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Pro-Syrian Lebanese aim to isolate Christians

Tuesday's car bomb explosion in east Beirut, which injured 100 and killed at least 22 people, is expected to set the tone for a period of intense struggle among Lebanese factions. The struggle pits Christian President Amin Gemayel and his supporters against Syrian-backed Shiite Muslims and Druze, who blame him for wrecking a Syrian-sponsored plan to end Lebanon's 11-year-old civil war.

The Syrian allies will try and exert maximum pressure on the Christians, internally and externally, but will likely stop short of full-scale military confrontation, observers say. Such a campaign, they say, would include car bombs, assassination attempts and sporadic shelling and other forms of military harassment -- all combined with a political isolation campaign against Christians who oppose the accord.

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For now, the main focus is on the political arena. Syria and its Lebanese allies are trying to bring down Mr. Gemayel through a broad new front assembled for that purpose and by exploiting contradictions within the Christian camp.

Yesterday's devastating explosion, for which no group or faction claimed responsibility, came one week after fighters loyal to Gemayel crushed his pro-Syrian Christian rival, Elie Hobeika. As leader of the Lebanese Forces militia, Mr. Hobeika signed a pact in Damascus Dec. 28 with Shiite and Druze leaders. Most prominent Lebanese Christian leaders opposed the agreement on grounds that it eroded too deeply their traditional political prerogatives, giving too much power to Shiites and other non-Christians.

Since last Wednesday, the Christian leaders have worked to crystallize their new-found unity. Meanwhile, in Damascus, the Syrians received a stream of Lebanese leaders allied or sympathetic to their peace efforts.

The Christians' aim is to hold a broad congress of all Christian political and spiritual leaders to act as ``the highest Christian authority for decisions on matters of destiny,'' as the Lebanese Forces said in a communiqu'e.

The militia, now reunified after its bloody purge last Wednesday of elements loyal to Mr. Hobeika, stressed its continuing commitment to ``the search for a solution to the Lebanese crisis with Syria's help . . . .'' It extended its offer of dialogue specifically to the National Union Front, the coalition of pro-Syrian factions which continue to support the December peace accord.

Christian leaders hope to work out a unified set of proposals for Lebanon's future, based on an amended version of the Damascus agreement, and then to approach the Muslim side and the Syrians for discussions.

However, neither Christian nor Muslim sources expect Damascus and its allies to respond positively to such overtures, given the magnitude of the blow delivered to Syria's plans, prestige, and credibility by the Christians. While it has yet to signal clearly what course it will take, Damascus has begun by encouraging its Lebanese allies to try to isolate and bring down Gemayel -- a campaign which even some opposition sources say will not work. Gemayel can only effectively be brought down by his own community, these sources say. And this does not seem likely in the near future, because the Christians are closing ranks behind their President, as they often have in the past when under outside pressure.

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The sources expect Hobeika to travel to Damascus soon and become a key figure in the anti-Gemayel front. Christian sources say Damascus might refuse to negotiate with the Christian side unless Hobeika is included.

Some Christian circles are encouraged by the fact that Syria's state-controlled media left the latest Lebanese upheavals virtually unmentioned for several days. The Christian Voice of Lebanon radio station, now back under the control of Gemayel's Phalangist Party, commented Monday that the Syrians appeared to be keeping all options open, including that of dialogue.

This may be an optimistic reading of Syria's news blackout on the setback to the Damascus accord. While it does indeed leave all options open, observers detect a large measure of embarrassment in Syria's silence over the humiliating defeat of the man on whom it had counted to deliver the Christian side.

After six days of near-silence on the subject, Damascus hinted obliquely Monday that options are open in the other direction too. The official daily Tishrin called for the elimination of ``elements loyal to Israel and the US,'' and implied that the upheavals in the Christian camp reflected American and Israeli efforts to spoil Syria's peace bid ``and impose their will on the Arabs.''

Informed Christian sources said it was at Syria's strenuous insistence that Lebanese Forces militiamen commanded by their hard-line chief of staff, Samir Geagea, refrained from storming Hobeika's besieged headquarters in north Beirut last Wednesday. Dr. Geagea's powerful faction, in alliance with Gemayel's Phalangists, had wiped out all the other positions held by Hobeika's supporters. Hobeika, who left for exile in Paris Thursday, said that some 450 people had been killed in Wednesday's actions. Informed Christian sources put the number at between 200 and 250.

Syria's silence over the blow to its prestige and credibility was not emulated by its most important allies in Lebanon -- Druze chief Walid Jumblatt and Shiite leader Nabih Berri. Both called for Gemayel's premature removal from power, blaming him for what they saw as a coup against the Damascus accord. ``The last chance of real peace in Lebanon has collapsed, and the clouds of war are gathering,'' Jumblatt said.

But a decision to storm the Phalangist-controlled Christian heartland (along the coast and mountains north of Beirut) and impose the accord on the Christians by force would be fraught with difficulties. It could also have dangerous regional and international repercussions.

The Syrians are biding their time and weighing all the options and their implications. They have reportedly been consulting closely with Saudi Arabia on the crisis, presumably to ensure that any course they adopt will not lead to further isolation for Damascus in the Arab world.

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