What happened during Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel-Halim Khaddam's short dirve from his border to Lebanon's presidential palace this week illustrated the pitfalls -- perhaps even the futility -- of seeking to impose solutions on this divided land.
Khaddam left the Syrian border a virtual proconsul, but he arrived with three-quarters of his bargaining cards gone. Fewer than 10 miles from the Beirut-Damascus highway on which he was traveling, Israeli F4 jets shot down two Syrian military helicopters to underline Israeli unhappiness with Syrian moves to establish control along the ridge line of the Mount Lebanon range, a predominatly Christian area.
Khaddam's plans for two days of ceremonial consultations, nevertheless, went ahead in the palace that symoblizes past Christian power in a happier Lebanon. Rightist Christain militia leaders paid homage along with Syria's allies in the feuding Leganese political family. But keeping to a schedule arranged the week before during the low ebb of Christian military fortunes could not mask the fact that psychologically Syria had been thwarted once again in its efforts to fashion a Lebanon to its liking.
By the time Khaddam returned to Damascus -- promising on the basis of "satisfactory" results to return Monday for substantaive negotiations -- Syria gave every indication of having reestablished, and perhaps improved, its position in the Arab and outside world.
Syria's decision to install Soviet-built ground-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley rallied grudging Arab support, diminished Syrian President Hafez Assad's isolation and underlined the fact that his truce-keeping troops are in Lebanon under the aegis of consistenly renewed Arab League mandates.
But such was not necessarily the perception in Lebanon. Here, Israel was generally credited with enough muscle to dominate Syria, perhaps because many Christians, Moslems, rightists, leftists and even Palestinian guerrillas dread Syrian threats to their own independence and are tired of Syria's occupation.
Since 1976, Syria's military presence has been vast in Lebanon. Whether Syria has territorial designs or simply feels it is too vulnerable at home to stay out of Lebanon is unclear. But it is clear that Israel backed the Christian militias, at least in part, to create trouble for its two enemies -- Syria and the Palestinian guerrillas.
Those who maintain Syria is out to absorb Lebanon note that Damascus has never established an embassy in Beirut. This has been Syria's way of rejecting France's decision as League of Nations mandatory power to create the so-called Greater Lebanon in 1920.
The French created the nation by annexing predominatly Moslem areas of Ottoman Syria -- the rich farmland of the Bekaa Valley and strips in the north and south -- in an effort to join the Christian Mount Lebanon core an economically viable hinterland.
Christian fears about pro-Syrian sentiment among Lebanese Moslems persisted from Lebanese independence in 1943 to the 1958 civil war and right through the 1970s, when it was a major factor in provoking the 1975-76 civil war.
Yet, Syrian influence was always an important factor in Lebanese political life. To signal its displeasure, before the last war Syria more than once closed its borders until Lebanon relented because of the economic damage inflicted on its thriving middleman trade between Europe and the rich Persian Gulf.
In the civil war, after helping Lebanese leftists and Palestinians, Syria abruptly changed sides in 1976 and backed the threatened Christians when the military balance risked tipping toward the leftists and guerrillas. The Palestinians and leftists had badly miscalculated. They disregarded Syrian warnings, went on the offensive and almost overwhelmed the Christians since they were convinced the; minority Alawite Moslem sect governing Syria would never dare crush that symbol of Moslem purity that was the guerrilla cause.
But Syria did intervene, first cautiously, then massively, before the message registered that Damascus would not tolerate a revolutionary and potentially unstable government on its border, especially with powerful Israel next door.
From the beginning, the Syrian intervention was brokered by the United States, acting as a go-between in Damascus and Jerusalem, and accepted by Israel, which saw an advantage in bogging Syria down in the Lebanese quagmire.
Assad justified his controversial decision in part by saying he had acted to prevent the Christians from falling into the Israelis' clutches. In that he failed.
The ardor went out of the Syrian-Christian alliance in 1977.First there was friction between Christian militia leaders and Syrian officers rying to impose their authority in Christian-run areas. Then President Anwar Sadat of Egypt visited Jerusalem and raised the threat of a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace, driving Syria and the Palestinians closer together.
Israel carefully nurtured its alliance with the Christian militias and is seen by some observers as encouraging the steady deterioration of relations between the militias and Syria, which broke out into fighting in 1978.
Israel did not come to the Christians' rescue during the hard Syrian shelling of Christian neighborhoods then, causing a loss of militia prestige. Nor did Israel help in the initial stages of the current crises around the Christian town of Zahle on the edge of the Bekaa Valley.
To some Lebanese, fed up with seeing their Connecticut-sized country shot up and divided by outsiders, Israel's motivation in shooting down two Syrian helicopters was largely to prevent Syria and the militias from coming to agreement on Damascus' terms.
Any such understanding could have undermined Israel's ability to influence events throughout Lebanon. The Jewish state would be reduced to acting only in the border strip through its Christian allies and the south in general, where its planes, troops and artillery repeatedly have attacked as part of a preemptive strike policy against the Palestinians.