Syrian-sponsored truce quells Beirut fighting. But factions wrangle over deployment of Syrian cease-fire observers
Syrian political intervention has more or less silenced the heavy guns that ravaged all of Beirut and surrounding areas for nearly two weeks. But factional differences must be resolved before last Thursday's cease-fire can be regarded as stronger than shaky, analysts say.
Despite universal recognition of the inevitability that Syria, which threw its weight behind the cease-fire, must play a pivotal role in settling Lebanon's affairs, people on both sides of the confrontation line remain fearful that violence may flare up again at almost any moment. Few believe that a settlement of the crisis is close at hand.
Even the Christian Lebanese Forces militia concedes that Syrian support for the new cease-fire -- at least the 13th agreed upon in three days -- lent credibility to the truce. The meeting of a multi-party security committee which announced the cease-fire was chaired by Syrian's Army intelligence chief in Lebanon, Brig. Ghazi Kanaan.
The cease-fire has basically held, although a number of shells have been fired. Skirmishes have continued along the confrontation line in Beirut. A rash of kidnappings led to lengthy closings of the few remaining crossing-points.
But at later meetings, under Syrian auspices, the security committee became embroiled in a wrangle over one of the key elements in the cease-fire accord: the deployment of Syrian military observers to monitor the truce.
Under the accord, the observers should deploy along the confrontation line in Beirut. But the representative from the Shiite Muslim ``Amal'' militia, and his Druze ally in subsequent committee meetings, demanded that the Syrian monitors be stationed deep inside both the Muslim and Christian sectors of Beirut. Opposition from the Christian Lebanese Forces has deadlocked the issue so far.
``It's a case of once bitten, twice shy,'' said Forces spokesman Charles Ghostine in an interview. ``You begin with observers, and you end up with troops.''
Christian east Beirut was severely battered by Syrian rockets in fierce battles in autumn 1978, an experience that made many Christians deeply hostile and suspicious towards the Syrians.
The Muslim side is portraying the observers issue as a ``test of Christians' intentions'' toward the Syrians, but the Christians are in no mood to show signs of political weakness. They say the two-week outburst of violence was provoked by the Amal leader, Nabih Berri, with somewhat hesitant support from his ally, Druze Chief Walid Jumblatt, in order to advance their political claims.
``It was an attempt by Berri to pressure the Christians in submitting to his conditions [for a settlement],'' said Mr. Ghostine. ``But when the bombs fall, Christian solidarity is reinforced, and if anybody thinks that's the way to get concessions, they're on the wrong track.'' Their adversaries charge that the Christians stirred up the crisis to sabotage Syrian settlement efforts.
Christian sources across the board insist that in any talks to reach a power-sharing accord between the majority Muslims and minority Christians, the Christians will not concede more than mild reforms contained in an amended form of the ``constitutional document'' worked out in 1976 by then-President Suleiman Franjieh with Syrian coordination.
Mr. Franjieh, who with Syrian encouragement recently ended a seven-year blood-feud with the Lebanese Forces, is to put forward the revised document Sept. 3. It is likely to become ``the'' Christian position in any dialogue with the Muslim side.
Christian activists say they scored ``a sort of victory'' in the latest round of conflict. After the setbacks of the past two years, Christian morale has begun to rise. ``Some see this as the turning of the tide,'' said one well-placed Christian source.
The Christians say their artillery, both militia and Army batteries, outgunned their Shiite and Druze adversaries. Until recently, the Army's ammunition stocks were known to be low. Christian sources say that the Americans and the French have cooperated in mounting a resupply operation, including stocks of 155mm cluster shells, whose use was reported from west Beirut for the first time last week. The Army also used for the first time Soviet-made BM-21 multiple rocket launchers confiscated by the Israeli s during their invasion of west Beirut in 1982 and handed over to the Lebanese Army.
Hundreds of artillery shells hit the area of Amal leader Berri's house in west Beirut, forcing him to spend many hours in a shelter. One result was a deputation from local residents complaining about the destruction that the Amal presence had brought to their area.
The Christians also noted with satisfaction that Berri -- whom they regard as their most dangerous enemy -- has attracted sharp criticism from rival Shiite quarters, as well as the more conservative Sunni community, by his calls for a ``military resolution'' of the crisis.
After being on the receiving end of Amal artillery, fired from the Syrian-controlled mountaintops dominating the Christian area north of Beirut, Christians have no illusions Amal is Syria's most-favored Lebanese faction -- though the forcible removal by Syrian commandos last Friday of the only Amal checkpoint on the mountain road between the Christian enclave and the Bekaa Valley raised some eyebrows. Informed sources say top Syrian Army instructors are training up a new Amal regular brigade, with more to come. Syria last month gave Amal some 50 Soviet-made T-54 tanks.
But even the Lebanese Forces, which once cooperated openly with Israel, now recognize the necessity of an understanding with Syria. The Forces hope that the boost to Amal is more related to Syria's preoccupation with preventing a resurgence of Palestinian activists loyal to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat than with dealing blows to the Christians.