Syria helps settle latest Lebanese Cabinet crisis
| Nicosia, Cyprus
Lebanon's ``national unity'' government is back in business. Lebanese Muslim political and spiritual leaders, meeting under Syrian auspices in Damascus, reached agreement Thursday on measures to end inter-Muslim tensions in west Beirut.
Syrian Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who presided over the two days of talks, said Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid Karami and his fellow Sunni Muslim minister, Selim Hoss, had decided to retract their resignations from the Syrian-backed Cabinet.
Messrs. Karami and Hoss had tendered their resignations April 17, hours after gunmen from the Shiite Muslim militia Amal and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party stormed positions in west Beirut held by the largely-Sunni Murabitoun militia.
Under the agreement, Shiite and Druze militias are to withdraw from the streets, leaving security arrangements in the hands of the Lebanese Army's largely Shiite Sixth Brigade and the police forces.
The official state forces have theoretically been the only authorized source of security control in Beirut since last July, but their role has frequently been eclipsed by the resurgence of party militias.
However, the agreement said that a joint security force set up last week by Amal and Druze militias may continue to play a part in maintaining security. This is the first time that any of several security plans announced during more than a decade of crisis in Lebanon has specified a formal relationship between the official state forces and private militias.
Amal and Druze military officials are included in the new security committee, alongside senior Army and police officers. A representative of the Sunni community is also included, giving the Sunnis at least a theoretical veto over the use of the Shiite and Druze militias for security tasks.
Given the Army's failure in the past to act as a decisive security force, it remains to be seen how the new arrangement will work, and to what extent Shiite and Druze militias will continue to be a factor.
The prevailing view in Beirut is that Syria encouraged its Amal and Druze allies to unleash their April 16 putsch. Syria fears that its enemy, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, might exploit the worsening security conditions in the city to revive his old alliances with Sunni militias and stage a comeback.
The inclusion of Shiite and Druze militias in the new arrangement may thus be aimed at keeping the Army on its toes and encouraging the Sunni community not to leave Mr. Arafat any loopholes to exploit.
However, if the agreement provides little more than official cover for continued domination of Sunni areas by Shiites and Druze, further tensions between the three communities may be inevitable.
Sunni leaders Thursday made it clear they were looking for a swift withdrawal by the militias, and Mr. Karami began meetings with security officials after his return from Damascus. Priority is expected to be given to a similar refurbishment of the Army's role in the Sidon area of south Lebanon.
Violent sectarian clashes on the eastern outskirts of the port city have tapered off following a cease-fire and withdrawal, completed April 24, by hard-line Christian militiamen. The clashes, which erupted March 18, led to a collapse of the role of the Army which had moved in to fill the vacuum when Israeli troops withdrew in February.
``We are withdrawing with minimum guarantees for the security of the Christian areas, because we realize that the balance of power is not in our favor,'' said a militia spokesman.
Another Christian political source said the withdrawal showed that the hard-line militia elements which staged an ``uprising'' on March 12 against President Amin Gemayel's pro-Syrian policies, have been ``cut down to size.''
The chastened mood of the Christian rebels may make it easier for Syria and the Lebanese Muslims to strike a new deal with the Christian camp. The Christian militia's withdrawal from Sidon may also facilitate reconciliation within the government.
Even before the crisis erupted over the west Beirut clashes, Karami, Hoss, and the Shiite and Druze ministers, Nabih Berri and Walid Jumblatt, had announced they would boycott Cabinet meetings until the Sidon situation was settled.
Revival of the government as a functioning body is regarded as essential if Lebanon is to meet the challenge posed by the withdrawal of Israeli forces.
On Wednesday the Israelis pulled out of the Jezzin mountain area east of Sidon, leaving it in the hands of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia.