Syria's Lebanon plan aims for peace, but results in violence. Fear of losing out in talks drives Christians and Muslims to fight
Nicosia, Cyprus — In the wake of the recent upsurge of violence in Beirut, Lebanon's warring Muslims and Christians are looking to Syria for help to silence the guns and get the embattled factions talking. Observers in the region link the recent violence, one way or another, to Syria's renewed drive to press its quarrelsome Lebanese neighbors to reach a national accord on their country's future.
Some Lebanese, on both sides of Beirut's Christian-Muslim confrontation line, see the recent escalation of violence -- the worst since May -- as an attempt to disrupt intensified, Syrian-backed efforts to revive dialogue between the Lebanese and bring about a settlement of the decade-old civil war.
Some Christians view yesterday's car bomb attack in Christian east Beirut as part of a campaign of violence to pressure them into submission to Muslim demands for political reform. The blast devastated a street in a low-income residential area and, as rescue work continued late yesterday, at least 10 people were reported killed and some 70 others injured.
The Muslim side has alleged that Christian militia forces -- until recently, allied with Israel and never enthusiastic about Syria's efforts to preside over a Lebanese settlement -- were behind the escalation. They say the violence is aimed at disrupting a proposed dialogue in which the Christians would be asked for political concessions.
The immediate focus for conciliation efforts is the current attempt to bring about a meeting of Lebanon's ironically titled ``national unity'' government, which is so deeply divided it has not met since mid-April. Prime Minister Rashid Karami said yesterday that despite the violent setbacks, he was optimistic a meeting could be held in the coming week.
Mr. Karami spoke after yesterday's car bomb attack, which in every way resembled the last major car bombing in east Beirut, on May 22, in which at least 30 people were killed and scores of others injured. In both cases, there was no immediately obvious target for the attack other than to cause as many casualties as possible. Nor did any group claim responsibility for the outrages.
But some Christian leaders hold the Muslim side responsible for the bombings and believe they were aimed at cowing the Christians into offering major concessions in the settlement dialogue which the Syrians and some Lebanese officials are trying to get off the ground.
``The explosion was one of a succession of blows dealt against innocent [Christian] citizens,'' said Elie Kerameh, leader of the ruling Christian Phalangist Party. ``Its aim was to terrify the citizens, to plunge them into despair and hopelessness, so that they accept settlement proposals which conflict with Lebanon's very existence.''
The bombing followed the fifth successive night in which Christian fighters from the Phalangist-linked Lebanese Forces militia and the Lebanese Army have traded fire with Muslim and Druze militiamen. More than 30 people have been reported killed and at least 150 others injured in these exchanges.
The escalation began only a day or so after President Amin Gemayel, a Christian, and Prime Minister Karami returned from a day of talks in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad and other officials. The meetings were seen as reflecting Syria's desire to give impetus to the settlement process in Lebanon, as well as implying Syrian support for the embattled Lebanese President.
The Damascus mini-summit came just two days after the formation of a Syrian-backed National Union Front, grouping a number of Muslim, Druze, and Christian factions and figures opposed to Gemayel. Leading lights in the new alliance are Shiite Muslim Amal leader Nabih Berri and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt.
Both men made statements implying that the political program adopted by the new front -- which demands the replacement of the ``sectarian system'' with a ``secular, nationalist regime'' -- was not a matter of discussion with the Christians, who have traditionally benefited from the country's current system. The recent violence may have reinforced Christian fears that the opposition intends to impose its reform program by force.
Christian factions have in the meantime been working on their proposals for Lebanon's future, to counter the opposition reform program in the dialogue -- if it gets off the ground. Further Syrian efforts will almost certainly be needed if that is to happen, analysts say.