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New Piece in Mideast Puzzle: Attacks on Syrian Targets

Lebanon's 15-year civil war is long over, and construction crews and businessmen are working nonstop to rebuild Beirut as the Hong Kong of the Middle East.

But a recent string of shooting and bomb attacks against Syrian targets has focused attention away from the rebirth and onto continuing sources of unrest.

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Lebanon has always been a big - and troublesome - jewel in its keeper's crown. Today, with 35,000 troops stationed in Lebanon, that keeper is Syria.

Not only is Lebanon a boon for Syria's economy - pumping some $1.5 billion in cash to Damascus annually - it is seen as a crucial bargaining chip for Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in making peace with Israel.

The reported violence raises questions about the strength of Lebanon's mostly Christian opposition, Syria's continued control of the country, and Lebanon's place in the American-brokered Mideast peace puzzle.

Citing threats to public security, Lebanese authorities singled out and arrested some 62 Christian opponents. All were later released, but opposition leaders say the message was unmistakable: Lebanon's government - which has strong backing from Syria - will tolerate no more than a token opposition.

For Christian opposition leader Dory Chamoun - who denies his followers were involved in the violence - conspiracy theories run deep. He dismisses the attacks as a pretext to intimidate opponents, who have grown in confidence since elections in September.

"There is no doubt the general policy of the government is to stifle the opposition in Lebanon," he said in an interview. "In Sofia [Bulgaria] and Belgrade [Serbia] people can demonstrate - but not here. It indicates how undemocratic Lebanon is."

"We are being Syrianized, like an acid erosion," he says. "It was no secret that our elections weren't elections." Every deputy, he says, had Syria's "stamp of approval."

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Syrian troops were deployed in 1976, ostensibly as peacekeepers, making Syria the dominant outside power since.

For just as long, many Christians have opposed their presence. Former Lebanese Army commander Michel Aoun was the last to lead a military revolt against the Syrians, but his campaign was ended in 1990.

Mr. Chamoun announced in November he had formed an alliance with General Aoun and exiled former Christian President Amin Gemayel - a bold move that raised eyebrows in Damascus.

Reports of violence began in mid-December: Bullets were sprayed at a minibus full of Syrian workers; a grenade exploded close to a Syrian intelligence headquarters; Syrian checkpoints were subject to "blasts."

One theory concludes that the attacks may have peaked in Syria's own capital of Damascus on New Year's Eve, when a sophisticated bomb destroyed a bus at the central station, killing 13 people.

"After the attacks on the Syrians in Lebanon by Christian extremists," says one Damascus-based Western diplomat, "it was logical for many that this [Damascus bomb] is the next step."

Syria blamed Israeli "hirelings" for the blast, a reference that could point to Lebanese Christian militiamen, many of whom who have worked with Israel.

From the country's independence in 1943 until the end of the war in 1990, Lebanon was ruled by Christians. Their influence has since waned dramatically.

Meanwhile, Syrians have involved themselves in all of Lebanon's big-ticket reconstruction projects and supply tens of thousands of workers.

"Beirut is our Hong Kong," one Syrian says. Lebanese use the same analogy, but hold that Syria represents a Chinese Big Brother to their Hong Kong.

"Assad is too smart to annex Lebanon," says one Syrian intellectual. "The aim is to keep Syrian preponderance in Lebanon."

Syria has ruled out Lebanon making a separate peace with Israel, whose troops occupy a nine-mile-wide strip of southern Lebanon.

"There are no serious plots against Syria," says a Beirut professor, putting the recent incidents into perspective and noting that Syrian hegemony is unlikely to change.

"The Lebanese are worried about a Mideast settlement at the expense of Lebanon," he says, "because Israel is likely to compromise with Syria here and give Syria a continuous role."

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