Lebanese Christians offer olive branch to Syrians
| East Beirut
The slice of Lebanon controlled by right-wing Maronite Christians is making a cautious comeback one year after it fell under siege by the Syrian Army.
But as the Lebanese say about most things in their country, whether the comeback lasts very much ''depends'' . . . on factors ranging from control of the streets of Beirut, to the influence of Israel and Syria, to superpower rivalry.
Today, however, the most encouraging sign for this modern, Francophone area of Lebanon is that Maronite leaders are moderating their actions and carrying on talks with their one-time enemies. According to Western diplomats, it was the territorial ambitions of the Maronite military - the Phalange - last year that caused Syria to react militarily at Zahle, in the Sannin Heights, and against civilians in the Maronite centers of Ashrafiyeh and Junieh.
Fighting was so intense and the Maronites were so pressed to the wall that the Maronite power structure has since come under pressure from within not to provoke a new conflict that could jeopardize residents of this section of the country.
''The people cannot forget the trauma of April 2, 1981, at 10:30 in the morning when Syrian guns started shelling,'' admits Naoum Farah, director of the external relations department of the Lebanese Front and Forces (LFF), which is the ruling political body of East Beirut.
As a result of that ''trauma,'' diplomats in Lebanon say, the LFF has moderated its actions. This has meant, most importantly:
* Putting off Phalange ambitions of extending control over other areas of Lebanon.
* Publicly disassociating the Maronite community from Israel.
* Carrying on diplomatic discussions with Syria.
* Scrapping for now plans of transforming the Maronite enclave into a mini-state.
The effects of Maronite moderation are apparent. Since fighting ended last summer, east Beirutis have repopulated the fashionable Ashrafiyeh district, resumed their frequenting of the posh supper clubs and discotheques of Juniye, and taken part in the estimated $1 billion construction boom along the glittering coastline from east Beirut to Byblos.
The two key Maronite political objectives remain (1) removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and (2) disarmament of Palestinian forces in the country. But leaders here rule out any attempt to realize the objectives by force.
In fact, Mr. Farah expresses a great deal of concern over what he sees as ''absolutely untrue, ludicrous'' charges in American news magazines that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon slipped into Juniye recently to plot a Phalange-Israeli pincer attack on Palestinians and Syrians in Lebanon.
''Here,'' Mr. Farah complains, ''that kind of report can have a direct impact on human beings. The leftist press over there (in west Beirut) picks up those reports, and it could cause Syria to shell Ashrafiyeh again. That would be intolerable. If Syria started a propaganda campaign against us, it could (signal) a real problem.''
A well-informed diplomat in Beirut told the Monitor that to the best of his knowledge Phalange military leader Bashir Gemayel has in fact distanced himself from Israel and is ''moving very cautiously, very carefully'' with regard to Syria. Discreet links with Israel nevertheless are believed to remain. These links became obvious and caused a great deal of controversy last year during the two-month Phalange-Syria military conflict.
At that time, the Phalange attempted to gain control over the predominantly Greek Orthodox city of Zahle in Lebanon's central valley region. Syria responded heavily and was joined by leftist Lebanese forces from west Beirut. As the Syrians began pushing the Phalangists off the Sannin Heights, overlooking the Maronite coastal heartland, Israel entered the fighting on the side of the Maronites.
The use of Israeli fighters against Syrian helicopters caused the Syrians to respond by placing antiaircraft missiles in Lebanon. Israel's subsequent demand that the missiles be withdrawn caused a Middle East crisis that has only been eased with the continued shuttle diplomacy of American envoy Philip C. Habib. (The missiles remain in Lebanon, and the Israelis continue to demand their removal.)
The upshot of that complex conflict was that the Phalange suffered a clear setback, losing positions in central Lebanon and the Sannin Heights. Moreover, the overt aid from Israel damaged what the Phalange had of conservative Arab governments' support.
Since that time, one of the most significant and hopeful (for Lebanon) developments has been a quiet Phalange-Syrian dialogue based on common interests. Both are attempting to contain the Palestine Liberation Organization. Both are attempting to check the political power of the Sunni Muslim communities in Lebanon and Syria.
The Phalange-Syrian detente has been carried out at the military and foreign ministry levels between Syrian President Hafez Assad and Maronite elders. So far , say diplomats, the talks have helped hold the peace between the two sides.
Nevertheless, the Phalange still wants the 22,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon pulled out. Interestingly, the Phalange is only mildly gleeful of Mr. Assad's recent internal problems. This is because the likely alternative to Mr. Assad - a Muslim Brotherhood revolution - is feared by the Maronites.
Says Mr. Farah: ''We are against Syria in Lebanon. But we are not against Syria in Syria.''