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Lebanon: Clash of Ambitions

March 19, 1987

A few weeks ago Syria sent some of its army units in Lebanon into West Beirut to clear armed gangs from the anarchic streets and restore some semblance of order. The intervention seems to have worked, at least for now, though Syria's tactics have not been universally applauded. Amnesty International accuses Syria of using wholesale murder and kidnaping to impose its will on West Beirut--in other words, with employing the same measures that President Hafez Assad's regime uses at home whenever opposition is encountered.

Little sorrow is likely to be felt for Syria's latest victims. The militias that have been driven from war-battered neighborhoods are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Beirutis. What's politically intriguing is that Syria didn't hesitate to confront the pro-Iran Hezbollah forces that have grown increasingly powerful in the city and in south Lebanon. That action brought howls of protest from Iran, and not only because some of its sympathizers were killed. Iran, which now claims a special authority in Lebanon because of its connections with the country's Shia Muslims, dreams openly of seeing Lebanon become an Islamic republic on the Iran model.

This isn't the future that Syria envisions. It has always regarded Lebanon, independent since 1920, as a temporarily separated province that at a minimum must be kept politically subservient to Damascus. After thwarting Israel's effort to gain political influence in Lebanon, Syria is not about to welcome the Iranian revolution taking hold on its border. Among other things, the Assad regime fears that its own secular minority rule will be jeopardized if its domestic opposition is energized by Iranian-inspired fundamentalism.

At the same time, Syria must tread carefully in its relations with Iran. For one thing, Syria owes Tehran billions for the cheap oil that it has obtained as a payoff for supporting Iran in its war against Iraq. Assad, then, has a ticklish problem. He wants Syria to be the dominant foreign force in Lebanon. But to assure this he must keep Lebanon's pro-Iranian factions in check, and any effort to do that incurs the wrath of Iran. For now, Syria is contenting itself with cleaning up West Beirut. It has not sent its forces into the Hezbollah stronghold in the city's southern suburbs, where foreign hostages are apparently being held. At some point, though, Syrian and Iranian ambitions must certainly clash in Lebanon. Syria is both powerful enough and ruthless enough to triumph. The question is whether it is willing to risk making a committed enemy of Iran by setting out to do so.

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