PLO resurgence in Lebanon. Entrenched presence in face of Shiite onslaught poses embarrassing dilemma, challenge for Syria
More than two months of fierce but unresolved battles between Palestinians and Shiite Muslim militiamen have left a resurgent Palestinian armed presence entrenched in Lebanon. This presence is a major challenge to both Israel and Syria, as well as their local allies. Local political observers see it as a particular embarrassment and dilemma for Syria, whose efforts to sponsor a settlement were spurned by the Palestine Liberation Organization's leader, Yasser Arafat.
As with most developments in Lebanon, the observers see wider political issues and regional strategies tied up in the Palestinian resurgence.
The PLO, and Mr. Arafat in particular, are widely seen as trying to regain their lost foothold in Lebanon - both to keep alive their struggle against Israel and to irk the Syrians. If any peace agreement leaves armed Palestinians in independent control of the refugee camps in Lebanon, this will be a major thorn in Syria's side, the observers say.
But if Damascus encourages its allies and proxies in Lebanon to go all out and overrun the camps, it would face condemnation and pressure not only from mainstream Arab states, but also from its allies, Libya and Iran.
Since the so-called ``camps war'' first erupted between the Shiite Amal militia and Palestinian fighters in Beirut refugee camps in May 1985, all of Amal's efforts to stifle a regrowth of Palestinian armed power in Lebanon have failed.
Syria, which has close political and military ties to Amal and is deeply and directly involved in Lebanon, has also tried to prevent a comeback by Arafat's men.
Arafat and some 10,000 PLO men were forced to evacuate Beirut in 1982 as a result of Israel's siege of the city. Since then, particularly in the past year, hundreds of them have reportedly returned to the refugee camps around Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. In Lebanon, getting guns is no problem, and the rearming of the camps was predictable. Israel's efforts to stop a resurgence of the Palestinian armed presence have been in vain, despite several air attacks on Palestinian guerrilla targets.
Damascus has waged political warfare against Arafat's PLO wing since mid-1983, when it sponsored an inter-Palestinian rift, apparently to unseat Arafat. Now there are signs that, partly as a result of the fighting in Lebanon, some of the Palestinian splits may be healing.
On the ground, the Palestinian groups have been showing a high degree of unity and coordination in the battles with Amal. The PLO and Amal both say that all Palestinian guerrilla factions have been fighting under a single operational command in the bitter week-old struggle with Amal for control of Magdousheh, a village overlooking Palestinian camps near Sidon.
Arafat's men are not involved in the two-week-long Damascus talks to resolve the conflict. But negotiators from the Syrian-sponsored and supposedly anti-Arafat Palestine National Salvation Front (PNSF) have been coordinating with Arafat's Al-Fatah, the main PLO faction, and making unified demands in the name of the Palestinians.
One of the PNSF's main figures, Ahmed Jabril, warned Sunday that if Amal overran any of the camps, this would create a crisis with Syria and would end the PNSF's raison d'^etre. Another key group, led by George Habash, has coordinated closely with Fatah since Dr. Habash held talks, the first in three years, with Arafat's top military aide in Prague and Moscow two weeks ago. The two sides agreed to coordinate attacks in Israeli-held territory and to confront Amal together in Lebanon.
Syria's problems are not only with its supposed Palestinian allies. Its strongest Arab friend, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, has openly called on Syria to stop the carnage. Colonel Qaddafi dispatched his No. 2 man to join peace efforts, but this seems to have complicated matters. Amal is fiercely hostile to Libya, accusing Libya of kidnapping and killing Lebanese Shiite spiritual leader Imam Musa Sadr, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.
Amal has rejected any proposals in which Libya has a hand, saying only Syria and Iran should sponsor a settlement. Iran and Amal, however, do not see eye to eye. Iran is involved with radical Islamic groups that compete with Amal in the Shiite community.
Syria's other supposed allies in Lebanon are also evidently not being much help, either. The Druze militia of Walid Jumblatt and other left-wing parties were reportedly under Syrian pressure to back Amal. After a visit to Damascus, Mr. Jumblatt said the Druze would fight alongside Amal if the battles expanded. But reliable sources say the Druze furnished private assurances to Arafat that this was just for public consumption.
Even Amal officials concede that Amal alone is not capable of overrunning all the camps and ending the Palestinian armed presence. But some of the smaller camps near Tyre are thought to be vulnerable.
Aid workers say some 7,500 Palestinian civilians have fled the Tyre area since the fighting began in September. On Monday, police said 37 people were killed and 81 hurt in continued fighting around camps in Beirut and south Lebanon. Since the Magdousheh fighting began a week ago, more than 300 people have died.