Syria pulls strings in Palestinian clash. Arafat rival gets upper hand in battle for Beirut camps
Nicosia, Cyprus — The fierce fighting that has raged in recent weeks between Palestinian factions in Lebanon indicates that a rapprochement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria hasn't worked. Rather, relations appear to have deteriorated to as low a level as before an April 25 meeting between PLO leader Yasser Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad. Syria and the PLO leader are at odds over the issues of compromise with Israel and the PLO's threat to Syrian ascendancy in Lebanon.
PLO loyalists initially ousted Fatah Uprising - a Syrian-backed breakaway group led by Col. Saeed Musa, also known as Abu Musa - from the Shatila and Borj el Barajneh refugee camps, both in Beirut's southern suburbs. But Abu Musa's forces regrouped. Fighting from within Syrian lines - and carrying out massive artillery bombardments - the dissidents managed to force Arafat's followers to surrender Shatila on June 27.
Now the fire has moved to Borj el Barajneh, where fighting broke out on July 3 after Abu Musa's men imposed a blockade.
Arafat has appealed to various mediators - Libya, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union - to use their influence with Damascus to halt the onslaught. But some officials are not optimistic. ``We asked the mediators to stop the attack - but can they do it?'' asked one.
[Arafat's guerrillas held talks with Arab mediators yesterday about abandoning Borj el Barajneh, their last Beirut stronghold, the Associated Press reports. At least 158 people have been killed in the fighting.]
``The attack on Shatila was carried out under the slogan of inter-Palestinian fighting, but that does not deceive anyone,'' says a senior PLO official. ``Where does Abu Musa get his arms, and his freedom of movement? Syrian troops are in position all around the camps.''
PLO sources and other Palestinians see the drive against the camps as a continuation of two longstanding Syrian policies - one strategic, the other set in a Beirut context.
``The most important issue is the independence of Palestinian decisionmaking, on which we insist,'' said one PLO official. ``Most of the Arabs don't want us to have it. We have to pay for it in blood.''
This question is seen as vital now because of current preoccupation with the proposal for an international conference on Middle East peace, at which the PLO insists on representing the Palestinians. Once again, Arafat is pursuing diplomatic initiatives not to Syria's liking, coordinating with Egypt and making overtures to Washington.
In the Beirut context, the onslaught on the camps is seen by many Palestinians as a continuation of Syria's aim to impose control and oust PLO influence. For nearly three years, Syria's Lebanese Shiite allies, Amal, tried and failed to overrun the camps.
``They tried with Amal, now they're trying with Abu Musa,'' one Palestinian said.
Abu Musa, a Palestinian born in the Hebron area of the West Bank, has a history of changing loyalties. He was an officer in the Jordanian Army when it confronted the PLO in the ``Black September'' of 1970. He defected to the PLO, where he won a reputation as a good military man - but not much of a politician.
It was Abu Musa who, as commander of PLO forces in South Lebanon, defended Sidon in June 1976 against a Syrian advance.
As Syrian tanks rumbled into town, they ran into a deadly ambush set by Abu Musa. The Syrians were forced to retreat. For many months, the gun turret of a knocked-out Syrian tank remained perched where it had landed on a building on Najm Square - a symbol of Palestinian defiance of the Syrians.
Abu Musa's role in trying to repel the 1976 Syrian intervention in Lebanon was widely believed to be the reason he became the target of an ambush in the south Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh in 1978. Hit by a hail of bullets, he somehow survived. Syria, it was alleged, was behind the attack.
Abu Musa began to turn toward Syria and away from the PLO in the wake of the PLO's ouster from Beirut following the Israeli invasion in 1982. When Arafat began flirting with President Reagan's Middle East peace plan, and exploring the idea of a peace partnership with Jordan, Abu Musa raised the flag of revolt against Arafat's leadership.
Syria was also fiercely opposed to Arafat's attempts to pursue an independent diplomatic line.
It backed Abu Musa's men as they took over PLO depots and positions in Syria and the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley. Finally, the Syrian-backed factions forced Arafat and his men to stage a seaborne evacuation from their stronghold in the north Lebanese port city, Tripoli, in December 1983.
When Abu Musa's revolt first began, even some of the PLO leader's closest aides, such as his No. 2, Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf), conceded that the rebels had legitimate grievances. Arafat had conducted his controversial diplomatic maneuvers without reference to the leadership committees of the PLO or his own mainstream Al Fatah movement.
Such political grievances were compounded by developments on the ground in Lebanon, which provided the immediate trigger for the revolt led by Abu Musa within the ranks of Al Fatah, by far the biggest of the groups making up the PLO.
In May 1983, Arafat announced the appointment of two officers, Haj Ismail and Abu Hajim, as commanders of Al Fatah forces in east and north Lebanon. The appointments prompted a storm of protest, since the two men were accused of fleeing in the face of the Israeli invasion and involvement in corruption and racketeering.
But today, in the eyes of the PLO and of many other Palestinians, Abu Musa's grievances have long since lost any legitimacy they might have had, while he is seen as not much more than an instrument of Syrian policy.
In Lebanon, that policy is one of Syrian dominance. ``The timing [of the attacks on Arafat's men] has apparently been dictated by the approach of the Lebanese presidential elections,'' a Palestinian says.
Syria has attached high importance to securing as much control as possible in the Beirut area in time for the election, which should take place in August or September.
PLO officials had hoped that Arafat's ice-breaking meeting with President Assad in Syria on April 25, and the Arab summit in Algiers in June, would consolidate a Syrian-PLO rapprochement - and bring about the release of at least 2,000 Palestinian political prisoners believed held in Syrian jails.
But only a handful of the prisoners have been freed - those that reportedly were in need of urgent hospital treatment - and the rapprochement has not taken place.