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All's quiet for UN force that observes Syrian-Israeli 'war'

Below biblical Mt. Hermon, between the rival 20th-century armor of Syria and Israel, sits a third army whose battle orders would make Patton cringe: In case of war, hide, cross your fingers, and then make a run for it.

Yet since moving onto the stark, Israeli-occupied Golan Heights of Syria 10 years ago aboard a Henry Kissinger ''disengagement agreement,'' the United Nations force here has presided over virtual peace and quiet. Last week, the UN force watched over the first Syria-Israeli prisoner exchange in 10 years.

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''The hot line has been cold,'' quips the commander of Canadian troops of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Then he leaves to catch the annual Canadian Broadcasting Corporation variety show for his chipper, suntanned contingent of 220 troops.

All's quiet on the eastern front.

Still, the moral of the Golan success story has less to do with the four-nation UN force than with the schoolboy-perfect behavior of Israel and Syria. (Besides Canada, UNDOF's nearly 1,300 men come from Austria, Finland, and Poland.)

And at a time when there has been some talk of putting together a similar UN arrangement for chaotic Lebanon, the odds for success on that score look dim.

''I don't think the situation there is right,'' says the UNDOF spokesman with professional understatement. ''One thing you must have is the cooperation of all the parties concerned.'' In this case, ''we have it.''

In Lebanon, the ''parties concerned'' would mean first of all Syria and Israel. They have stopped well short of risking head-on confrontation so far, but do trade occasional gunfire and don't seem in the mood for the kind of quiet that rules the Golan.

If Israel and Syria do tumble into full-scale confrontation, they seem far less likely to choose the Golan Heights than Lebanon.

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As for the other parties there - Lebanon's sectarian militias and the country's central government - merely keeping track of them is a daunting task. There is already a UN force in south Lebanon, which was sent there after Israel's invasion of 1978 to ''confirm'' an Israeli withdrawal that never happened.

Unlike the Golan contingent, the Lebanon force has orders not to run. As an Irish officer puts it, ''We're staying put, come hell or high water.''

Indeed, the UN stayed put even during Israel's much larger drive into Lebanon two years ago. Since then, in occasionally uneasy cooperation with Israel and the area's militias, the UN has helped ensure a remarkable degree of normality in the lives of local civilians at times when people aren't shooting at each other. That is one thing, however. Ensuring ''peace'' among south Lebanon's rivals is quite another.

Even the Golan force can't utterly count on calm on a strategic piece of turf that, in 1967 and 1973, saw the single bloodiest battlefield encounters in the annals of Arab-Israeli warfare.

The Golan is a roughly 60-square-mile table top of rich, black terrain lurking high above the Jordan River valley and the Israeli kibbutzim of the Galilee. Syria lost the Golan to Israel in the 1967 war and tried but failed to win it back in 1973.

''The area is strategically vital from both sides' point of view,'' notes UNDOF's spokesman.

Key sources of water for Israel, notably the bubbly start of the Jordan River , lie here. And Israel's forward positions on Mt. Hermon literally overlook Damascus a few dozen miles away.

Make no mistake, remarks Col. Alex Schneider, Israel's chief liaison with UNDOF. ''If either side decides on war (on the Golan), there will be war, despite the UN and despite the disengagement agreement.''

UNDOF spokesman Maj. David Krauter agrees: ''If ever one party decides they don't want UNDOF, you'll find UNDOF packing off down the road.''

Yet for the time being, there's no sign at all of that happening - although UNDOF does literally practice packing off down the road in case things get nasty.

''We figure, in case of war, we can be out within 48 hours now,'' Major Krauter says.

These days, UNDOF's main task is to perform mutually agreed biweekly checks of ''limited force zones'' on the Syrian and Israeli sides of the UN-controlled demilitarized strip that meanders down the edge of the Golan.

Both sides, says an UNDOF officer, are well within agreed limits. Since 1974, not one shot has been fired in anger by either side, though both remain technically at war. What ''violations'' occur involve the occasional overflight of a warplane past the UN demarcation line or the grazing of Syrian sheep a bit too close to Israeli-held soil. The sheep are unarmed.

The bottom line is that ''both sides, now and for the foreseeable future, seem to want to keep the Golan quiet, very quiet,'' Major Krauter says.

Why? For Israel, the status quo is eminently comfortable. After Sadat's peace , Egypt seems at least for the time being removed from the Arab-Israeli military equation. Jordan and Syria, at least for now, are at loggerheads. Thus Syria is deemed likely to think long and hard before breaching the no-war-no-peace situation. That is fine with Israel, which two years ago formally annexed its lion's share of the Golan and has planted civilian settlers there to consolidate that hold.

As for Syria, President Hafez Assad got a small chunk of the Golan back from the Israelis under the Kissinger agreement. In the 1973 war, Israel had reversed its own hefty initial losses on the Golan and had driven as far as the Syrian town of Sasa, some 20 miles from Damascus.

And if Syria and Israel do want a fight, there is always Lebanon. But at the northern end of the Golan Heights, Mt. Hermon - whose cap of snow gives the peak its Arabic name, Jebel Ash Sheikh, or Mountain of the Wise Old Man - makes Lebanon on a breezy summer day seem worlds away.

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