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A Shaky Shiite Truce and Syria's Quest for Respect

February 05, 1989|G. H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen has covered the Middle East for many years

DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The peace accord in Lebanon's civil war is not likely to endure, for this intra-Shiite struggle between the Amal and Hezbollah militias is dominated by tendencies and interests reaching far beyond Lebanon. As one cynical realist put it: "Such accords in Lebanon are signed with special slow-drying ink to give the enemies a long rest period."

The resumption of fighting between the pro-Syrian Amal and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah is all but inevitable, even though the accord, executed in Damascus on Jan. 30, was signed in the presence of the Syrian and Iranian foreign ministers who sponsored it. This is an old, deep and bitter conflict between brothers in which a lot of blood has been spilled: Indeed one of the most contentious, though unwritten, items in the agreement was the exchange of gunmen accused of recently killing top leaders on the other side.

The elaborate eight-point agreement will fail because under its terms neither side has to disarm or leave entrenched positions in the southern slum suburbs of Beirut and the hills southeast of Sidon in southern Lebanon. The accord stipulates that Amal will "assure security responsibilities in south Lebanon," but each side would have the right to initiate "individual operations" against Israel--meaning that Hezbollah retains its separate military presence in the south, the one thing Amal tried to destroy.

The dictum once laid down by Chou en-Lai applies: "You will not get at the conference table more than you have gained on the battlefield." And Amal, which claims victory, did not defeat Hezbollah because the Hezbollah militiamen are prepared to fight to the death, unlike their Amal enemies. This is but one of the many fundamental differences between the two groups.

Amal is a large popular movement, devoted primarily to the social and economic uplift of the Shiite community--now Lebanon's largest at 1.2 million persons. Amal's members are devout Shiites, but as Lebanese nationalists they are prepared to be one element in a balanced, pluralistic country. That makes them allies of Syria, which wants the same sort of Lebanon.

Hezbollah is a much smaller grouping of fiercely militant Shiites whose main objective is to set up in all or part of Lebanon a replica of Iran's Islamic revolutionary regime. Amal is led by civilians, like the lawyer Nabih Berri; Hezbollah's leaders are turbaned, bearded clerics and the custodians of mosques and prayer halls.

Berri, in an editorial in his party newspaper last week, violently denounced Iran's minister of interior, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, whom he accused of being the creator and present leader of Hezbollah. Mohtashemi founded the group, Berri said, on the same lines as Savak, the shah's notorious secret police; he had recruited criminals into its ranks and they had committed armed robberies, kidnapings and murders and, worst of all, acts of terrorism. In Lebanon, Berri concluded, Hezbollah's sole aim was to destroy Amal and not, as claimed, to defend Islam or to fight Israel.

The Amal-Hezbollah agreement cannot endure because its sponsoring powers, Syria and Iran, formerly and formally allies, are now increasingly at odds. This became especially apparent after Iraq defeated Iran in the Gulf War, when Iran was obliged to accept a cease-fire last July.

Syria soon afterward began to feel uneasy in its alliance with non-Arab Iran, which had made it unpopular with fellow Arabs. A link with a seemingly victorious friend was one thing; an alliance with a defeated country was something else. Syria has been slowly distancing itself from Iran.

What is worse for Syria is that there are important sections of Iran's regime--led by Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the designated successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Mohtashemi--that refuse to accept defeat and continue efforts to export the Islamic revolution, which is why they continue to support Hezbollah in a final desperate attempt to expand Shiite power beyond Iran.

This adventurism from a defeated Iran has not been to Syria's liking, because after the heavy blow of Iran's defeat and its inability to impose a Pax Syriana on the fractious Lebanese--in short because of its increasing isolation--Syria has turned to moderation. It has been trying to achieve a position of world respectability, abjuring terrorism and attempting to obtain the release of Western hostages in Lebanon held by the Hezbollahis who refuse to release them without a substantial Western quid pro quo. Syria's ultimate objective now is to be seen as so conciliatory that it would qualify as a full member of an international peace conference on the Middle East, which might return the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to Hafez Assad's government.

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