Beirut makes most of lull in fighting. Syria has quieted militias, but breaking their grip is long shot
Beirut — Syrian troops are already improving the lives of shell-shocked west Beirutis who last week cowered in their basements while Muslim militias fought in the streets. After nearly 12 years of civil war, however, few Lebanese seem prepared to believe that Syria's intervention heralds the start of national rejuvenation. But in Lebanon, people have learned to snatch months, days, or even hours of peace when offered. Whatever long-term goals might have pushed Syrian President Hafez Assad to send in troops matters far less to average west Beirut residents than the fact that the militias are disappearing from neighborhoods that have been terrorized for years.
Syria's latest intervention is fresh proof that Mr. Assad remains determined to exercise political and military control over Lebanon, a nation the Syrians have always considered of vital strategic and political importance.
Hard-line Lebanese Christians see the intervention as another step toward what they are convinced is Syria's goal of annexing Lebanon. More-dispassionate observers see the deployment of the troops as just another step by President Assad toward rebuilding a compliant but functioning Lebanese state where Syria will retain at least a large degree of political influence.
Troops from Syria's 51st and 85th Brigades started entering the mostly Muslim half of the divided capital Sunday night, and by yesterday numbered an estimated 7,000. A west Beirut newspaper reported Tuesday that the Syrians had arrested some 50 militiamen. Twelve others were reportedly shot after the Syrian intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan, warned that armed militiamen found on the streets would be executed. Beirutis make most of lull
With the many heavily armed militias making themselves scarce in west Beirut, Beirutis Tuesday began tentatively to put their lives back together again. On the west side, shops and businesses reopened. On the east side, Christian businessmen who fled during the worst of last week's fighting made plans to return to the west, where an estimated 30,000 Christian residents still brave snipers, guerrillas, and kidnappers. A mile-long row of trucks loaded with construction materials and other goods waited to cross the dividing ``green line'' from east to west Beirut Tuesday morning at the one crossing still linking the two halves.
Almost as soon as the Syrians began to patrol the debris-strewn streets of west Beirut, the battered Lebanese pound began to rally. Last Friday, one US dollar bought 118 Lebanese pounds. By Tuesday, the dollar bought 103.
Even hard-line Christian leaders who publicly condemned what they call Syria's ``invasion'' grudgingly conceded that some temporary good may come of the Syrian armed presence in west Beirut.
``The situation in west Beirut will calm down for maybe one month, two months, or three months,'' predicted Samir Geagea, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces militia, at a press conference Tuesday. Dr. Geagea repeated his condemnation of Syria's reentry into Beirut and vowed that the Christians would resist it politically and, if need be, militarily if it threatened the Christian stronghold. Syrian plans face many obstacles
Precisely how Syria intends to impose and maintain order in west Beirut remains unclear. Western diplomats in east Beirut said they believed Assad would have to deploy up to 15,000 troops to truly break the grip of the militias, which ruled west Beirut since the Lebanese Army was driven out in February 1984. The diplomats scoffed at Syria's vow to disarm and disband all militias.
``No one has ever disarmed Lebanon,'' a senior Western diplomat said. ``I can't see that the Syrians can control Beirut without loss of life and materiel. The [militias'] guns will go under the table for a bit, that's all. The Syrians may find it will require a lot of troops and some ... ruthless methods'' to defeat the militias.
``If this were the dawning of a new age of peace for Lebanon,'' he added dryly, ``it would be at a pretty heavy cost.''
Karim Pakradouni, vice-president of the Lebanese Forces militia, echoed the diplomat's cautious appraisal of Syria's chances of imposing order in west Beirut.
``There are many mine fields in west Beirut for the Syrians,'' he said.
