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Lebanon's Zahle siege ends -- each side chalks up political gains, and some losses

The battle of Zahle is finished. Neither combatant can claim complete victory, just as neither must concede total failure. Three months ago, the Syrian peacekeeping troops stationed in Lebanon took violent exception to building of a road by the rightist Christian Phalange militia linking this provincial capital to Christian-controlled areas north and east of Beirut.

Zahle was the last Christian stronghold in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the nation's fruit and dairy basket. The rest of the valley is under Syrian supervision, providing a strategic buffer between Syria and Israel in case the latter should attack. The Syrians began bombarding the city of 200,000 with shell, rocket, and mortar fire virtually daily. The Christian Phalangists responded by sending in more fighters to defend the city.

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The fighting spread to Beirut and by June 8, when the 31st cease-fire held, at least 800 people had died and thousands had been injured.

The Arab League intervened, dispatching the Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti ambassadors to mold a compromise that would halt the Zahle siege.

The results was that Lebanese internal security forces, widely feared as harsh and strict keepers of the peace in 1975 and 1976, changed places with the Christian militiamen in return for an end to Syria's attempts to overcome the city.

The Phalangist warriors, numbering about 110, left the besieged city in gray buses bound for the Christian heartland of east Beirut; they were protected by the same Syrian soldiers who had fought viciously to crush them.

The Syrians won the military battle in that the Phalangists had to surrender or die a slow death in the Greek Orthodox town nestled in the foothills of the Sannin Mountains.

Yet, they also lost it. Syria fully expected to rout the Christian warriors easily. It did not expect to give in to a compromise solution.

The unaccounted factor in the Phalangist military strength was Israel, which supplied both weapons and training to them. The Israeli commitment to the Phalangists also provoked what is now commonly called the Syrian-Israeli missile crisis.

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Israelis jets shot down two Syrian helicopters April 28 that were flying over the Bekaa Valley, claiming they were attacking Christian Zahle. Syria reciprocated April 29 by positioning SAM-6 antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon.

The two incidents pushed the Middle East to the precipice of war, which through various diplomatic efforts now seems to have abated.

The Phalangists also benefited militarily from their spirit of being underdogs fighting for a cause; their opponent was an army paid to fight but lacking zeal.

The Christian militiamen returned to east Beirut as victors just by virtue of their survival.

Politically both sides won.

Syria proved to the Arab countries and the world, especially the United States, that it is a power that should be consulted. The conflict cured doubts -- if there were any -- about who has the upper hand in Lebanon.

The Phalangists also made their point. With the Israeli tie, their ability to horse trade politically increased significantly. And they called world attention to Lebanon, a tiny Mediterranean country nearly suffocated by six -- soon to be seven -- years of sectarian violence.

The Phalangists admit that Zahle was a bit of an accident. They never envisioned the city would see the scale of bloodshed and political turmoil that eventually ensued.

Once it did, however, they decided to exploit that violence to turn the world's eyes toward Lebanon. They succeeded and can be expected to do so again should the Zahle settlement and the cease-fire seem to put a close to fervent, active measures to end Lebanon's troubles.

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