Syria moved up tanks and other heavy equipment Saturday night as part of an apparent showdown with Christian militiamen who have rebelled against the leadership of Lebanese President Amin Gemayal.
A spokesman for the Lebanese Forces, the primary Christian militia, said a Syrian brigade composed of about 25 tanks and Grad ground-to-ground missiles had been brought forward to the area around the Madfoun River Bridge, about 30 miles north of Beirut.
Lebanese television said the Syrian force consisted of about 800 troops and two dozen armored personnel carriers.
North of Checkpoint
The Madfoun Bridge is on the coastal highway running between Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli and is only four miles north of the Borbera checkpoint being held by the rebel militiamen.
The rebels, who are led by Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces units in the north, took over most of the Christian heartland between Dbaiye and Borbera in a pre-dawn sweep on March 12.
In Damascus, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Talas confirmed the movement of Syrian armor.
"The objective of this move is to assist President Gemayel and the Lebanese legitimacy," Talas said, according to news agency accounts from the Syrian capital.
The Syrian government has issued three warnings in recent days that it will not tolerate any setback to its efforts to negotiate peace among Lebanon's warring religious factions, and it suggested that Israel may be behind the militia rebellion.
Syria has maintained army units in eastern Lebanon since 1976, when it moved into the country under an Arab League mandate to keep the peace at the close of the 18-month Lebanese civil war.
"Syria cannot stand idly by toward this obvious attempt to sabotage the course of national reconciliation in Lebanon," Talas said of the militia revolt.
The Lebanese Forces spokesman said his organization regarded the Syrian move as a "show of muscle" designed to apply economic and political pressure to the Christian rebels.
Among other things, Christian radio stations said, the Syrians halted traffic on the road, which could do economic damage to the areas held by the Christians.
Divided Into 3 Camps
Political analysts in Beirut believe that the Christian community is now divided into three camps--those who support President Gemayel, who is a Maronite Catholic and the dominant figure of the Falangist Party, Lebanon's major Christian political organization; the adherents of the rebels, and, last, the Lebanese Forces leadership.
The rebellion has been brewing since Gemayel formed a government of national unity with Muslim leaders last April and began negotiating a political solution, with Syria serving as the broker between the two camps.
Geagea and his supporters are disturbed by what they see as too many concessions to the Syrians. They are also said to be upset that Gemayel has made himself the sole spokesman for the Christian community in the negotiations.
Geagea and other militia mutineers met with the leadership of the Lebanese Forces on Friday, and the two sides agreed to establish an eight-member emergency committee.
Ready to Negotiate
In a statement released after the meeting, the committee members said they were prepared to negotiate with Syria and various Lebanese groups on a political solution to the crisis.
The committee called for the formation of a "Christian Council " to represent Christian views at the negotiations with the Muslim community.
Syria reportedly rejected an overture from the emergency committee to open negotiations.
Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who has been mediating the Lebanese crisis on behalf of Syrian President Hafez Assad, reportedly told a member of the committee, Karim Pakradouni, in a telephone conversation that Syria "is in touch with the legitimacy," meaning President Gemayel.
While the rebellion is primarily an internal Christian dispute, there are recurring fears that the revolt could upset the pace of negotiations with Muslim leaders and lead to a renewal of fighting between the two communities.
Death of Elder Gemayel
Right-wing Christians have been chafing under Gemayel's leadership since the death in August of Pierre Gemayel, the president's father and the founder of the Falangist Party.
After Gemayel's death, his son moved quickly to take control of the party, naming one of his supporters, Dr. Elie Karameh, as party leader.
Shortly thereafter, Gemayel was able to replace Fadi Frem as commander of the Lebanese Forces with Gemayel's nephew, Fuad abu Nader.
Karameh denounced the rebellion as an "armed movement within the party and a very serious rebellion."
Although the Lebanese Forces was primarily the military wing of the Falangist Party, in recent years, under the leadership of Bashir Gemayel, Amin's younger brother, the militia took on political strength of its own. Bashir was assassinated in September, 1982, after he was elected president of Lebanon.
Reassertion of Control
The effect of the recent changes in the Falangist Party and the Lebanese Forces was to reassert Falangist control over the militia, which displeased Geagea and other militia leaders.
Geagea was expelled from the leadership of the party early last week because of his refusal to accede to a Syrian demand and dismantle the Borbera checkpoint. The roadblock is a major revenue-earner for the Lebanese Forces, with all trucks required to pay tolls on their goods.
In an interview published Saturday, Geagea was quoted as saying the purpose of the revolt was to "change the leadership of the party and reform its structure."
Whether or not the Syrian military move leads to a confrontation with Geagea's forces, the damage to Gemayel's prestige may be irreversible.
Contrary to his repeated assertions, Gemayel clearly does not command the respect of the entire Christian community, and this undermines his position as a spokesman for the Christians in the talks with the Muslims.
Geagea said he is now free "to negotiate on behalf of the Christians who are liberated from the tyranny of the Falangist Party."