A new consensus that Syria has a unique and crucial role to play in helping end Lebanon's crisis is emerging among that country's Muslims and Christians. Appeals from Lebanese Muslim leaders for Syria to send its troops in to halt the anarchy in west Beirut and a visit to Damascus by the commander of the Christian militia reflect this view.
Elie Hobeika led a delegation of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia to Damascus yesterday, as part of Syrian efforts to solicit suggestions for ending Lebanon's Christian-Muslim conflict. The visit was hailed by a Christian newspaper, as ``a fundamental and positive turning-point in Syrian-Christian relations.'
Only a day before Hobeika's arrival in Damascus, Syrian officials met with an important emissary from the other side of the Lebanese divide. Former prime minister, Selim Hoss, visited Damascus on behalf of several Lebanese Muslim government leaders, to request the deployment of Syrian troops in west Beirut.
This request followed another eruption of streets battles in Beirut last week between Druze and Shiite Muslim militiamen and between Shiites and Palestinians in adjoining refugee camps.
Dr. Hoss's trip, however, confirms the conclusion that the Syrians are reluctant to embroil themselves militarily in Beirut unless the ground is very well prepared. According to Beirut newspapers, the message brought back by Hoss is that Syria will only consider committing its troops on the ground again if it is part of an overall political and security solution agreed by all the factions, including the Christians.
The latest clashes breach a July security plan for west Beirut agreed to under Syrian auspices, under which the militias were supposed to withhdraw from the streets, close their offices, and leave law and order in the hands of paramilitary police forces backed by Army units. More than 43 people have been killed since fighting resumed last Tuesday between Shiites and Palestinian guerrillas in Borj el Barajneh camp. Police say 187 people have also been injured so far.
``We must have an effective force capable of guaranteeing implementation of the plans agreed on,'' said Sunni Prime Minister Rashid Karami. ``The only force able to do so is the Syrian Army.''
Syria sent troops to Beirut in 1976, under an Arab League mandate, but it was not a happy experience. The Syrian forces were caught up in violent but inconclusive clashes with the Christian militias in east Beirut from 1978 on, and their stay in west Beirut had a corrupting and demoralizing effect on the soldiery. By the time the Israelis invaded in 1982, most Syrian troops had already been withdrawn from western Lebanon, and the final units were evacuated from Beirut at the end of the Israeli siege of the city. About 25,000 troops remain in the north and east of Lebanon.
Hobeika's visit would have been quite unthinkable just a few months ago, when the Christian militia was still defying Syria's role in Lebanon. The Lebanese Forces had cooperated with Israel in the 1982 invasion.
In March this year, a faction of the Christian Lebanese Forces led an uprising to protest Christian President Amin Gemayel's cooperation with Syrian efforts to preside over a settlement. But in the weeks that followed, Lebanon's Christian community was shaken by a series of blows struck by Syria's Muslim and Druze allies. Thousands of Christian familes in south Lebanon fled their homes as hostile militias stormed them. The eruption of violence along the confrontation line in Beirut added to the pressure s building on the Christians.
Hobeika was made the militia's new leader, and lost little time in cutting all ties with Israel and publicly advocating dialogue with Damascus. The process of turning away from Israel and towards Syria culminated with Hobeika's arrival in Damascus, the first time ever that the militia's leaders have officially visited Syria. Hobeika is noted as a pragmatist as are the Syrians.
``We have to reach an understanding with the Syrians,'' says Christian militia leader Pierre Yazbeck. ``Our strategy now is simply survival. Anything else would be sheer suicide.''
For the time being, however, the farthest the Syrians have agreed to go is to provide military observers to bolster ceasefire committees set up to oversee the security agreements in west Beirut and in the Palestinian camps. The committees have so far been unsuccessful in ending fighting at the camp or in defusing intermilitia tensions.