ALL Middle Eastern countries may fear that they could be affected by conflict in the Gulf region, but in Lebanon there is no doubt. The course of events in Lebanon has already been deeply affected by developments in the Gulf region. Now, despite a pressing government crisis, Lebanese politics are effectively frozen in anticipation of a new regional balance of power.
``We will have to wait and see what happens to the Gulf, because it has effects on Lebanon,'' says Alfred Madi, a senior official of the hard-line Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces. ``This will be very critical. It will decide the kind of future Lebanon we're going to have.''
The Christian militia and the Phalangist Party, its political ally, are boycotting the new 30-member government announced by Prime Minister Omar Kerami on Dec. 24.
Political sources predict that the ensuing government crisis will remain unresolved.
That means the Arab-backed peace plan for Lebanon is also bound to mark time.
``There will be no significant or fundamental steps by the government, and no solution of the Cabinet crisis, before a resolution of the Gulf crisis,'' says a prominent parliamentary figure.
Fragmented Lebanon is so deeply penetrated by all the major Middle Eastern and international forces that the regional balance of power has always been strongly reflected - and often fought over - in the Lebanese arena.
Israel controls a border ``security zone'' inside southern Lebanon. Iran arms and finances Hizbullah, the radical Shiite militia. Iraq has strong ties with Palestinian guerrillas in the south and with the Christian militia.
But Syria, whose troops police almost two-thirds of the country, has emerged as the predominant outside force. It is the impact of the war on Syria's regional standing that the Lebanese will watch as they try to discern their future.
Most Lebanese believe the Gulf crisis has already played a major role in shaping developments in their country. When Syrian troops stepped in and violently dislodged Gen. Michel Aoun, the hard-line Christian military leader, in October, it was widely perceived that Damascus must have obtained a green light from the US and Israel, which were not forthcoming a year earlier.
The belief that Syria was being allowed a freer hand in Lebanon, because it had lined up with the US-led coalition against Iraq, was reinforced by the appointment of Mr. Kerami and the announcement of his pro-Syrian Cabinet.
The Syrian presence in west Beirut and other Muslim areas has so far restricted pro-Iraqi, anti-American expressions to a number of bomb attacks on Western banks and airlines, causing damage but no casualties. A demonstration on the campus of the American University of Beirut was firmly suppressed by Syrian troops, residents say.
But in the southern city of Sidon, beyond Syria's reach, Palestinians and Lebanese Muslims staged a large protest against the war and in support of Iraq.
With the region's players represented on the Lebanese chessboard, two scenarios are most widely posited: A vengeful Iraq undermines Syria's position by using its alliances with the Palestinians and with the Christian militia, or triumphant Syrians turn against Palestinians and others who supported Iraq.