Syria, Allies Consolidate Their Control in Lebanon
Lebanese Christians, shaken by the defeat of General Aoun and the murder of Dany Chamoun, worry over their security.
NICOSIA, CYPRUS — `LEBANON will never be the same again,'' a Lebanese Christian businessman said as he stepped ashore at Larnaca in Cyprus earlier this week. ``From now on, it's all in Syria's pocket.'' The businessman's gloom stems from two violent events: the overthrow of Gen. Michel Aoun and the cold-blooded murder of Dany Chamoun and his family.
The general and Mr. Chamoun were Christians staunchly opposed both to the presence of Syrian troops and the influence of Damascus in Lebanon. And neither hesitated to say so in public.
The two events have made it much more difficult for the government of President Elias Hrawi to foster a mood of reconciliation, say Western diplomats in Beirut.
The overthrow of General Aoun was followed by accusations that Syrian troops or their Lebanese allies had murdered supporters of the general after they had surrendered. Chamoun's murder led to widespread concern in the Christian community that its security in a Lebanon dominated by a pro-Syrian government was no longer guaranteed.
The speed with which the joint Syrian-Lebanese force succeeded in ousting Aoun from the presidential palace on Oct. 13 masked the extent of the fighting. Of the estimated 600 people who were killed, about half were Syrian troops. Also, according to eyewitness reports, several dozen troops loyal to Aoun were shot at close range, allegedly after they had surrendered. Pro-Syrian forces were accused of the massacre.
France asked for a United Nations investigation. ``We have learned that dozens of officers were killed with their hands and feet tied by the Syrians,'' said Jacques Barrot,a right-wing French politician.
The Lebanese government responded angrily, saying that no investigation was needed, because reports of a massacre were based on nothing more than rumors.
``All the soldiers who were killed died during the fighting,'' a government source said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Selim Hoss said he was offended that France should have demanded a UN investigation, when the charges had been so forcefully denied in Beirut.
``France says it is a friend of Lebanon,'' he commented. ``If so, it should drop the demands for an inquiry.''
But such assurances from the Hrawi government were not sufficient to calm the anxieties of the Christian community in Lebanon as they watched Army units take over the former Aoun enclave in Beirut and the hinterland.
``The fear is that Lebanese legitimacy will not ... make the residents of the area formerly controlled by General Aoun feel that the victory of legitimacy entails a change for the better for them,'' wrote Khairallah Khairallah, a leading political commentator.
MANY Christians expressed concern at the reappearance of militiamen loyal to Elie Hobeika. A former leader of the main Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, and an ally of Syria, Mr. Hobeika was driven out in 1986. Eyewitness reports from east Beirut accused his followers of systematically searching out old enemies and killing them. Hobeika denied the accusations.
But fears have begun to take root again in the Christian community.
``How can the triumphant entry of regulars to the regions they valiantly sought to free from the yoke of oppression lead to such irregular practices?'' asks Isa Ghoraieb, editor of the Beirut daily L'Orient-Le Jour.
These concerns were reinforced after the Oct. 21 murder of Chamoun, the son of Camille Chamoun, a former warlord and president of Lebanon. Although Dany Chamoun had isolated himself from a large section of the Christian community by giving political support to Aoun, his death was widely interpreted as a signal that Damascus would not tolerate any challenge to its influence in Lebanon.
Hrawi, who was having talks in Damascus with President Hafez al-Assad of Syria at the time, described the assassination as ``an act of aggression against the state's security.'' But once again the Christians reacted by saying that verbal condemnation was no match for practical security measures on the ground.
``Are Premier Hoss and his government, plus the Army commander Gen. [Emile] Lahoud aware that Christians feel repressed and frightened?'' asked the Beirut daily Al-Diyar recently.
Syrian officials say they expect the controversy about the alleged killing of Aoun supporters to pass quickly. The next step, they insist, is to help Hrawi reunite Beirut, form a national unity government to introduce political reforms, and then disarm the militias.
As a clear signal to all concerned that the Damascus government means business, Syrian Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam arrived in Beirut Oct. 23 for talks with Hrawi. He is the highest-ranking Syrian to visit the Lebanese capital for many years.
``Calming the fears of the Christians is the most urgent task facing President Hrawi now,'' says a Western diplomat in Beirut.
When and if this has been achieved, there is still the question of the powerful Muslim militias.
``We will not hand our weapons over to President Hrawi,'' Walid Jumblatt stated defiantly Oct. 22. Mr. Jumblatt heads the Druze militia and is a minister in the government.
``In a sense,'' the Western diplomat said, ``with the ousting of General Aoun, the hard work for Hrawi and his Syrian backers has only really just begun.''