Syria's role in Lebanon in question

Syria's efforts to stabilize Lebanon under its own wing appear to be unraveling once again. Until very recently, things seemed to be looking up for Syria. Its elite commandos joined Lebanese security forces in applying a new security plan in early July, which brought an end to years of militia anarchy in mainly Muslim west Beirut -- or so it seemed. A dialogue between warring Lebanese factions brought hints of a political settlement.

But a sudden resurgence of kidnappings -- including the abduction of two Americans last week -- has cast doubt on the Syrian-backed security plan, which was meant to prevent such events from happening.

At the same time, a series of attacks on the UN peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon has, observers say, opened the possibility of events there slipping out of control, to Syria's disadvantage.

Behind recent events, some Lebanese political observers discern bad feelings between Syria and its supposed ``strategic ally,'' Iran. They say this could spell serious trouble for Syria in the event Iran launches an expected, major offensive being against Iraq. This would put the Syrians under strong Arab pressure to dissociate themselves from Iran and could result in bringing tensions between the two nations to the surface.

Syria invested its prestige and credibility heavily in the west Beirut security plan. Syrian officials repeatedly said they were working hard for the release of more than a dozen Western hostages in Lebanon. Abductions, they said, were now a thing of the past, and they called on foreign embassies and other expatriates to return to west Beirut.

By their own yardstick, the kidnapping of two more United States citizens in the space of three days last week has dealt a heavy blow to the plan.

Frank Reed, director of a west Beirut elementay school, and Joseph Cicippio, acting comptroller of the American University, were among a handful of US citizens remaining in west Beirut despite successive evacuations of Western nationals.

Nor are the kidnappings by any means the only incidents pointing to a breakdown of the security plan. Victor Kano, a Syrian-born Lebanese Christian businessman, was also kidnapped last week in west Beirut. And recent weeks have seen a virtual epidemic of armed bank robberies.

``The security plan has been fiction since last week,'' one militia official declared. ``The Syrians don't dare to go out at night any more. In the southern suburbs, they don't exist.''

Who is behind the kidnappings is by no means clear. A caller claiming to speak for the ``Arab Revolutionary Cells'' said it was behind the abductions of both Mr. Reed and Mr. Cicippio, and warned against the consequences of any US attack on ``the Arab nation.''

This suggested that a pro-Libyan group might be involved, holding the Americans hostage to prevent another US strike on Libya in the wake of the recent Pan Am hijacking in Pakistan and the synagogue massacre in Istanbul. Observers, however, treat such claims with caution. Some Lebanese sources suggested that the Syrians themselves might even be involved, to deter possible US or Israeli action against them.

But if Iran were to be involved, it would repeat the pattern already visible in southern Lebanon where, observers say, Iran's influence is working directly against Syria's apparent interests.

During the weekend, another attack on the French contingent in UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, killed one soldier and wounded three. It was the latest in a series of attacks attributed to Iranian-inspired Shiite radicals whose vendetta against the UN troops is openly supported by Tehran.

Iran and its local supporters reject UNIFIL's presence, claiming it is a shield for the Israelis.

Syria, on the other hand, together with its main local ally, the mainstream Shiite movement Amal, support the UNIFIL. They see it as a stabilizing element providing south Lebanese Shiite villagers with a measure of protection against the Israelis.

They fear that a UNIFIL withdrawal would create unstable conditions which might lead the Israelis to strike a major blow against the Syrians in southeast Lebanon, a move which has long been predicted by a number of Lebanese and Arab sources.

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