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Lebanese wonder about Syria's ability and will to stem violence

The wave of violence engulfing Beirut raises questions about the future of Syria's efforts to preside over a settlement in Lebanon. Many Lebanese wonder whether Syria's failure to suppress the violence stems from inability to do so -- or from lack of will.

Recent car bombings and fighting between Beirut's Muslims and Christians have dramatically worsened the political climate at a time when the Syrians were apparently trying to foster a spirit of reconciliation.

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Two car bombs in Muslim neighborhoods yesterday killed nearly 30 people and injured more than 80. They were seen as a response to two bombd that devastated Christian areas last week, killing around 70 people and injuring some 200. The ``Black Brigades,'' a hitherto unheard-of group, claimed responsibility for yesterday's bombings. In Sidon, unidentified gunmen kidnapped Stephan Jaquemet, the Swiss head of the local Red Cross mission. Meanwhile, in Beirut, Muslim gunmen hijacked a bus and briefly held it s Christian occupants.

The violence has gathered speed as efforts intensified to get a dialogue going between the Christian and Muslim factions. Some Christian leaders see the worsening violence as part of a campaign by Muslim and Druze militants to terrorize the Christians into submitting to demands for political reform. These demands would require the Christians to give up some privileges they have traditionally enjoyed under Lebanon's sectarian system.

But as the situation worsens, the conviction is growing that the main intention of those behind the escalation is to disrupt Syria's settlement efforts in Lebanon. Prime Minister Rashid Karami and Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri -- who both denounced the bombings in the Christian area -- accused Israel of sponsoring the bombings.

President Amin Gemayel appears to share the belief of outside involvement. ``The aim of these criminal acts is to foil the Syrian role and plunge Lebanon back into violence and bloodshed,'' he said.

The state-controlled media in Syria also blames Israel, linking the violence to the recent visit of United States envoy Richard W. Murphy to the region and his efforts to revive what Damascus terms ``the conspiracy to bring about more separate peace deals with Israel.''

So far, the Syrians have reacted in an uncharacteristically low-key manner to ostensible attempts by enemies to stir up trouble on their very doorstep.

One independent Christian source in Beirut explains Syria's apparent diffidence: ``Syria doesn't mind the violence too much as long as it remains under control -- it could help to push the Christians to agree to reforms,'' he says. ``But Syria's credibility is now at stake with the Christians, who seem to believe Damascus has a magic wand -- which it does not.''

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Other sources speculate that, with Israel and its local allies still entrenched in south Lebanon and Damascus still at odds with both Israel and the US, Syria is not yet ready to commit itself unequivocally to a settlement effort which could backfire badly if it fails.

For the moment, it seems that violence has the upper hand. Mr. Karami announced yesterday that the Cabinet -- which has not met since mid-April -- will meet on Thursday. But two powerful factional leaders, Mr. Berri and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt, will not attend. The meeting can thus only have a limited effect in fostering the vital dialogue, though it may mark a first step toward reviving the dormant administration.

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