Syrians bring tense peace to Beirut. But no progress made on hostages or political conflicts
The entry of Syrian troops into Beirut's southern suburbs has permitted hundreds of thousands of residents to start picking up the pieces of their lives once again. But the deployment on May 27 and 28 of thousands of flak-jacketed, bandoleer-swathed soldiers has neither obtained the release of Western hostages nor diminished the influence of their radical Islamic captors.
Furthermore, the Syrian entry so far has heightened rather than defused political tension between the alienated Christian and Muslim communities who must participate in presidential elections before September.
The warring militias - Iranian-backed Hizbullah and the Syrian-backed, mainstream Amal movement - have stood down, and gunmen are nowhere to be seen. Residents say well over half the suburbs' estimated 600,000 Shiite inhabitants fled to safer areas as the Amal-Hizbullah fighting raged during most of May. Many have now returned.
The fighters have been transformed back into civilian youths by the simple expedient of putting their guns away. But the militias have not been disarmed. The guns are only out of sight, not out of reach. If the compromise political agreement on which the Syrian presence is based should break down, the situation could swiftly take an ugly turn.
``If the initiative had not come from Iran, [the Syrian troops] would never have been able to come in here, they would have been beaten and thrown out,'' said a Hizbullah fighter in the Bir al-Abed district, a stronghold of the radicals until the Syrians came in. His view is shared by Western military observers in Beirut, who say the Syrians lacked the numbers and arms to storm the suburbs.
About 200 yards from a Syrian-manned crossroads leading to the Hayy Madi quarter is a visible symbol of the compromise underpinning the Syrian presence. The Iranian flag flies over sandbagged positions on the superstructure of a long, squat, unfinished building which has several underground floors. It is Hizbullah's central barracks. By agreement, the Syrians do not go near it.
Shiite sources describe the Hayy Madi barracks as a veritable fortress. They say it is perhaps the most likely place for 15 or so Western hostages to be held.
Like other elements in the complex equation, the hostage issue appears to depend on future developments which could tilt the so far evenhanded Syrian presence one way or another.
One could be next week's Arab summit in Algiers, where Syria will again be under pressure to break with Iran and join the Arab mainstream.
Some political sources believe that if the political - and perhaps financial - price were right, the Syrians might be prepared to abandon their alliance with Iran and crack down on its Hizbullah prot'eg'es. But that would imply a major strategic shift in Syria's regional position which Assad has so far avoided making. Some Syrian officials, notably Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, have suggested that other Western states should follow France's example in negotiating freedom for its hostages.
If the results of the Syrian move into the suburbs are ambivalent so far for the hostages, the same is true of its impact on Lebanon's deadlocked political scene.
Syrian officials have openly suggested that the step should be followed by a move by the Lebanese Army to take control of Christian east Beirut from the Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces. Otherwise, Syrian Information Minister Muhammad Salman warned, it might not be possible for the presidential elections to be held on time in August.
Christian militia leaders and their hard-line allies swiftly rejected the idea, and demanded the withdrawal of Syria's own troops from the capital as a prelude to the election.
When a car bomb exploded in east Beirut on Monday, killing 16 people, they accused Syria of sponsoring it in order to pressure them into submission. Some Christian sources, however, believed the militia itself might have been responsible for the bomb, which went off in an area where residents sympathize with the ousted, Syrian-backed militia leader, Elie Hobeiqa.
The approach of the presidential elections - the post is by tradition a Maronite Christian preserve - has led to sharply mounting tension in the Christian areas. While some political sources hope that revived American mediation between Syrians and Lebanese in the wake of the Moscow summit may produce a solution, many east Beirut residents fear the car bomb may foreshadow a long, hot, and violent summer.