Mr. Pakradouni pointed out that Syria now faces a more varied and powerful array of opponents to its intervention than it did in 1976. That year, Syrian troops entered west Beirut at the request of the Christians, who appeared close to being defeated by an alliance of leftist Muslim militias. With the tacit acquiescence of Israel and encouragement of the United States, Syria intervened on the side of the Christians and fought Palestinians, Druze, and communists. The Hizbullah hurdle
``Now the Syrians are minus the Christians [as allies] and plus the Hizbullah [as enemies],'' Pakradouni said. Hizbullah (``Party of God'') is the radical Shiite Muslem militia that has gained strength since Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Hizbullah is now vying with the Syrian-backed mainstream Shiite Amal militia for influence in the Shiite commuity.
Further complicating matters for the Syrians, Hizbullah is backed by Syria's regional ally, Iran. It was reported from Damascus Tuesday that Iran's foreign minister met with Assad to discuss the west Beirut situation in an effort to avoid Syrian-Iranian conflict.
Observers in east Beirut noted with interest that the Syrians chose not to immediately deploy troops in the city's predominantly Shiite southern suburbs, despite General Kenaan's earlier promise to do so. The southern suburbs are a Hizbullah stronghold. Western governments believe at least some of the 26 foreign hostages held in Lebanon have been held in the southern suburbs at some time and may, in fact, still be there.
Syria, the senior Western diplomat said, ``would probably like to do something spectacular about the hostages,'' a desire that might also bring the Syrians into conflict with Hizbullah. Assad's aims questioned
Diplomats, Christian warlords, and the Israelis all seemed uncertain Tuesday about both Syria's immediate or long-term motives for committing itself to so risky a project as the military pacification of west Beirut.
``There is still a question about how much the Syrians were pushed to do it and how much they fell into it,'' another Western diplomat said. ``They did get a lot of pleas from the Sunni Muslim bourgeoisie of west Beirut to do something when the fighting got so bad last week.''
The five days of street fighting, some of the worst in Beirut since 1982, saw Syria's ally, Amal, forced to defend itself against a Muslim coalition of the Druze, the communists, and the Palestinians. Clipping Arafat's wings
Assad's immediate goal in putting an end to the carnage seems to have been his desire to both defend Amal and clip the wings again of Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman, whose organization has risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes that Israel and Syria reduced it to in Lebanon in 1982-83.
Arafat's wing of the PLO, Al-Fatah, has been flexing its muscles in west Beirut and south Lebanon for months, and has directly clashed with Amal in and around the Palestinian refugee camps of Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre.
When Arafat succeeded in re-forming the partnership with Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt - a partnership the Palestinians enjoyed before Syria entered Beirut in 1976 - he went too far for Assad, Lebanese analysts say.
Assad's animosity for Arafat is both personal and political, the analysts say. The Syrian President does not trust the Palestinian leader's penchant for independent decisionmaking. Nor is Assad willing to tolerate a Palestinian challenge to Syrian authority in Lebanon.
Syria has always viewed Lebanon as being of vital strategic importance - as a buffer against Israel. For years, it has been the field on which Syria and Israel have fought proxy wars with minimal costs. Just as Israel has made south Lebanon its first line of defense against guerrilla encroachment, so has Syria made east Lebanon, where it has some 30,000 troops, its first line of defense against a possible Israeli thrust into Syria.
In addition to Lebanon's strategic value, however, the troubled nation is politicaly important to Syria.
``What is the prestige of Hafez al-Assad based on,'' Pakradouni asked rhetorically. ``Is it based on being President of Syria? No. His importance rests on the fact that he is the main actor in Lebanon. All the international roles of Assad came because he intervened in Lebanon. He knows ... that if he loses the Lebanese and Palestinian cards, he becomes insignificant - like King Hussein of Jordan.''
In Israel, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin was reported as saying that Israel had no intention of interfering in Lebanon's internal affairs - tantamount to a guarded Israeli vote of approval for the Syrian action, observers here say.
In the past, Israel has welcomed Syria's military involvement in Lebanon on two counts: Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon mean fewer Syrians facing Israel on the Golan Heights; and Assad's whittling away at Arafat has spared Israel some of the burden of fighting the PLO.