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For Syria and Iran, Stakes Are High in Battle for Southern Slums of Beirut

May 22, 1988|Michael Jansen | Michael Jansen is an American journalist based in Cyprus

NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Syria cannot afford to lose its war against Iran in Lebanon. At stake is an accord being mediated by the United States between Syrian and Lebanese leaders for the re-establishment of a Lebanese central government exercising full control in a unified, sovereign state.

The accord could enable orderly elections this summer for a new Lebanese president to succeed Amin Gemayel, who is not running for a second six-year term. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said on May 13 that the United States was encouraged by negotiations for a power-sharing agreement to give more political influence to Lebanon's Muslim majority. Iran, through its local ally, Hezbollah (the "Party of God"), could both subvert the accord and block the election of Syria's chosen presidential candidate, thus undermining Syria's position as power broker in Lebanon.

Although Hezbollah has fared better in the latest round of fighting in Beirut's southern slum suburbs than Syria's client Amal, Iran cannot win the war. Damascus has the advantage of dominating Lebanon from next door; Tehran is 1,000 miles away. Amal was victorious in the first round of hostilities in the south, lasting from mid-February to mid-April. A Hezbollah affiliate supplied the pretext for this assault on Feb. 17, when it kidnaped U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, who was serving as chief of the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization on the Lebanon-Israel border.

During a series of battles, Amal dislodged Hezbollah from its main territorial base at Nabatiyeh and systematically expelled pro-Iranian militants from positions they held in the south. The Israelis cleared out the last of the Hezbollah fighters from the south on May 4 during an attack on Maydoun.

Although Hezbollah seized 80% of the Beirut suburbs, known locally as the " dahi ," Syria secured the military and political advantage. Amal's assault concentrated the forces of Hezbollah and units of Iran's Revolutionary Guards in one place, enabling the Syrian army to encircle and contain them. Amal's continuous attacks constitute a war of attrition against Hezbollah, which has been reduced, through casualties and desertions, from an estimated 5,000 to 2,500-3,000 men.

Amal has also suffered from desertions. Some of its fighters have handed over their positions to Hezbollah, some have sold their arms, others have changed sides. Amal's leader, Nabih Berri, dismissed his militia chiefs on Thursday, but it is doubtful that will result in improved Amal performance. Syria has no illusions about its client: Amal's three-year siege of three Palestinian camps in this same area ended in failure last February. Syria simply expects Amal to engage Hezbollah in a running fight, and Amal requires only a few reasonable fighters to manage this.

The hostilities have cleared the area of 60% to 70% of the potential victims of an all-out Syrian assault. The 150,000-120,000 who remain are either Hezbollah supporters or poor people dependent on Iranian charity--reportedly $380 million last year, another $10 million in arms and aid pouring in during the first 10 days of the current fighting. The flight by residents of the dahi must seem like rank ingratitude to Tehran. Most of these refugees blame Hezbollah's presence for their current misfortune. The conflict has apparently turned the majority of the Lebanese Shias against Hezbollah.

Hezbollah's spiritual leader, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, angrily charged the Syrian army with trying to "intimidate" Hezbollah by massing 7,000 troops backed by 100 T-54 battle tanks and artillery. Indeed, the Syrians brought in the intimidating Brig. Gen. Ali Deeb precisely for that purpose. In February, 1982, Deeb surrounded the central Syrian town of Hama with his army and wiped out Muslim rebels dug in there, destroying whole quarters in the process. Then in October, 1985, Deeb assaulted another set of Muslim opponents in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli and imposed Syrian army rule there. Syria's tactic of intimidation has clearly demonstrated to Tehran its limitations--geopolitical and military--in Lebanon.

Iran is nevertheless determined to preserve what it can of its political position. Syria cannot allow this because Iran's objectives are the establishment of a secessionist Shia "Islamic republic," radicalization of the Shias and confrontation with Israel along the frontier. Furthermore, Iran has a potential collaborator in the extremist Maronite Christian Lebanese Front in East Beirut, which seeks to establish a separatist state in the Maronite heartland. Syria's aims are Lebanese unity, rapprochement between the religious communities and quiet on the southern border.

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