DAMASCUS — Syria appears to have made a serious miscalculation in its support for Shia Muslim militiamen now fighting Palestinian guerrillas in camps south of Beirut, according to Western diplomats here.
The fighting in the Palestinian camps, which has left hundreds of dead, has been denounced by both Libya and Iran, Syria's two principal allies in the radical "steadfastness" alliance.
In addition, Palestinian groups that had been considered virtual puppets of the Syrians have openly rebelled against their erstwhile patron, threatening to unravel Syria's carefully cultivated image as a champion of Palestinian rights.
The clashes have also driven a wedge between Syria's two closest allies in Lebanon: Nabih Berri, leader of the Shia Muslim militia known as Amal, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has tilted toward the Palestinians.
'Shot Selves in Foot'
"The Syrians have really shot themselves in the foot on the camps issue," one Western diplomat said. "It was a major miscalculation; I was surprised that Assad was so wide of the mark."
Syrian President Hafez Assad is widely regarded as one of the region's shrewdest politicians, credited with maneuvering both Israel and the United States out of Lebanon. But, according to analysts here, Assad apparently made two blunders in supporting Amal's efforts to gain control of the Sabra, Chatilla and Borj el Brajne camps.
"The Syrians vastly overestimated Amal's strength," one diplomat said. "Everybody thought the battle would be over in a day and its still going on." Fighting in the camps began May 19.
The second miscalculation, according to the diplomats, was the reaction of Palestinian groups based in Damascus.
Syria has supported the groups in the so-called National Salvation Front since they rebelled in 1983 against the leadership of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Syria has portrayed the current fighting in the camps as an effort to disarm factions supporting Arafat, rather than an assault on all Palestinians.
"But the Palestinians didn't respond with a political analysis of the problem; they saw Palestinians dying and reacted emotionally," a diplomat noted.
One result was that groups formerly loyal to Damascus, such as the group of PLO rebels led by Col. Said Moussa, better known as Abu Moussa, have been using their positions in the Druze-controlled mountains above Beirut to shell Shia Muslim areas in an effort to relieve pressure on the Palestinian camps. The Druze are members of a secretive offshoot sect of Islam.
Western diplomats here say that Syrian officials acknowledge in private conversations that they erred seriously. While denying that they gave Amal orders to attack the camps, they did not tell it to stop either, according to the officials.
According to the diplomats, the Syrians expressed exasperation with the Damascus-based Palestinian groups and are confident that whatever damage was done to Syria's international standing will be short-lived. For example, both Libya and Iran are considered pariahs by much of the world and are unlikely to significantly change their relationship with Syria, the diplomats said.
A Loose Alliance
Syria, Libya and Iran have formed their loose alliance, which at times also includes Algeria and southern Yemen, to confront more moderate, pro-Western Arab countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
Libya and Iran have provided financial aid to Syria, and recently Syria and Libya have been helping Iran in its war with Iraq.
On Tuesday, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi said his country is still the "natural ally" of Syria in confronting Zionists and imperialists. But he indicated that a breach had opened between them over the Palestinians.
"We hold Syria responsible for what is taking place in the camps, not because Syria is committing the actual atrocities there, but because she is capable of intervening and cutting off the hands of Amal," Kadafi was quoted as having said.
Urges Berri Assassination
He went on to call for the assassination of Berri, the Amal leader, saying, "The Arab who massacres a Palestinian is an Israeli."
Western diplomats here said Kadafi has underscored his anger with the Syrians by sending a shipload of arms to the Palestinians. The ship, according to the diplomats, berthed last week at the Druze-controlled Lebanese port of Khalde.
The Iranians have sent three diplomatic missions to Syria in the past two weeks in an effort to arrange a halt to the Beirut fighting.
The Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, frequently mentioned as a possible successor to the Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has issued a sharp attack on the camp fighting and warned that Amal one day may no longer be part of the Shia community.