Syrian President Hafez Assad has warned that his country would "directly confront" Israel if it attempted any form of military action against his forces in Lebanon.

Assad's remarks were a response to a warning by Israeli officials Monday that if Syrian attacks against the Maronite Christians in Lebanon continue, Israel might have to intervene.

Speaking to reporters in Latakia, a Syrian coastal city, after meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Fuad Butros Monday night, Assad Said:

"Do you mean to tell me Lebanon has become an Israeli protectorate? Anyway, we shall definitely and directly confront Israel if it commits any aggression in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world."

Assad said all Syrian operations in Lebanon were aimed only at helping President Elias Sarkis and his government establish its authority over all of Lebanon.

Assad said the Christian militias were "collaborating with Israel and resented by the majority of Lebanon's Christian community as well as the whole Arab world."

Associated Press reported that a communique from the Syrian-dominated Arab League peacekeeping force said a three-day Syrian operation that ended yesterday had brought one-third of the 800-square-mile Christian hinterland north of Beirut under Syrian military control.

A Lebanese police spokesman said a total of 35 Christian militiamen and civilians were killed and 65 militiamen were taken prisoner in three days of fighting. Two Syrians were killed and four were wounded, the spokesman said.

Pierre Gemayel, leader of the rightist Phalange Party, met with Sarkis yesterday to seek his support in efforts to halt the fighting between Syrian and Christian forces.

Gemayel, however, told reporters later that "the solution may be beyond human ability. Whenever we imagine the solution is near, the situation become worse and more dangerous, so that it would seem that God alone has the solution."

David Hirst of the Manchester Guardian reported from Beirut:

The heavy fighting that has been going on for the past few days in northern Lebanon has been accompanied by an intensifying war of nerves. In the Christian and Israeli versions - and it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two - the fighting has the makings of a premeditated Syrian attempt to exploit the coming Camp David summit meeting to strike a decisive blow at the Phalangist militia, and that of Camille Chamoun or to finish them off altogether.

Syrian troops have seized control fo a number of villages in what does look like a major offensive to thighten their grip around the Christian enclaves.

The Christians' northern defenses have been much weakened by the murderous feud between the followers of former president Suleiman Franjieh and the Phalangists. The original Syrian justification for the operation - pursuing the perpetrators of an ambush whose victims were mainly Phalangists - sounded unusually thin to most observers.

For Syria, on the other hand, its peace-keeping forces are merely responding to "provocations." It sees these provocations as harbingers of a broader conspiracy - involving not merely Christians and Israelis, but Egyptians and Americans - to strike at Syria via Lebanon, and thereby weaken Arab opposition to the "capitulationist" peace Syria fears will be hatched at Camp David.

The Syrian press and radio have been stepping up their attacks on the Maronite militants, declaring that "there is no longer any room for hesitation, no choice but to fight the enemy until Lebanon and its people triump."

They have been highlighting reports - some originating in Jerusalem - that Israel has been supplying more and better weapons to the militias.