an international dimension.

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