Beirut calm as militias drop out of sight. Syrian-backed security plan has restored a semblance of normality
The latest Syrian-backed security plan for west Beirut has succeeded so far in bringing a large measure of calm to the Lebanese capital's turbulent Muslim quarters. In Christian east Beirut, too, there has been a sharp drop in tension, following a new agreement between rival Christian militia factions supporting and opposing President Amin Gemayel.
But on both sides of the line, fears are being expressed that the current lull may be only a temporary truce and not the beginnings of the permanent settlement Syria says it is determined to help bring about.
The most dramatic visible transformation has been in west Beirut, where the new security plan announced July 9 by Muslim leaders meeting in Damascus went into effect just one week ago.
Since then, the Muslim and Druze militiamen who ruled the streets have largely disappeared from view. Many of the militia and party offices that had mushroomed throughout west Beirut have been closed down. Sandbag fortifications and militia checkpoints have been dismantled.
The ``coordinating committee'' supervising implementation of the plan -- the committee includes Syrian military observers -- is overseeing the removal or obliteration of the symbols, slogans, and graffiti daubed on walls by rival Muslim and Druze gunmen staking claim to this or that patch of urban territory.
Public security is visibly back in the hands of the state forces. Paramilitary police run patrols and man checkpoints, backed by special Army units authorized to intervene when necessary. Clashes have occurred intermittently along the Christian-Muslim confrontation line, but the fighting among Sunni, Shiite, and Druze gunmen in west Beirut that led to the Damascus agreement has largely been stifled.
Travelers passing through Beirut airport -- which is included in the new plan -- report that security there is also much improved. Muslim and Druze militia gunmen, who used to wander in and out of the airport terminal at will, are nowhere to be seen. Security screening is much tighter, and fortifications have been erected to prevent unauthorized access through the airport perimeter. (Before the new plan, this reporter's driver once took a shortcut across the airport runway to avoid an inconvenient tailb ack on the adjacent public highway.)
Less spectacular, but no less perceptible to anxious local residents, was the sudden relaxation of tension in the Christian eastern quarters which came about coincidentally on the same day -- July 16 -- that the new plan in west Beirut got under way.
For several weeks there had been mounting friction between Phalangist militiamen loyal to President Amin Gemayel and fighters in the Lebanese Forces, which controls most of east Beirut and those parts of the Christian hinterland not traditionally under Mr. Gemayel's sway. Numerous incidents, kidnappings, and killings were reported. According to a number of sources, 24 Christians were killed in such incidents in just one week.
The Lebanese Forces, commanded by Elie Hobeika, began making dispositions on the ground that clearly presaged a major move against Gemayel. ``Hobeika was saying to anyone who'd listen: `I'm going to get Gemayel,' '' said one Christian political source.
A straightforward drive against the presidential palace was ruled out, because Army commander Michel Aoun -- a Maronite Christian like Gemayel and Mr. Hobeika -- made it clear the Army would move to block any attempt to oust the President by force, believing it not to be in the overall interest of the Christians.
But well-placed sources indicate Hobeika's militia was planning to put a hammerlock on Gemayel by over-running much of the territory controlled by loyalist Phalangist forces, which include the ``75th battalion,'' Gemayel's private praetorian guard.
The impending explosion was averted by the agreement announced after an 11th-hour meeting between Hobeika and the Phalangist party leader, Dr. Elie Kerameh: According to the agreement, the loyalist Phalangist militia is to be put under the command of the Lebanese Forces. The agreement was seen in Christian circles as a ``half victory'' for the Lebanese Forces, but few believe the matter is settled.
``Gemayel had reason to believe he would lose this round, so he made a compromise,'' said one source. ``His position [within his own Christian camp] is now somewhere between weak and nonex-istent. But the only way to convince him to step down is by direct force, and nobody's willing to use force.''
A major explosion in the Christian camp would have been a blow to the Syrian initiative, as would further erosion of Gemayel's position. Some Christian sources say flareups along the Beirut ``green line'' and a series of belligerent, anti-Christian statements by some Muslim leaders -- including Assem Qanso of the pro-Syrian Baathist Organization -- were inspired by Damascus to pressure the Lebanese Forces into a compromise with Gemayel.
So for the moment, both west and east Beirut are quieter than for a long time. If that holds, the expectation is that the next step will be a conference of Christian leaders, held under Syrian auspices in Damascus, to get the Christian side in step with the security and political programs adopted by the Muslims.
``People will play the game of accepting it, because it has a self-destruct mechanism built into it,'' a Christian skeptic said . ``There's no way the Christians and Muslims can live together again. Nobody wants the Syrian solution, either here or in west Beirut. It's just a truce.''
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has publicly expressed similar sentiments, asserting that ``a settlement is impossible as long as the Phalangists exist. Either they will kill us, or we will kill them.''
Until such attitudes change, the transformations brought about under Syria's settlement effort may remain largely cosmetic. In west Beirut, the militiamen may be off the streets, and the state forces back on display. But the militias remain the real power, because everybody knows they could be back out in their thousands, armed to the teeth, in a matter of minutes.