Phalangists tell why they fight Syrians in beleagured Beirut

A car slips easily through the streets of Anshrafiyeh, once East Beirut's fashionable, French-speaking neighborhood, now almost deserted. Sandbags protect shop windows that still display Charles Jourdan shoes and Christian Dior perfumes. Burned-out car bodies line many of the narrow, hilly avenues. Glass shards and hunks of concrete litter the sidewalks.

This is one of the centers of the Lebanese Front and Forces, commonly referred to as the Phalange. The Phalange is the largest group in the umbrella organization of East Beirut's Maronite Christian community. On and off for the past five years the Phalange military has been locked in artillery combat with the Syrian Army and Lebanese leftist militants.

The pounding of Ashrafiyeh since 1976 -- but most recently and intensely since April 2 of this year -- has frightened off most residents. Only 10 percent of the population is believed to remain; the rest have fled to the port of Juniye or into the hill villages in the Maronite heartland. But for several weeks now, long-range connons have been reaching even the interior.

The mixed-faith commercial sector of West Beirut had escaped most shelling until recently, even though Phalangist gunners have hit the city center and the port of Beirut regularly. But last weekend, for the first time, the Phalange began to lob shells into West Beirut. A Phalange official says this policy will continue, meaning that no sector of the capital is considered out of bounds any longer.

"Life in Beirut can only get worse now," one diplomat told the Monitor. "It keeps escalating from street fighting to automatic weapons to artillery, and more of the country is getting caught in it."

The growing strenght and hard line of the Phalange is a major factor in the complex Lebanese conflict today -- if for no other reason than that it is increasingly making life uncomfortable for what remains of the nonaligned Lebanese (and ex-patriates) in Beirut.

In an interview May 20 at Phalange headquarters in Ashrafiyeh, Phalange spokesman Naoum Farah outlined the objectives of his group. The Phalange is fighting, he says, to end "Syrian occupation and Palestinian occupation. Syria wants Lebanon to a province. The Palestinians want to create a de facto Palestinian state on Lebanese soil."

The breakdown of the Lebanese central government and Army under this pressure gave rise to the Phalange military, Farah says.

In general, he says, the Phalange is fighting to "prevent the absorption of the Christians of Lebanon. The Christians look to the West, the Muslims look to the Arabs and want union. Christians are more sensitive to union than Muslims." Furthermore, he says, the Phalange is "fighting on behalf of many other communities in Lebanon who are not now able to join us." He considers the Greek Orthodox, the Shiite Muslim, and the Druze (an ancient offshoot of Islam) communities in this category.

The appelation "Lebanese Christian," favored by the Phalange and Israel, is technically correct, since the Phalange is about 98 percent Maronite Christian. But many other Christians are non-Phalangists, including many Maronites. Moreover, using the term "Christian" makes it appear to be a sectarian conflict in Lebanon, which most often (and certainly now) it is not.

The Phalange military is believed to have 10,000 soldiers if mobilization orders are given, according to Phalangist leader Bachir Geeymal. Altogether it would have 40,000 men under arms.

The Phalange finances its military operation through a per-household tax levied on East Beirut Maronites, through smuggling, protection money, and donations received from Lebanese living abroad, mostly in France and the United States. Their arms are bought from Israel, France, and on the open market. Some weapons have been donated by Israel. They are equipped with modern small arms, some tanks and personnel carriers, artillery, and at least three gunboats. Weapons are brought in through Juniye and other illegal ports along the coast.

Farah claims the much-mentioned alliance between the Phalange and the Israelis is overstated and says only, "We are receiving aid from anyone who will help us."

Out of a total Lebanese population of 3 million, there are 400,000 Maronites in East Beirut. In Zahle there are 200,000 Christians. A link-up would serve to bolster Phalangist strength, assuming most of the Zahle residents side with the Phalange. But this latter point is in question. Syria claims Phalangist soldiers were "strangers" in Zahle, which is predominantly Greek Orthodox.

The Phalange says many partisans were fighting in Zahle. It is difficult to know which is accurate, since the city has been out of touch since early April.

Other Christian areas in Lebanon that the Phalange seeks links to are Jezzin, Saghbin, and Beit Et Din in the mountainous south (which could act as a steppingstone to a linkup with Saad Haddad's area in the far south), Dier Al Ahmar in the northern Bekaa Valley, Quebeiyat in the far north, and the Batroun area near Tripoli.

The Phalange goal is to link up with other Christian enclaves in Lebanon.Zahle, the first attempt, seems to have failed for the moment, since the town is surrounded by syrian armor. But Farah believes the Zahle episode gave the Phalange a political and public-relations victory.

Farah says the Phalange now enjoys greater support within the Reagan administration and is optimistic about French President Francois Mitterrand, whom he says is sympathetic to the Francophone Lebanese. Much of the credit for better relations, he says, goes to the three-year-old World Maronite Union, which has its secretariat in Rome, and to Phalange bureaus in Paris, Bonn, Rome, Lausanne, Montreal, Ottawa, Washington, and Sydney.

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