Syria's Grip on Refugee Camps in Lebanon Squeezes Arafat

PALESTINIAN groups with support from Syria, who are opposed to the autonomy agreement with Israel, have been attempting to reduce Yasser Arafat's influence in the Palestinian refugee camps inside Lebanon.

Recent clashes between Arafat supporters and opponents in the Ain Hilweh refugee camp in Sidon, Lebanon, have killed at least six and wounded another 13.

With Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Arafat in control of just two out of 12 refugee camps in Lebanon following Friday's clashes, his troops apparently have been put in check by pro-Syrian Palestinian forces.

Since Arafat was ejected militarily from his Lebanese base in Tripoli in 1983, Syria's influence has slowly penetrated most of the refugee camps.

As Arafat's ability to finance institutions in the camps diminishes, so does his political clout. With pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian activists vying to win over Palestinians in the camps, the PLO leader's increasingly disgruntled supporters are defecting. ``Syria is trying to crush the PLO in Lebanon,'' said one Arafat sympathizer.

The standing of Arafat among Palestinian refugees underscores the fault line in Lebanon between Syrian and Israeli spheres of influence.

Syria has no ostensible military presence in Lebanon south of the Litani River, but Damascus is continuing to strengthen its influence here indirectly.

Syria's attempt to whittle down Arafat's strength stems as much from the personal animosity of President Hafez al-Assad toward him as from a negotiating strategy designed to put pressure on Israel, according to a political commentator at Beirut's An Nahar daily newspaper.

As opinion grows in Damascus that the political fortunes of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin are souring, Mr. Assad is preparing for either a well-negotiated peace deal or for a confrontation with Israel from a position of strength.

Weakened geopolitically by the collapse of his erstwhile Soviet ally in 1990, Assad has played an essentially weak hand with aplomb. After wresting control of Lebanon from warring militias and a hostile military government, Assad has progressively strengthened his grip on the fractious poles of influence in Lebanon.

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