More than 4,000 Syrian troops, backed with an estimated 100 tanks, rolled into west Beirut yesterday in Syria's boldest bid yet to restore order to the chaotic, mostly Muslim half of the city. Some Lebanese referred to the deployment as ``the comeback.'' It might be more appropriately described as ``the gamble.''
With the troop deployment - adding to some 1,500 Syrians already in west Beirut - Syrian President Hafez Assad is betting he can stop the fighting and recoup political losses suffered in his seemingly endless efforts to broker an end to Lebanon's 12-year-old civil war.
Lebanese Christian leaders, who have denounced the Syrian move, also predict President Assad will have his hands full trying to restore order in west Beirut, where militias have controlled the streets since 1984.
``Assad will have two immediate problems. What is he going to do with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian [refugee] camps? And what is he going to do about the foreign hostages?'' says Christian leader Dany Chamoun. He and other Christians point out that Assad's troops will soon control areas previously held by Hizbullah, the pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim militia that with other Shiite groups is believed to hold some 26 foreign hostages in southern Beirut. Pressure will mount on Assad, Chamoun predicts, to find and free the hostages once Syrian troops are deployed.
The announcement that Syria was moving in more troops came Saturday, after a request by Lebanese Muslim leaders closely aligned with Syria.
Assad's decision to move in troops came after five days of vicious street fighting that pitted two militias allied with Syria - the Shiite Amal and the Progressive Socialist Party of the Druze - against each other. Amal reportedly suffered heavy casualties in last week's fighting. It was losing ground to an array of militias that included its former allies, the Druze, along with the Lebanese Communist Party and Mr. Arafat's resurgent Palestine Liberation Organization.
Lebanese analysts say the underlying cause of last week's fighting was the battle between Amal and the Palestinians - a battle viewed by many Lebanese as a proxy fight between Syria and the Palestinians. Arafat is determined to reestablish the PLO as a military force in Lebanon, a goal he seemed to have a reasonable chance of achieving as late as last Friday. Amal and Syria are determined to keep Arafat out of Lebanon and keep the Palestinians in their camps.
By Saturday, the fighting had left an estimated 200 dead and 450 wounded. It also had further damaged Syria's already discredited image as Lebanon's chief power broker. Syria suffered its most serious political defeat in Lebanon a year ago, when President Gemayel and most Christian leaders refused to honor a so-called tripartite agreement. That Syrian-brokered accord was to have established a new political order in Lebanon by redistributing power to the disenfranchised Muslims, limiting the powers of the Christian presidency, and giving Syria a dominant role in Lebanese foreign policy.
Since the accord's collapse, Syria has watched with growing frustration as things went from bad to worse in Beirut: the government has not met in more than a year; the Christians are more determined to run an independent, ad-hoc mini-state; and order in west Beirut has disintegrated. And worse, from Assad's viewpoint, Arafat poured money, arms, and guerrilla leaders back into Palestinian camps and reemerged as a military force to be reckoned with.
Syria, analysts here say, is unwilling to lose its political and military influence in Lebanon, where it has been deeply involved for more than a decade. Syria first sent troops into Beirut in 1976, when the civil war was a year old, and backed the Christians against the Palestinians. But by 1978, Syria was fighting with the Palestinians and other Muslims against the Christians. In 1982, Israel pushed the Syrians out of Beirut. In 1983, the Syrians again turned on the PLO.
Syria's decision to go back into Beirut, a Western diplomat said, could only have been made reluctantly. ``It is a situation you wouldn't want to get into unless you were certain you could win it,'' he said.
In Israel, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin reportedly said Israel had no immediate cause for concern, as long as the Syrians stayed within Beirut and surrounding areas and did not set up missiles that might interfere with Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon or bombing raids on Palestinian strongholds.