A Setback for Syria in Lebanon

G.H. Jansen has written for many years about the Middle East

Syria, now facing failure or even defeat in its self-appointed task of bringing order and reform to Lebanon, must regret that it ever assumed the responsibility. But so far it has been displaying grace under pressure.

Syria brought together the three Lebanese condottieri-- leaders of the main communal militias--to agree to a comprehensive plan of reform. The plan was to have been signed on Nov. 28 but was postponed one month; delay was caused by objections from the Maronites to reductions in their political privileges. Although a Maronite militia leader, Elie Hobeika, finally signed the document, the reforms could not be constitutionally implemented without the approval of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel.

And Gemayel told Syrian President Hafez Assad on Jan. 13 that he could give his assent only if the plan was amended on several important points. He could take this firm stand because he knew he had the near-unanimous support of his Maronite community--of all main political leaders in the Maronite church and of Maronite elements controlling the Lebanese army. Only the section of the militia led by Hobeika supported the Syrian plan.

On Jan. 15, after a short and bloody battle, Hobeika was defeated and deported by the much larger section of the Maronite militia led by notoriously anti-Syrian Samir Geagea.

Without one of its three supports, the tripartite agreement was of little or no value. Syria's first reaction was to have its local Lebanese surrogates attack Marounistan, the Maronite enclave lying east and north of Beirut. But Syria was clever and careful enough not to use Muslim forces against Christian Maronites: Yet another Maronite militia, belonging to former President Suleiman Franjieh, attacked in the north, and a mainly Greek Orthodox force tried to advance from the east. But the attacks were small-scale and soon petered out. They were clearly a warning of what could happen, and Syria has since heightened the warning by sending arms and heavy equipment to reinforce various pro-Syrian militias ringing Marounistan.

On the political plane, Syria encouraged the two other signatories of the agreement, Shia Amal leader Nabih Berri and Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, to declare formally their continuing political boycott of Gemayel. The Sunni Muslims and radical elements in the Shia community had, like the Maronites, not approved of the Syrian plan; but in the prevailing confrontation, leaders of both groups have joined the boycott. Now the entire political process is paralyzed.

Gemayel wants Parliament to meet and consider the reform plan--a sensible suggestion--but paralysis prevents the meeting. The more radical of the president's political opponents, led by Berri and Jumblatt--plus Hobeika, who has returned by the Syrian back door--have now given Gemayel an ultimatum: either resign by Feb. 15 or else.

Or else what? There is the military option, the invasion of Marounistan by the other militias, perhaps backed by Syrian artillery and logistic support but not by Syrian infantry. In the nearly 400 square miles of the enclave, one-tenth the area of Lebanon, are 800,000 Christians, mostly Maronites. They are defended by the three regular-army brigades totaling 12,000 men, well-equipped by the United States, along with 5,000 militiamen under Geagea and 1,000 belonging to Gemayel's Falange Party, equipped by Israel. The whole area is one steep, rugged slope running down to the Mediterranean, good terrain for defenders. The pro-Syrian militias would outnumber and outgun Maronite forces but a military decision would be a very bloody business.

The political option is equally dubious. One thing is clear: Gemayel will not resign. Berri has talked of getting rid of him "by constitutional means"--through a vote in Parliament reducing his term of office. But there is no parliamentary majority. Negotiation would obviously be the best way out of the impasse.

A number of Maronite organizations, out of good sense or fear, now say they do not reject the plan in toto; they want only to discuss it and perhaps change some details. They accept the fact that Lebanon is an Arab country, needing close and special relations with Syria--but not as a Syrian satellite.

A compromise could be built on this position, but the problem is to find the mediator--perhaps ex-President Franjieh--who can bring the Maronites and the Syrians together before the ultimatum runs out; meanwhile, Berri and Jumblatt long to have at the Maronites militarily.

Much of the trouble with Lebanon is, and always has been, the Maronites--several civil wars under seven Maronite presidents. Syria, too, can be blamed, for assuming it could order Lebanon to accept democratic reforms under the undemocratic threat of the gun.

Yet the Syrians bring a unifying factor to Lebanon's messy crisis because they would rather dominate one single entity than a collection of obstreperous statelets, especially when one of them, Marounistan, might well once again seek the support of Syria's enemy, Israel.

In the past few weeks the Syrians have behaved cooly, acting as if they were in no hurry. But the Feb. 15 deadline is only two weeks away.

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