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Syria Finally Gets Its Way, Takes Control in Lebanon

October 28, 1990|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam," frequently writes on the Middle East

BEIRUT, LEBANON — "No victor, no vanquished" has been the enduring slogan of this country's civil war. But with the surrender of the mutinous Maronite military leader, Gen. Michel Aoun, all that has changed. The victor is Syria: Lebanon is, in every sense of the word, a Syrian protectorate. The vanquished: the dream of a separate Maronite state.

The demise of Aoun was swift and sudden. Two bullets from the pistol of a would-be assassin and two bombing raids by the Syrian air force were sufficient to send him running from the presidential palace to the French Embassy, where he has taken refuge. Especially the bombings, since they signaled that the United States and Israel were at least indifferent to Syrian moves.

In 1976, when Syria wanted to send its army into Lebanon to rescue the Maronites from defeat by Arab nationalists, Israel demanded a say in the matter. The United States eventually brokered the agreement that permitted the Syrians to march in--but not to cross a "'red line" drawn across southern Lebanon, where Israel claimed security interests.

After Aoun rebelled against the legal Lebanese government in September, 1988, the Americans, Israelis and French decided against allowing the Syrians to crush him militarily, fearing Syria would be promoted to regional-power status as a result. Even after Aoun declared a "war of liberation" against Syria, the three countries remained opposed to Syrian retaliation.

But when the Syrians joined the U.S.-led multinational force arrayed against Iraq's Saddam Hussein in Saudi Arabia, Washington could no longer frustrate the determination of its new-found Arab ally to finish off the general. France objected, and was ignored. Israel was soothed when it reportedly received the precise flight plans of the Syrian bombers.

Having chased Aoun out of the palace, the Syrians decided to teach his followers a severe lesson. For the first time, they dispatched soldiers and armor into the Christian sector. Along with two Lebanese militias under their control, the Syrians descended on Aoun's stronghold, robbing, looting and--shockingly--raping. Despite unspeakable brutalities inflicted by the Lebanese on each other during 15 years of civil war, rape has not been one of them, in part out of respect for the Arab taboo on violating the honor of the enemy's women.

This month's assassination of Dany Camoun, one of the last of the anti-Syrian Maronite politicians and a close associate of Aoun, further underscores Syria's control. It is hard to believe that Syrian intelligence was ignorant of plans to kill the Christian leader. The Syrian army also has carted off to Damascus all the equipment, computers and secret files belonging to the Lebanese defense ministry and the presidential palace.

The Maronites now must feel exposed to their enemies. The talk among them is of emigration--half the Maronite community has already left Lebanon. The already weak morale of the Maronites was further strained when they discovered that their hero, Aoun, had embezzled millions of dollars. But another Christian leader believes that some Maronites still harbor dreams of establishing a separate Maronite entity. The problem is they lack the power to realize them.

Having assumed the role of undisputed boss of Lebanon, Syria should now exercise its power to bring about peace in Lebanon. Its first goal should be to disband the armed militias, some nine of them. Syria certainly has the military might to do so. But does it have the political will?

As a grand gesture, Syria might restore law and order in Lebanon, but such a move would be tempered by its opposition to a strong, united Lebanon that could challenge its hegemony. Lebanese doubts about Syria's motives were reinforced when Damascus reintroduced its own militias--one controlled by the Phalangist Elie Hobeika, the mastermind of the massacres of Palestinians in the camps of Sabra and Chatila, the other drawn from the Parti Populaire Syrien--into the campaign against Aoun. The main Christian militia, led by Samir Geagea, still controls areas of Beirut, including the port. Enforcing a reconciliation between inveterate enemies Hobeika and Geagea would be a sign of Syria's good intentions and of its ability to govern Lebanon.

Syrian abstention from packing the new Lebanese Cabinet with its proteges would be another sign that Syria could be trusted.

In any case, relations between the United States and Lebanon can only improve now that the arrogant and obstinate Aoun is no longer a player. But any warming of relations out of gratitude for U.S. assistance in ousting Aoun will be limited by Washington's alliance with Israel, still occupying an area of south Lebanon. Widespread Lebanese support for Iraq's Hussein is another obstacle to improving relations.

The elimination of the Green Line that which divided the Christian sector from the rest of Lebanon exposes the extent of destruction wrought by the years of fighting, neglect and disuse. So widespread is the devastation that it may well be impossible to put Lebanon back together again. Stretches of the "international highway" between Beirut and Damascus have degenerated into narrow, bumpy strips of dirt. Rebuilding these alone will cost millions.

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