Lebanon: What if Syria's 'peace-keeping' troops leave?

By threatening to withdraw its "peace- keeping" troops that act as a buffer between rival forces in Beirut, Syria is playing a potentially dangerous card. Syria recently has been feeling isolated, and reports from its capital of Damascus have spoken of instability and unrest in the north.

For the moment, however, the isolation seems over. Jittery Lebanese, Saudi Arabian, and other Arab envoys suddenly are beating a path to Damascus to find out just what is going on -- and, presumably, to see whether Syrian President Hafez Assad is serious.

For if he is, the instability seems bound to worsen -- first in Lebanon, where a Syrian troop presence has frozen rather than ended the 1975-76 civil war , and later, inevitably, in Syria itself.

This, at least, is the reasoning of some Arab diplomats and political analysts. Indeed, even some Syrians seem to agree. In a rare show of candor, one Syrian soldier on duty at a Beirut checkpoint recently commented, "Fire in Beirut means fire in Syria."

President Assad has survived blazes in the past, as his 10-year tenure testifies. But never has his situation seemed so precarious. And never has he played so potentially dangerous a political game.

At home, he faces rising, and increasingly violent, opposition from the militant Muslim Brotherhood organization and from more secular opponents among the country's Sunnin Muslim majority. President Assad and most of his ruling circle are of the minority Alawite faith, accounting at most for 10 percent of the Syrian population.

Abroad, President Assad has spearheaded Arab opposition to the US- sponsored Camp David negotiating process between Egypt and Israel. More recently, he has taken the lonely role of chief -- and almost only -- Arab holdout in widespread opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

For the past three years, Syria's military muscle in Lebanon has been an index of President Assad's strength. His troops first directed their energies against the Palestinian guerrillas and then, in an about-face, against Israeli-supported Christian militiamen.

As one veteran Arab journalist in Beirut put it privately, "The Syrian presence in Lebanon made Syria, in effect, a regional power that could credibly make its claim to replace Egypt as one, if not the only, leader of the Arab world. . . . This, in turn, strengthened President Assad's position at home."

But if Syria's threat of withdrawal from Beirut has briefly thrust Damascus back into the forefront of Arab diplomacy, the implementation of that threat cannot help but be seen by Mr. Assad's internal opponents as a sign of weakness.

Little wonder, then, that a top Lebanese government official confided Feb. 5 that "I don't really think the Syrians will go through with this." That assessment came in spite of a public pronouncement by Prime Minister Selim al-Hoss, who dashed to Damascus Feb. 4, that the Syrians indeed were determined to leave the Lebanese capital.

President Assad, according to Mr. Hoss, has agreed to delay the move for a few days, but the decision, in Mr. Hoss's words, "is irrevocable."

Why? When? How? No one in Lebanon seems quite sure. The usually self-assured Beirut press offered nearly as many explanations as it has reporters. Syria needs more troops back home, said one.

Another, on generally good terms with the Syrians, cited a Damascus official as saying the Syrian regime is worried about an Israeli military strike.

In Damascus, President Assad broke his silence on the planned troop move Feb. 5, saying he did not want his troops tied down with mere "police" duty on Beirut streets. The government-controlled daily, Tishrin, meanwhile aired the "Israeli" rationale, arguing that Lebanon should not be allowed to become a US-Israeli "trap" for the Syrians.

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