Direct but low-key Syrian involvement in west Beirut has helped dramatically transform the climate here. Until recently, mainly Muslim west Beirut was terrorized by unruly Muslim militias and street gangs. Now, for the first time in months, ordinary people have begun venturing out after dark, following the success of a Syrian-backed security plan in restoring law and order.
However, while even skeptics acknowledge that this plan is serious -- unlike its numerous failed predecessors -- many question how long it will last, and what the next step will be.
The security scheme, agreed upon by Lebanese Muslim leaders at a meeting in Damascus June 13, was launched officially on June 28, with Lebanese Army units and police patrolling the streets.
The plan is backed by Syria's two main militia allies -- the Shiite Muslim Amal and the Druze militia.
According to observers, the plan's unexpected success is due in great part to public support from pro-Iranian fundamentalist factions, notably the Shiite Hizbullah (Party of God).
The current renewal of Syria's entente with Iran, follows the failure of Jordan's recent efforts to reconcile Syria with Iraq, Iran's enemy, and is believed to have helped secure the cooperation of the Islamic extremists. ``A few weeks ago, they were everywhere, behaving really arrogantly, and we were all afraid of them,'' says one west Beirut resident. ``But now you don't see them anywhere -- they are keeping a very low profile.''
The real turning-point came last Friday, when a contingent of about 200 Syrian Army ``special forces'' commandos was attached to the Lebanese forces applying the plan. It was the first time that uniformed Syrian troops had entered Beirut since the Syrian Army's 85th brigade was obliged to leave the city along with Palestinian fighters at the end of the Israeli siege in August 1982.
Despite the symbolic scale of Syrian military involvement -- three or four soldiers accompanying the Lebanese patrols -- it is evidently enough to persuade potential troublemakers that Syria is determined to make the plan work this time.
``The basic mission is entrusted to the Lebanese regular forces,'' says the Syrian Army intelligence officer supervising the plan, Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan. ``But I am here with a stick in my hand. At the moment, it's behind my back, but I will bring it out and use it if necessary.''
Syrian Vice-President, Abdel Halim Khaddam, was earlier quoted as saying that Damascus would not hesitate to send in troops to impose security directly if the new plan should fail.
But so far, with the Syrian commandos and scores of plainclothes Syrian intelligence operatives stiffening their resolve, the Lebanese troops and police have managed to apply most parts of the accord.
Unauthorized gunmen are now no longer to be seen on streets where only a few days earlier, virtually every strolling male had a pistol stuck in his belt. Dozens of local militia offices, which allowed gunmen to control the streets under party protection, have been closed down. Apartments have been raided and unlicensed weapons seized.
To underline the restoration of normality still further, the security forces also cleared away illegal stalls set up by vendors on the sidewalks of once-fashionable Hamra Street. Bulldozers were brought in to demolish the barriers of chain-linked, concrete-filled oil drums erected at the roadside by shopkeepers fearful of having car bombs parked near their premises.
Strict security measures have also been applied at the city's international airport, with official forces banning the armed militiamen who used to frequent a facility which gained worldwide notoriety because of the numerous hijackings to and from its runways. All international airlines apart from Lebanon's own Middle East Airlines suspended flights to Beirut last year, but officials now hope that some may resume services.
Although west Beirut residents are aware that such measures are superficial and reversible, they have brought about a radical change in the prevailing atmosphere. In areas considered unsafe until last week, families and couples have resumed their habit of taking a stroll in the cool of evening. Queues have begun forming outside some of the few restaurants which remain open at night.
There is also much speculation -- but no confirmation -- that the low-key Syrian return to West Beirut may have won a green light from Washington, hopeful of securing the release of American and other Western hostages still held by Muslim extremists in Lebanon.
Some local analysts have even constructed elaborate theses arguing that the Israelis also approved Syria's role as policeman, curbing Israel's natural enemies -- the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Islamic extremists. The analysts say the move is linked to King Hussein's crackdown on the PLO in Jordan.
But despite their relief at the success of the plan, many west Beirut residents point out that major problems remain to be tackled -- first and foremost, the estrangement between Lebanon's Muslim and Christian populations, and that between the Christians and Syria.