If Iran's leaders ever had doubts about who Syrian President Hafez Assad believes should be the chief power broker in Lebanon, those doubts died on west Beirut's streets this week, according to observers here. Yesterday, the wail of women in mourning rose from a Shiite Muslim cemetery. Thousands reportedly gathered in a pelting rain to bury 18 Shiite fighters who were among some 22 killed Tuesday night in a shootout with Syrian troops. The fighters were members of Hizbullah, the radical group closely linked to Syria's ally Iran. [Shortly after the funeral, a car bomb exploded in south Beirut, wounding 12 people, Reuters reports. At press time, it was unclear who was responsible.]
The immediate impact of the killings was to underscore Syria's commitment to reasserting its authority in west Beirut, where Muslim militias have ruled since 1984 and where an array of forces recently united against the Syrian-backed Shiite Amal militia. Tuesday's clash also heightened expectations that Syria may yet deploy its troops in the Shiite-dominated southern suburbs and possibly free 26 foreign hostages believed held by Hizbullah and other radical groups.
But, observers here say, the battle between Syrian troops and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah also could have regional implications.
In defiance of most of the Arab world, Syria has supported Iran through its 6 years of war with Iraq. Iran has paid for Syrian support with oil and cash. The relationship worked because both Syria and Iran regard Iraq as an enemy.
The Syrian-Iranian alliance, however, has always been more shaky when it came to Lebanon. Syria has grown increasingly alarmed by Iran's links to Hizbullah, which has made deep inroads in the Shiite commuity and directly challenged the Syrian-backed Amal.
Iran and Syria's goals in Lebanon are fundamentally at odds, Arab analysts point out. Iranian leaders see Lebanon as the only Arab country where their brand of ``Islamic revolution'' has gained a substantial following - mostly among impoverished Shiites in rural south Lebanon who have resisted Israeli occupation there and among the several hundred thousand Shiite squatters in and near west Beirut. Hizbullah speaks of establishing the second Islamic Republic here, an attractive dream to Shiites who never benefitted from Christian-dominated Lebanese governments and who have been radicalized by 12 years of civil war and invasions.
If the Iranian goal were ever achieved, the secular Alawite-dominated regime ruling Syria would be directly threatened, analysts here say. Syria has problems with its own Sunni Islamic fundamentalist opposition - the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad has no need for fundamentalists in Syria to be inspired by an Arab nation next door being swept up by the Islamic revolution.
In addition, Assad has spent more than 10 years trying to piece together a workable coalition in Lebanon that would both reconstitute the splintered state and protect Syrian interests. Assad viewed Hizbullah's challenge to Amal and its alliance with Yasser Arafat's mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization - which Assad wants to crush - as serious challenges to Syrian authority, according to analysts.
The Tuesday night clash served notice to Iran that Syria is determined to eliminate all militias and impose order. Syrian Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan issued another warning to the militias Wednesday.
``They are all the same to us,'' Brigadier Kenaan said. ``We are the legal authority. We have repeatedly warned gunmen to withdraw and leave their weapons and positions while our forces were being deployed.''
What remains to be seen is how Tehran will react to Syria's violent assertion of its prerogatives in Lebanon. Western analysts in the region have been saying for months that the Syrian alliance is less important to Tehran now than in the early years of the war. In recent months, Iran has seemed to gain the upper hand in its bloody war with Iraq. The US-Iran arms scandal also revealed that Iran had managed to open up many routes of supply for weapons from East and West Europe, the United States, and Israel.
The choice for the Iranian regime may eventually come down to either continuing its alliance with Syria or continuing its fomenting of revolution in Lebanon. Conservative Arab regimes who fear an Iranian victory over Iraq and the subsequent spread of radical Islam throughout the Arab world will be watching closely for any signs that the Syrian-Iranian alliance is cracking.
The Syrians said Tuesday night's clash occurred because Hizbullah fighters opened fire on Syrians who earlier in the day took over Hizbullah headquarters in Basta, a central west Beirut neighborhood. The Syrians had occupied the headquarters of Amal and the Druze militia without incident. But Hizbullah reportedly defiantly burned its headquarters before the Syrians arrived. Hizbullah called the shootings ``a massacre,'' and ordered its estimated 1,200 fighters in the Shiite-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut on full alert.
The 7,000 Syrian troops who arrived in west Beirut Sunday with a mandate from Assad to curb the anarchical Muslim militias have not yet deployed in the tightly packed, heavily populated suburbs.
The Syrians reportedly did seal off Basta. Troops were seen checking identity cards of pedestrians and motorists, and refusing to let traffic travel in or out.
Analysts here say it is unlikely that the outmanned, out-gunned Hizbullah would take on Syria's troops. But no one here has forgotten that it was radical Shiite car-bombers who took their toll first on US and French troops in Beirut in 1984 and then on Israelis in south Lebanon.