Syria comes out on top in Lebanon. But can it tame the warring factions and impose order?
Jerusalem — In unilaterally ending its three-year occupation of south Lebanon, Israel is handing Syria both a victory and a fistful of problems. Syria has rebounded from a humiliating military defeat in the early days of Israel's June 1982 invasion to become Lebanon's universally recognized chief power broker and the most potent Arab military threat to Israel.
Israeli political and military analysts generally agree that the Syrians were the winners in Lebanon.
It is not clear, however, that the Syrians have tamed the Lebanese factions and will be able to impose order in that volatile nation. Even with the Israelis gone from south Lebanon, Pax Syriana is not yet a foregone conclusion.
What is clear is that both Israel and the United States woefully underestimated Syrian President Hafez Assad, who has forcefully demonstrated the error of seeking to impose a settlement on Lebanon that cut Syria out.
Mr. Assad's refusal to reach any agreement with the Israelis in Lebanon offered the Arab world an alternative to the path of ``appeasement'' he has accused Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat of following. How could Mr. Arafat think of joining the leaders of Jordan and Egypt in seeking a peaceful settlement with Israel when Syria forced the Zionists to withdraw from southern Lebanon without a settlement, Mr. Assad asks.
The argument is a potent one for Arabs who saw Israel reeling under guerrilla attacks in south Lebanon that hastened its retreat from the area.
Assad's triumph in Lebanon came about, according to regional analysts, because he played the Lebanese game far better than did the Israelis, who never seemed fully to understand the political, religious, and military realities of the state.
``Lebanon really is, historically, the backyard of the Syrians,'' says Moshe Maoz, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and an expert on Syria. ``They have an advantage over us in Lebanon because they are Arabs.''
In its patient counterattack against Israel on Lebanon's soil, Syria first forced Lebanese President Amin Gemayel to abrogate the United States-brokered agreement of May 17, 1983, that granted Israel military and political guarantees in return for the withdrawal of its forces from Lebanon. The agreement, which hinged on a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, had been negotiated by the Americans without consulting the Syrians.
Syria next refused to grant informal assurances to the Israelis that guerrillas would not be allowed to infiltrate into south Lebanon through Syrian-held territory in the eastern and central parts of the state. Neither would the Syrians allow the Lebanese to negotiate security arrangements with Israel at the United Nations-sponsored talks held last year.
Syria's ability to dictate to Israel and the Americans was a dramatic change from the early days of the Israeli invasion, when, according to an Israeli Army estimate, the Air Force succeeded in destroying 100 Soviet-supplied Syrian fighter jets and knocking out virtually all of Syria's surface-to-air missiles.
But although the Israelis wiped out Syria's air-defense system, they failed to rout its forces on the ground. Israel did not achieve then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's goal of pushing the Syrian Army out of Lebanon.
The Syrian and Soviet response to the devastating losses inflicted on Syria's Soviet-built air-defense system was simply to build a bigger, better-equipped Air Force and Army.
The result, several Israeli military and political analysts say now, is that Syria has become a far more serious threat to Israel militarily than it was before the June 1982 invasion.
``The Syrians emerged from the Lebanon war with great confidence that they can manage the Israelis,'' says Dr. Maoz. ``They are convinced that they can lead the Arab world to war with Israel now on their timing.''
Some Israeli military analysts say that Syria's victory in Lebanon makes it more willing to consider an assault on Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights, captured from Syria during the 1967 war.
But for now, Syria remains preoccupied with Lebanon, where convulsive violence again threatened to tear the nation apart as the Israeli withdrawal accelerated.
By the end of May, various groupings within Lebanon, including Mr. Gemayel, a Maronite Christian, appealed to the Syrians to send troops back into Beirut, where bloody fighting raged between the Syrian-backed Shiite Muslim Amal militia and Palestinians.
The Syrians originally entered Lebanon in 1976 at the invitation of the Maronites, who were suffering severe military setbacks at the hands of their Palestinian and Muslim enemies. The Syrian presence was given the blessing of Arab summit meetings in October of that year.
Returning to Beirut now is thought to be a highly undesirable alternative for the Syrians. It would represent a defeat of Syrian efforts to build a strongly pro-Syrian, weak but relatively stable Lebanese government.
Dragging Syrian troops back into the chaotic street fighting of Beirut is an alternative the Syrians have tried to forestall by skillfully manipulating their various allies in the 10-year-old Lebanese civil war.
In an ever-shifting pattern of alliances, the Syrians' current favorites are the forces of the Amal militia and the Druze forces of warlord Walid Jumblatt. Syria also continues to support President Gemayel. Syria recently faced down a revolt within Gemayel's own Lebanese Forces militia against the President.
With presumed Syrian approval, Amal has taken steps since April to curb the return of pro-Arafat Palestinian guerrillas to Beirut. Assad, who has labeled Arafat a ``traitor'' to the Palestinian cause, has backed rebels inside Al-Fatah -- Arafat's wing of the PLO -- and moved to prevent him from reestablishing a Lebanese base in the wake of Israel's withdrawal.
``Arafat's strategy was to come back to Beirut and then to begin to move back into the south,'' said one Israeli official. ``But he underestimated the Syrians. They'll run after him to the end of the earth. The Arafat-Hussein connection is too dangerous for Assad.''
In April, Amal crushed the Sunni Muslim militia, Murabitoun, that was once allied with the Palestinians. In late May, Amal fighters surrounded and moved into the Palestinian refugee camps in south Beirut. They vowed to attack the camps until they could drive out the PLO guerrillas and establish their own control.
Arafat immediately accused the Syrians of conspiring with the Israelis to annihilate the Palestinians. Even Syrian-backed Fatah rebels joined with their rival Palestinians to help defend the camps.
And Syria's Druze allies refused to join Amal's fight against the Palestinians. Indeed, Mr. Jumblatt even allowed the Palestinians to shell Shiite neighborhoods from territory held by the Druze, and reportedly blocked Amal replacements in south Lebanon from reaching Beirut.
One veteran Middle East analyst, David Hirst of the British newspaper The Guardian, says that the battle of the camps ``is another landmark in President Hafez Assad's gradual, inexorable imposition of Pax Syriana over a tormented land.''
But Mr. Hirst also acknowledges that Syria's ``calculations began to go awry'' when it failed to anticipate that the Palestinians it has backed against Arafat would be unable to attack their refugees' camps.
While the fighting went on in the camps, Gemayel traveled again to Damascus for consultations, and emerged from meetings with Syrian leaders calling for a more direct intervention from Syrian forces.
The likelihood of Syrian intervention grew even as government officials said they were reluctant to step back into the Lebanese swamp.
``We should not lose our patience,'' one Syrian Foreign Ministry official told a Western diplomat. ``Our friends in Lebanon are with us. Syria is not in a hurry. Let us let the situation ripen.''