Christian strongman Michel Aoun, whose quest for power in Beirut soaked the Lebanese capital in blood for nearly two years, gave up the fight Saturday and received asylum from France.
The former Lebanese army commander ordered his loyal troops to support President Elias Hrawi, head of the Syrian-backed central government whose legitimacy the diminutive general had rejected.
In the end, it was the Syrian armed forces, which Aoun had pledged to drive from Lebanon, that blasted the Christian leader from his presidential palace redoubt with a morning air-and-artillery bombardment.
Hrawi’s faction of the Lebanese army, under Gen. Emile Lahoud, took over the palace at Baabda, on a rise southeast of Beirut, shortly after noon. By then, Aoun had found sanctuary in the French Embassy, his first known departure from the shell-shattered palace since early last year.
To his fiercely loyal followers in and out of uniform, who ringed the palace with their bodies until the final attack, the 54-year-old, American-trained major general is a patriot who demanded a Lebanon for the Lebanese. Others see him as quixotic figure, challenging a Syrian army of up to 40,000 troops with barely 15,000 troops, and those divided.
Aoun’s departure figures to strengthen Hrawi’s government, bolster Syrian influence in Lebanon and deliver a marginal setback to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who--purely as a spoiler against Syria--had sent weapons to Aoun and other Christian forces last year.
But the general’s apparent political demise will not solve the problems of fractured Lebanon, where Christian, Shiite Muslim, Palestinian and other denominational and political militias continue to rule on rival bits of turf up and down the beleaguered country.
Aoun’s own cause was hurt this year by his failure to gain control in the Christian heartland, where the Lebanese Forces, a rival Christian militia, fought his troops to a standstill.
Whether Hrawi, like Aoun a Maronite Christian, will be able to rally support among the general’s supporters is uncertain. As president, he has never set foot in East Beirut and the mountainous territory to the north where the Christian strength lies. After the bad blood of this year’s fighting, it also seems unlikely that Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea could win the allegiance of Aoun’s fanatical followers.
The general, who for two years has never appeared in any uniform except combat camouflage, built an image as a simple soldier without political ambitions on the stain of corruption that signifies most Lebanese officeholders. That carefully nurtured image took a jolt in January when a French journal disclosed that Aoun had a $500,000 bank account at a Paris bank and a savings account of more than $14 million. But it was his failure to match his words with military success that was most damaging.
In a brief address over a Christian radio station before midday Saturday, Aoun said: “I ask my chiefs of staff to take their orders henceforth from Gen. Emile Lahoud,” commander of the pro-Hrawi brigades of the split Lebanese army. Hrawi had named Lahoud as Aoun’s replacement as army commander when he sacked the defiant officer early this year.
Late Saturday in Paris, Foreign Minister Roland Dumas said Aoun has been granted political asylum in France. Dumas said he did not know when Aoun would arrive in France or how he would leave the French Embassy in Beirut, where he took refuge Saturday morning.
“We have made all the arrangements, and we are in talks with the Lebanese and Syrian authorities to help Gen. Aoun’s departure,” Dumas said. “The French side has made the practical arrangements.”
According to press reports from Beirut, Dumas telephoned Hrawi to discuss the prospects of a Paris exile for Aoun. One radio report said Hrawi is insisting that Aoun forswear any future political activity as a condition of receiving safe conduct out of Lebanon.
The final push against the presidential palace, where Aoun had headed a disputed Christian Cabinet since September, 1988, was led by Syrian aircraft, which pounded the structure already battered by Syrian guns in last year’s artillery war with Aoun. The type and number of aircraft were not immediately known.
Meanwhile, Lahoud’s forces and Syrian armored forces began a three-pronged ground attack.
Sometime during the morning, Aoun slipped away to the French Embassy. When Lahoud’s troops reached the palace grounds, surrender was offered by Col. Michel abu Rizk, commander of Aoun’s presidential guard.
Despite repeated demands by Hrawi throughout the early part of this year, the Syrians had failed to deliver the armed support needed to oust Aoun. Diplomats in Damascus in recent weeks had reported that Washington was counseling Syrian President Hafez Assad that the time was not right to move against the general. A more obvious curb had been the attitude of the Israeli government, which opposes Syrian air action over Lebanon.
But with the fall of the palace, the traditional seat of Lebanese presidents, Hrawi declared in a radio broadcast: “The military operation to end the destructive mutiny has been swiftly completed with the support of forces from sister Syria, to which we are grateful.” He called upon Lebanese to “rise above our hatred and band together in a national unity.”
Longtime Prime Minister Salim Hoss, a Sunni Muslim, added: “The chapter of mutiny has been folded to no return. We now have to heal our wounds and close our ranks behind a single legitimate authority to begin the long-awaited trek for peace and reconstruction.”
Hrawi’s government, recognized by the United States and most other nations, is the result of a political compromise triggered by the collapse of the traditional transfer of political power in Lebanon.
In fall of 1988, President Amin Gemayel came to the end of his term with no successor in sight. Lebanese presidents are elected by the members of Parliament. When rival camps coerced enough deputies to forestall a quorum, Gemayel, a Christian like all Lebanese presidents, tapped Aoun to head a Cabinet until the issue was resolved. Hoss immediately established a rival Muslim Cabinet in West Beirut, and unstable Lebanon, racked by 15 years of civil war, began living under rival Christian and Muslim regimes.
BACKGROUND One of the bloodiest chapters in Lebanon’s tortured history began in March, 1989, when Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun blockaded illegal ports that were draining his Christian government’s revenue. Muslims, supported by the Syrian army, retaliated. The ensuing six-month-long artillery war, marked by Aoun’s pledge to drive the Syrians out, cost nearly 1,000 lives. It led to an Arab League effort to establish peace by installing a new government. But Aoun rejected the government and instead battled a rival Christian militia, the Lebanese Forces, for control of Christian territories, starting in January this year. He failed, but more than 1,000 soldiers and civilians were killed.