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Syria Calms Beirut, but Shias Simmer

March 29, 1987|G. H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen has written for many years on the Middle East.

BEIRUT — The Syrian army's occupation of West Beirut has produced more new problems than it has solved existing ones.

The law-and-order matter, it is true, has been settled, for the time being. There is an enduring near-total cease-fire. Daily life is, in real Beiruti fashion, very swiftly returning to normal, even after dark. Noisy traffic jams are back while bearded gunmen, their checkpoints and headquarters have disappeared.

But all this pacifying and normalization is being achieved by the Syrians at the expense of their local Shia allies in Amal. Because the gunmen in West Beirut were mostly Shias, the posters being stripped off the walls were mainly of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the local Shia hero, the late Imam Moussa Sadr; removal of the imam's likeness has produced particular fury. And the squatters being turned out of flats and houses, are, again, mostly the Shia poor from the southern suburbs.

The Syrians have restored peace and quiet to the campus of the American University of Beirut. Their main corrective action was to give the Amal student representative, who had terrorized the administration, a public beating at a busy meeting spot in the Shia area. The indigenous West Beirut communities--Christians, Sunni Muslim and Druze--are quite satisfied with the Syrians. But the far more numerous Shias, being expelled back to their slummy suburbs, are very angry with their Syrian "protectors."

The Syrians' anti-Shia, anti-Amal campaign has incensed Syria's strategic regional ally, Iran. The removal or--even worse--the painting over of posters and murals of Khomeini is nothing less than blasphemy. Just as bad is the Syrian army's insistence on the shaving of the ritual Shia beard: "Do not shave your beards," Tehran radio exhorts daily, but to no avail, for West Beirut has now become a no-go area for "the hairy holy horrors" of Amal and Hezbollah.

Heightening this Syria-Shia confrontation, the clerical leaders in Iran and of Hezbollah, but not of Amal, have in retaliation declared the southern suburbs a no-go area for the Syrian army. They have denounced the killing of 23 Hezbollah militiamen by the Syrians as "murder," "massacre" and "a pro-Israeli act."

Far more serious for Syria is the claim of these leaders that Iran now has a permanent and important place in Lebanon: "We are not a part of Iran, but we are Iran in Lebanon and Lebanon in Iran. We will never sever our links with the Islamic revolution and Imam Khomeini," as one cleric said recently. Nothing makes it clearer that Iran refuses to accept Lebanon as an exclusive Syrian preserve, its backyard.

Because Syria wants to gain favor with the West, there is now reason for the Syrian army to free the Western hostages--but they are held by militant groups inside the southern suburbs, where Iran and Hezbollah have drawn a red line. As in the battles for the Palestinian refugee camps, it is expected that the Syrians would get Amal to make any actual armed incursion; the hostages would almost certainly not survive such an attack.

Because the civilian inhabitants of these areas regard an Amal-Hezbollah clash as inevitable--and it would be a ferociously bloody one--they are getting out, even while Hezbollah fighters and heavy weapons move in. The trouble, for the Syrians, is that while Amal has the numbers, its fighters are of poor quality, having recently been defeated by the Palestinians and by the Druze and leftist militias. One thing is certain--any armed incursion into the Hezbollah stronghold would be the end of the Iran-Syria alliance.

To avoid too obviously undermining the policy and authority of its Amal ally, the Syrians have not insisted that Amal lift its prolonged and inhuman siege of the Palestinian refugee camps. This is universally unpopular inside and outside Lebanon, and Amal's nastiness is now rubbing off on Syria. If Syria had insisted that Amal lift the siege, it would have avoided an armed rebellion by a pro-Palestinian faction of Amal in the Shia heartland of south Lebanon. That was suppressed by the loyalist mainstream Amal group led by Nabih Berri but it, in turn, led to further dissent in the south and the expulsion from Amal of Daoud Daoud, the powerful Shia leader of the Tyre area.

Berri is now sending more militiamen to south Lebanon, to restore his authority by claiming that they are going to mount an offensive against Israel's surrogate, the South Lebanon Army. If they do, and if Israel goes to the aid of the SLA, as it has threatened, will the Syrians go to the aid of Amal against Israel--the one thing they would like to avoid? Or will they abandon Amal and accept a grave humiliation? Thus one mistake could lead to another and another.

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