BEIRUT — The loudest sound in Lebanon these days, according to the nervous jokes making the rounds in Beirut, is the silence from Damascus.
With uncanny skill honed to a fine edge during 11 years of civil war, the Lebanese have become expert at sniffing trouble on the political wind.
After last week's ouster of Elie Hobeika as the head of the Christian militia called the Lebanese Forces, virtually everyone is expecting bad news.
The streets of the Christian stronghold in East Beirut are eerily deserted. In both Muslim West Beirut and Christian areas, people are hoarding staples such as flour and bread, cooking gas and gasoline in anticipation of renewed warfare.
'Have to Get Ready'
"It may come tomorrow, or it may come next week, but there will be fighting soon, and we have to get ready," said one war-weary resident of West Beirut who has a cache of eight jerrycans of gasoline in his house.
Militia uniforms are visible in West Beirut for the first time since early December, when wearing them was forbidden following clashes between Druze fighters and the Shia Muslim militia Amal.
Amal and the other Muslim militia groups are reported to have fully mobilized their forces for the expected confrontation, although no one knows when or where the showdown will come. Along the Green Line, the decade-old no man's land that separates the capital's Christian and Muslim sectors, barricades that were taken down only weeks ago have been rebuilt or reinforced.
Headline and U.S. Movies
Summarizing the situation in a pun that plays on the Lebanese fondness for violent American movies, one newspaper displayed the headline "Civil War II."
The major fear is that Syria will seek to reignite the Lebanese civil war because the first casualty of Hobeika's ouster from the Lebanese Forces leadership is likely to be the Syrian-brokered peace agreement signed by Hobeika and the two principal Muslim militia leaders--Nabih Berri, who heads Amal, and Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze militia.
Signed in Damascus on Dec. 28, the tripartite agreement was a crowning achievement for Syrian President Hafez Assad, who had taken great pleasure in seeing the United States and Israel come to grief in Lebanon but who now may be suffering the same fate.
Veteran observers of the shell-pocked Lebanese political landscape recall that similar conditions existed in 1976, in the wake of the collapse of a so-called Constitutional Document that was meant to restructure Lebanon's rickety political system following a year and a half of civil war.
After the collapse of the 1976 agreement, Syrian troops entered Lebanon. At that time, they were fighting on the side of Christian President Suleiman Franjieh against an alliance of Lebanese Muslims and Palestinian guerrillas. This time, however, they are likely to align themselves against the Christians and President Amin Gemayel, a Maronite Catholic.
The Syrian press has been silent about Syria's reaction to events in Lebanon, perhaps as a psychological ploy to increase pressure on Gemayel.
As Shark, a Beirut newspaper with close ties to Damascus, gave a taste of Syria's likely attitude, however, when it referred to Gemayel as the "Nero of East Beirut" who watched Christians spill their own blood last week from the balcony of his presidential palace.
In fact, Gemayel was in Damascus when last week's fighting broke out, but it is widely believed that the militia forces loyal to Gemayel's Falangist Party formed an alliance of convenience with the Lebanese Forces' chief of staff, Samir Geagea, in overthrowing Hobeika.
A former medical student and a Christian mystic, Geagea himself staged a rebellion against Gemayel last March, and it is unlikely that the wounds from that encounter have healed.
The Syrians appear hesitant to turn their military might against the Christians directly, even though their 30,000 troops in Lebanon give them an overwhelming superiority.
A military confrontation with the Israeli-armed Christians would be very costly and would have the effect of immediately uniting the Christians behind Gemayel.
Summoned to Damascus
So far, the Syrian response has been to increase political pressure on the president by summoning Lebanese political figures to Damascus, where they are reported to be discussing ways of isolating Gemayel.
Both Berri and Jumblatt returned from Damascus with calls for a boycott of the Lebanese government and a shortening of Gemayel's presidential term, which ends in 1988.
Lebanon's Sunni Muslim premier, Rashid Karami, and Parliament Speaker Hussein Husseini, a Shia Muslim, were in the Syrian capital over the weekend and were believed to be hearing much the same appeal.
So far, the Syrians have not been able to rally support from any Christian politicians of significance except former President Franjieh. Since they will need a Christian leader with whom to negotiate, there has been speculation that they may ask Hobeika, now in exile in Paris, to fly back to Damascus.
The Syrians warmly embraced Gemayel after he canceled his May 17, 1983, peace accord with Israel in 1984; now they appear to be putting the heat on again. Druze radio has not referred to the president by his correct name in two days, instead calling him "Lebanon's Somoza," after Nicaragua's former dictator Anastasio Somoza, or simply "Nero."