Missile Threat Raises Ante in Lebanon : Damascus Reportedly in Range of Christian Forces’ Weapons
Artillery duels between Christian and Syrian gunners continued to mock a two-month-old cease-fire in Beirut on Friday, but the political cross-fire focused on a yet-to-be fired, or seen, weapon: battlefield missiles reportedly in the hands of the Christian forces.
Early this week, Syrian forces bolstered their artillery blockade of Christian ports by deploying gunboats off the coast. Press reports from the Lebanese capital say at least two small freighters attempting to run the blockade have been intercepted and boarded.
When the Lebanese army commander, Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, who heads a Christian Cabinet in East Beirut, decried the tightening noose on his forces, Syrian officers reportedly said that the gunboats would remain on patrol until Aoun surrenders Soviet-made Frog-7 missiles that they charged had been added to his arsenal.
Damascus Within Range
The Christian leader has not openly admitted he has the surface-to-surface missiles, whose 42-mile-range could put Damascus, the Syrian capital, in jeopardy. But, in rejecting the Syrian demand, he did not deny the possibility. In 14 years of civil war in Lebanon, battlefield missiles have never been fired by any of the contending forces.
The missiles reportedly were shipped to the Christian forces by Iraq, a longtime foe of Syria and a recent outside player in the Lebanese conflict. Two months ago, a top leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia, told The Times that the missiles had arrived, although he would neither tell where they came from nor whether the Frogs were in the hands of his militia or Aoun’s army. Other reports say that Iraq has shipped the missiles to the Jordanian port of Aqaba but that they have not yet been sent to Lebanon.
No source has specified how many missiles are allegedly involved. The Soviet Union provided surface-to-surface missiles to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, which ended last August, but the Iraqi military has reportedly developed its own battlefield missiles as well. The Soviets are also the major weapons supplier of Syria.
Week Began With Hope
The week that is ending in what the Beirut press calls a “missile crisis,” began with signs of hope that the Arab League-engineered cease-fire could be strengthened in the face of almost daily artillery barrages since it was proclaimed in early May. In Damascus on Tuesday, Syrian-supported Lebanese Muslim militia leaders, in what they termed a gesture of good will, declared they would reopen passage across the Green Line separating Muslim West and Christian East Beirut. And, they announced, Beirut’s international airport, closed since the Christian-Muslim fighting began in mid-March, will be reopened.
At midweek, the barriers came down on the Green Line and a trickle of automobile traffic had resumed between the two sides of the divided capital. But Aoun declared he could not guarantee the safety of the airport--an implied threat that his forces would shell it--unless the blockade of the Christian ports was lifted. With shelling and now gunboats, the Syrians and their Muslim militia allies have cut off nearly all supplies to the Christian heartland north and east of Beirut. Ferry boats from Cyprus will no longer risk the run to the ports of Juniyah and Byblos.
For the beleaguered Christian civilians, there is no longer a way out, and except for a few small cargo boats that slip through the blockade, there is no way to resupply needed fuel or food.
Airline Remains Grounded
The passenger and cargo planes of Middle East Airlines, the Lebanese national carrier, remain at Larnaca airport in Cyprus, unwilling to test Aoun’s threat and, reportedly, unable to buy insurance coverage even if airline officials wanted to send them in.
The big-power nations continue to pressure all sides in the conflict to end the four months of fighting that began when Aoun blockaded militia-run ports, which he said were illegal and were depriving his government of tax revenue. The Christian leader’s blockade, within weeks, escalated to a brutal artillery war in which more than 400 people have been killed and which Aoun now calls a crusade to drive the 40,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon. Syrian troops have been deployed in Lebanon in increasing numbers since 1976, throughout the conflict between Lebanese Christians and Muslims and during the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Last weekend, coincident with a visit to Baghdad by Soviet First Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, the Iraqi government declared that, to help renewed Arab League efforts to cement the cease-fire, it was halting all arms shipments to Lebanon. But the Baghdad government tied its pledge to a demand that Syria not “launch an aggression against any party in Lebanon.” Syria deployed its gunboats two days later.
Then, in Paris on Wednesday, Soviet and French Presidents Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Francois Mitterrand issued a statment calling for a firm cease-fire and “effective cessation of arms supplies to all the Lebanese groups in conflict.” According to published reports, U.S. officials have pressured both Iraq and Syria to leave Lebanon’s problems to the Lebanese, without specifically calling for a Syrian withdrawal.
Thursday, Arab League mediator Lakhdar Ibrahimi resumed a shuttle effort between the two sides of Beirut, meeting with both Aoun and Salim Hoss, who heads a rival Muslim Cabinet on the west side of the capital, to strengthen the truce. On his first day in Beirut, five Lebanese were killed by shellfire.
Friday, the shelling resumed early in the morning, leaving as many as seven people dead and 18 wounded, and Aoun reportedly rejected a Syrian demand, coupled with the call to surrender the missiles, to let Arab League observers inspect every incoming ship at Christian ports.