Primarily, the battle for the refugee camps in Beirut between Amal militias and Palestinian guerrillas is about regional politics: regional politics and Syria's role in them, regional politics and the future of Lebanon, and regional politics and the Palestine question.

At center stage sits the Damascus regime. In pursuit of its design, it must first close the Lebanon file by creating a well-defined axis of relations among the various competing forces in Lebanese society -- namely, the Druze, Maronites, Sunnis and Shiites. The way Syria sees it, this will come about only when each one of these groups is organized and institutionalized along clearly defined sectarian lines where each asserts its political power so as not to challenge Syria's, or the others', place in this scheme.

That is why, for example, Damascus hastened to arm Nabih Berri's Shiite Amal and Walid Jumblat's Druze Progressive Socialist Party following the 1982 war. They had not yet fit coherently in what might be described as the threads of the Syrian spider's web.

With each political community in Lebanon thus clearly defined, the conflict itself, for Syria, becomes controllable and more in line with its strategic thinking. Syria has resorted, since 1975, to outright military brutalities in its attacks against one faction, then another, to bring Lebanon into line. President Assad is determined to blunt the power of any force in the area that challenges his regime's vision of itself as uncontested master and one arbiter of that part of the world.

And this is where the Palestinians come in. Since the middle 1970s, Syria has seen the Palestinians in Lebanon as a source of acute instability. The Lebanese factions it could cut down to size, control or cajole into coexistence. The Palestinians, however, have a national conflict with implications beyond Lebanon. Their presence there, as an independent political and military force, represents the one fly in the ointment for the Syrian regime in its pursuit of restructuring Lebanon and in its design for resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute. If it has gone to lunatic extremes to tame the Lebanese, it will go this time to even more lunatic extremes to destroy the one remaining force in Lebanon that stands in its way.

That is why it has given the green light -- indeed pushed -- the Amal militias to go ahead with their recent attacks on the refugee camps of Sabra, Shatila and Bourj el-Barajneh. The Syrians' aim was clear: to etch their presence as masters of Lebanon and also as the unchallenged guides to what constitutes a settlement of the Palestine conflict and the Arab-Israeli dispute. For Palestinians in Lebanon and elsewhere, whether tactically allied with Syria or loyal to the traditional leadership of the PLO, that was intolerable.

To be fair to Assad, it must be admitted that his regime has not singled out the Palestinians on which to inflict its savageries. A regime that massacres thousands of its own people, leveling a whole city, cannot be expected to show compassion for those who are not its nationals. It is quite obvious that the Amal militias would not have fired a single shot against the Palestinians' refugee camps under siege today without the explicit go-ahead, perhaps even orders, from Damascus.

Their disbelief at the spectacle of seeing their compatriots massacred -- again -- in their refugee camps lends urgency to the Palestinian people's call for statehood, self-determination and independence in their homeland. They obviously are not in Lebanon, or any other host country, by choice.

The nebulous jargon issuing forth, not only during King Hussein's visit to Washington but since the Jordan-PLO agreement was signed on Feb. 11, about Palestinian "representation," Resolution 242, recognition of Israel, confederation and the rest of it, is irrelevant. There is already a Palestinian people, a Palestinian leadership, a Palestinian organization and a Palestinian nation with a context of national reference. This people, this leadershp, this organization and this nation have been repeatedly defined, to the point of litany, by the Palestinians themselves. And any departure from that definition would be eccentric.

In his attacks on Palestinian refugee camps, through his Amal proxies, President Assad has been trying to tell Palestinians, indirectly, that he is boss. He will determine when, how and where the Palestinian problem will be solved. In their fierce resistance to him, the Palestinians are responding by saying that no one lords it over them. Not Syria, not Israel, not Jordan, not the United States.

Though Palestinians today are a mere nation-in-exile, having at their disposal none of the adjuncts of pageantry and the outward trappings of a state, they are still around. They are not far. Just as they fiercely fight those who mean them harm, they will calmly talk to those who mean them well.