Syria asserts dominant position in Lebanon

The Syrians have once again emerged in a commanding position in Lebanon. They have done this by biding their time, skillfully manipulating the many strings in their hands, and turning apparent setbacks to advantage.

And all this without their troops having to fire a single shot.

Although Israel's continuing withdrawal from Lebanon leaves Syria as the dominant outside power in the country, a few weeks ago it seemed the Syrians were being left with a handful of scorpions rather than a manageable sphere of influence.

When Israeli troops began their phased withdrawal in February, it seemed that Lebanon was falling into Syria's lap like a ripe fruit. Syrian influence over Beirut's ``national unity'' government was uncontested, the Lebanese Army moved into Sidon on the heels of the departing Israelis, and hard-line Christians were weakened by the Israeli pullout.

The time seemed right to convert the Syrian-sponsored truce between various Lebanese factions into a solid new political accord to end the country's internal crisis and stabilize Lebanon under Syria's wing.

Suddenly, however, things started falling to pieces in Syria's hands. On March 13, hard-line elements of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia rebelled under leader Samir Geagea. They declared independence from President Amin Gemayel's Phalangist Party, demanding that the government stop following the Syrian line.

Overnight, Damascus found itself dealing with a Lebanese President who could no longer deliver the Christian side.

Six days later Christian militiamen in the south declared support for Mr. Geagea and violent sectarian clashes broke out. The Lebanese Army's role collapsed as militia shelling brought armed Muslims into Sidon's streets, while Palestinians in nearby refugee camps hastily dug up guns buried during the Israeli invasion. The Sidon fighting spread to Beirut.

Politically, and on the ground, Syria's grip on the course of events was slipping. Perhaps most galling for President Hafez Assad were reports that his b^ete noire, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat, was exploiting the chaos in Sidon and Beirut to reactivate old alliances with Sunni Muslim factions to make a comeback.

Mr. Assad lost little time mounting a two-pronged campaign to bring the situation back under control.

On April 5 Assad despatched a message to Gemayel which, informed sources say, amounted to an ultimatum: Get the Geagea rebels back in line and out of the Sidon area, or else.

The threat produced a congress of Christian political and spiritual leaders which endorsed the broad lines of Syria's policy in Lebanon and gave Christian politicians a mandate to pressure Geagea to withdraw from the Sidon villages.

Geagea soon agreed to this in principle, but implementation was delayed and the violence intensified. Syria mounted the second thrust of its counterattack, which began with talks in Damascus in mid-April involving Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt.

Mr. Berri emerged to announce Syrian backing for a new ``Islamic-nationalist'' alliance with a joint military command, the objective being to control the situation in Beirut, Sidon, and elsewhere.

Within hours, the new alliance was in action. Druze and Shiite Amal fighters stormed areas of west Beirut where the mainly Sunni Murabitoun militia was suspected -- with little visible evidence -- of acting as stalking-horse for an Arafat comeback.

The backlash of Sunni resentment found recourse in Damascus, where the Syrians presided over a Sunni-Shiite-Druze congress on April 23-24 which endorsed Syrian goals in Lebanon.

Geagea, under mounting pressure from Christian politicians, pulled his men out of villages overlooking Sidon on April 23. The Lebanese Army was supposed to protect the villages after the militia evacuation.

An apparently spontaneous rampage by Muslims and Palestinians gave way to organized attacks by allied Sunni and Shiite militias which drove Christian militia remnants from Sidon villages on April 26-27. The Muslim militias established a new front line with Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia forces in the adjacent Jezzin area. Simultaneously, Druze forces in the Shouf mountains dealt a double blow by descending on the Christian enclave in the coastal Kharroub region.

The Christians learned a bitter lesson about where the balance of power lies. Thousands of Christian refugees in the Jezzin area are cut off from Beirut, and Christian politicians know that only Syria can act as guarantor for a deal to relieve Christians.

Also, under cover of the Kharroub takeover, at least 400 Palestinian guerrillas from the Syrian-backed, anti-Arafat Abu Musa faction slipped through to the Sidon area with a view to pre-empting an Arafat comeback, Druze sources confirmed.

The situation clearly remains unsettled.

Gemayel's position is seriously weakened in the Christian camp, leaving him no option but to mend fences with Geagea.

In the far south, Israel still says it is determined to establish and protect a security belt run by local militia allies.

But by relentless use of pressure, proxies and allies, Syria has demonstrated an ability to make its steely will felt on the ground.

Whatever course events take, the one sure thing is that Damascus will not leave the field open to forces which defy Syria or, in any way, threaten Syrian interests or security.

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