Beirut clashes bring Christian claims of Syrian meddling. But Syrians say fighting was strictly inter-Christian struggle
Beirut — This weekend's violent clashes in Christian east Beirut are much more than just another internecine turf battle between rival militias and could have severe political repercussions, local observers say. The clashes appeared to mark a concerted but abortive attempt by Elie Hobeika, ousted leader of the Christian ``Lebanese Forces'' militia, to stage a comeback. Mr. Hobeika, who is openly allied with Syria -- Lebanon's major power-broker -- apparently launched Saturday's unprecedented attack from the western, Muslim side of Beirut's confrontation ``green line.'' The fighting, in which more than 30 people were reported killed, has introduced several novel developments into the already complex Lebanese picture.
The current leadership of the Lebanese Forces alleges that top Syrian political, military, and intelligence officials were involved in deciding, planning, and carrying out the attack. The militia published detailed accounts of meetings and arrangements it said preceded the attack, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.
Syrian officials and Muslim militia factions in west Beirut deny they were involved in Saturday's affair. Hobeika, who has been based in Damascus and in Syrian-controlled eastern Lebanon, was thrown out of east Beirut last January by an alliance of Christian militia factions who opposed the December 1985 Syrian-sponsored accord he signed with Druze and Shiite Muslim leaders. It is widely accepted here that Hobeika's men could not possibly have staged their attack from Muslim west Beirut without, at the very least, the knowledge and cooperation of the Syrians and some west Beirut militias.
One of the biggest puzzles is why the Syrians would apparently sanction such a risky enterprise. Overtures have been underway between Damascus and east Beirut's estranged Christian community, which is loyal to Lebanese President Amin Gemayel. The prevailing belief that Syria was behind the attempt is clearly not going to help that process, observers say.
The attack also came at a time when Lebanon's Christian and Muslim political leaders were engaged in a dialogue on ways to resolve the country's 11-year-old civil war. While the full impact remains to be felt, Christian leaders have already made statements indicating that the dialogue may be endangered.
The one virtually undisputed result from the affair seems to be a sharp rise in the prestige and standing of the Lebanese Army. Swift and decisive intervention by the Army's 10th brigade, under orders from President Gemayel, inflicted a crushing defeat on the attackers. Although the Lebanese Forces militia, under its new commander Samir Geagea, also played a part, the Army's role was widely viewed as the crucial factor.
For some months now, there has been considerable speculation about an increased role for the Army and its commander, Gen. Michel Aoun, in the affairs of the Christian community. ``Had it not been for the Army, Ashrafieh might have changed hands,'' says one Christian source. ``The stage may be set for it to play a bigger political role in future.''
In their own Christian public's opinion, President Gemayel and Dr. Geagea are also seen as emerging creditably. Christian sources say neither man hitherto enjoyed much genuine popularity.
Opinions are almost as united that Hobeika and his followers suffered a humiliating setback, with corresponding implications for their Syrian backers.Though it is not yet clear precisely what Hobeika's objectives and hopes were, if he aspired to stage a fully fledged comeback he seems to have miscalculated badly.
But, some observers say, Hobeika may only have been trying to remind his Christian adversaries that he is still around and able to strike at them. One west Beirut newspaper said the penetration had ``brought Hobeika back into the picture.''
There is no doubt that the assault came as a surprise and shock to the Christians of east Beirut. Hobeika's followers managed to penetrate nearly a mile beyond the green line. It was the first major thrust from the western quarters since the confrontation line was established in 1975, the first year of the Lebanese crisis. But the attack is not one that could be easily repeated.
The Lebanese Forces asserts that some of the 15 attackers killed in the battle were from the pro-Syrian Baath Party and Muslim fundamentalist groups, and only a few from Hobeika's group. The Syrians and the west Beirut militias insist it was purely an inter-Christian fight.
But observers agree the attack did not represent a full-scale attempt by west Beirut militias to storm east Beirut. Only a few hundred men were reportedly involved, whereas the Shiite Amal movement alone could have mobilized thousands of fighters had it wished.