Beirut radicals test Syria's mettle. Fear of Shiite, Iranian ire halts spread of Syria's security net
Some 7,000 Syrian troops have established a large measure of security in west Beirut, where militia anarchy reigned until a few weeks ago. But other more ambitious goals have, so far, eluded Syria. These include: freeing the Western hostages; controlling the city's Shiite Muslim southern suburbs; ending the ``camps war'' between Palestinians and the Shiite Amal militia; and sponsoring progress toward a settlement of Lebanon's crisis.
All those issues are widely viewed as hinging on the question of Beirut's southern suburbs, where the pro-Iranian Hizbullah (Party of God) and other radical Islamic groups have strongholds and where at least some of the 26 foreign hostages are believed held.
When Syrian troops moved into west Beirut Feb. 22, it was first believed that they intended to take control of the suburbs. It was widely speculated that the Syrians wanted to see at least some of the hostages freed, in order to win Western support for their initiative, and to shake off charges that Syria has helped sponsor terrorism.
On Feb. 24, some 20 Hizbullah followers were killed in a clash with Syrian troops. Hizbullah called the incident a ``massacre,'' and it was widely thought that a collision between the Syrians and Hizbullah might be imminent.
But a potential confrontation has been at least temporarily defused - at the cost to the Syrians of shelving any plan to enter the suburbs. All the evidence indicates that Iran played a crucial role by stepping in and making it clear to Syria that a clash with Hizbullah would be seen as a clash with Iran. Damascus has an important strategic alliance with Tehran against Iraq.
``The foreign hostages are important to their countries - but Syria is more concerned with keeping its good relations with Iran,'' an unidentified senior Muslim cleric told the Beirut daily An-Nahar. ``Iran's firm stand against any attack on the suburbs and Hizbullah made Syria realize that any such measures would cause a divorce in their relations.''
Two weeks after the Syrians entered Beirut, a new Iranian ambassador arrived - the first to serve in Beirut in four years. He was accompanied by a high-ranking team of Iranian clerics, including two ayatollahs, sent by the Imam Khomeini himself.
The delegation lost little time in making statements and symbolic gestures leaving no doubt about Tehran's backing of Hizbullah. But at the same time, the visiting Iranians and Hizbullah leaders urged the party's followers to be patient and not to seek revenge. ``Revenge belongs to Allah,'' said Ayatollah Janati. ``Your patience in this phase will merit Allah's best reward.... Victory is the ally of patience.''
Despite the strong tradition of revenge in the Arab world, self-restraint has so far prevailed, and no further incidents tave been reported between the Syrians and the Islamic radicals.
But the stand-off, with the Syrians tacitly accepting what amounts to an Iranian red line around Hizbullah and the suburbs, is clearly far from ideal from Syria's standpoint. On March 8, Syrian President Hafez Assad said in a major speech that a solution in Lebanon ``will not come from overseas or from outside the borders of Lebanon and Syria.'' He added that ``those who are against imperialism and Zionism must go along with Syria and appreciate Syria's direction in Lebanon and repspect and support that direction.''
With a straightforward Syrian military move into the suburbs apparently ruled out for the time being, there has been much speculation that the Syrians might try to foment strife between Hizbullah and Syria's close Shiite ally, Amal, which is also present in strength in the suburbs. Syrian troops could then step in as they did to stop the inter-militia battles in west Beirut, the speculation goes.
But numerous Shiite sources say that any such attempt would fail. ``Many families have sons with both Amal and Hizbullah,'' said one source. ``Nobody wants to see a Shiite civil war.''