Beirut clashes alter factional alliances. Many expect the Syrians to intervene, but not necessarily militarily
After more than two weeks of bitter fighting between Shiite Muslim forces and Palestinian refugees in Beirut, the confrontation remains militarily and politically unresolved. The fighting has unified the Palestinians, strained alliances between some Lebanese factions, created new bonds between others, and complicated the regional and international position of Syria -- which is widely perceived to be behind the Shiite Amal forces' attempt to storm the camps.
The situation, only days before Israeli troops pull out from southern Lebanon, is certainly in a deep state of flux.
The bitterness of the fighting and the scale of destruction have caused a deep rift in relations between Palestinians and the Shiites. Amal leader Nabih Berri is determined to prevent a resurgence of the Palestine Liberation Organization's influence in Beirut or elsewhere in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese expect some form of Syrian intervention to take place eventually, but Druze, Shiite, and Christian sources agree that the Syrians do not intend to fight their way in.
The fact that the Shiite onslaught welded the Palestinian factions together, despite their political differences, has created problems for the Syrians.
It has provoked a major rupture between Damascus and virtually all the hardline Palestinian groups that Syria encouraged to band together against PLO chief Yasser Arafat. George Habash, one erstwhile member of the resultant National Salvation Front, spoke Saturday of an ``acute crisis'' in relations with Syria, which he said gave the green light for the Shiite attack.
Palestinian unity has also faced Syria with a virtually unanimous chorus of voices from the Arab world demanding intercession to stop the carnage. From radical Libya to the conservative Gulf states, pressures have been exerted in favor of the embattled Palestinians.
The battle-forged solidarity of the Palestinian groups may also underly reports of strained relations between Syria and the Soviet Union. President Hafez Assad is widely reported to have returned from a secret visit to Moscow on May 29, and Syrian officers in eastern Lebanon are quoted as saying there is ``a problem'' with the Soviets, who have their own direct links with some Palestinian and Lebanese groups.
Among the Lebanese themselves, the battle for the camps has also put an undoubted strain on the alliance between Mr. Berri's Amal and Walid Jumblatt's Druze Progressive Socialist Party, which had misigivings about the campaign from the start. Only a week before the fighting began, Mr. Jumblatt publicly proclaimed an alliance with radical Palestinian factions.
The Druze not only turned down an Amal request for help, but also protected the Palestinians, providing safe haven for them in parts of Druze-held west Beirut and in the surrounding mountains. But the political alliance somehow remains, and a high Druze official said ``We don't have a problem with Amal at the moment.''
Lack of support from the Druze has led Berri's men to seek help from the Lebanese Army's mainly-Shiite 6th Brigade, which has been heavily involved in the fighting.
But the situation has not remained a purely Shiite affair. The Christians also share with Amal a common commitment to preventing a resurgence of armed Palestinian activity in Beirut and elsewhere.
Both Christian and Muslim sources say that large quantities of ammunition were supplied to the 6th Brigade by the Christian-dominated army command at Yarze in east Beirut. Sixth Brigade casualties have been treated at the military hospital in the Christian side of Beirut. Some reports said that units of the Christian 8th Brigade even joined some Shiite attacks on the camps.
The Sunni Muslim community, however, appears to have mixed, if muted, feelings. The Sunnis previously drew strength from the Palestinian presence, and were recently overrun by Shiite and Druze forces in Beirut.
Can a stable coexistence be reestablished after all the fighting, and with the grudges now being voiced by both sides? If not, what is to happen with the Palestinians, thousands of whom have now taken refuge in Druze-held areas of west Beirut? There are no answers at present.
Amal announced a unilateral ceasefire Friday, and Red Cross ambulances were able to evacuate a limited number of wounded from Borj el Barajneh camp. Amal sources admitted that they stand little chance of overrunning Borj el Barajneh. ``It's like a fortress,'' said one official. The last pockets of Palestinian resistance at the smaller Sabra camp collapsed Friday, but armed Palestinians still control parts of adjacent Shatila.
Berri announced Saturday that at least 100 Amal fighters had been killed and more than 1000 wounded. Many more Shiites and other Lebanese civilians have been killed or injured.
The Palestinian casualty toll is impossible even to guess at, given the scale of dislocation and displacement. The whereabouts of many males who were detained remains unknown, and relief agencies are unable to gain access to the camps, where many wounded are believed to have died for lack of treatment.