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Lebanon The Battle for South Beirut

3 minute read
Scott Macleod

Squadrons of Syrian tanks rolled into position around the southern suburbs of Beirut last week, their cannon muzzles pointed menacingly at the 16-sq.-mi. enclave. Two Syrian armored brigades, supported by two battalions of President Hafez Assad’s elite Special Forces commandos, crouched behind barricades ringing the Shi’ite Muslim slums. Since May 6, fierce battles between rival militias had raged through the streets and alleys, causing many of the area’s 250,000 residents to flee. In bloody hand-to-hand combat, the fanatical, pro- Iranian Hizballah had driven the more moderate, Syrian-backed Amal out of its positions and seized control of some 90% of the district.

Calling for an end to the fighting, Brigadier General Ghazi Kenaan, Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon, threatened to move in and silence the guns. “Our forces will promptly shoot at any gunman in sight,” he warned. By week’s end, however, the casualty count in the continuing factional feud stood at some 250 dead and more than 800 wounded, and still Syria’s 7,500 troops remained poised on the sidelines.

Assad had mobilized for a possible intervention after Hizballah began to get the upper hand in the fighting. Reason: a total victory by the Islamic militants would threaten Syria’s long-standing goal of controlling Lebanon’s territory and dominating its domestic politics. Considering Lebanon to be a kind of buffer zone safeguarding Syria’s own security, Assad has some 25,000 Syrian troops deployed around the country, in part to prevent Hizballah and Iran from turning it into an Islamic republic.

Syria’s reluctance to storm the Shi’ite quarter reflected Assad’s hope of reaching a political compromise. Despite the growing rivalry with Iran over Lebanon, Syria has no desire to rupture relations. The two countries, in fact, are strategic allies in Iran’s 7 1/2-year-old war against their mutual enemy, Iraq. Moreover, the Syrian President knows that his troops could suffer high casualties in a clash with the entrenched Islamic zealots.

Assad, who has been trying to shed Syria’s image as a sponsor of terrorism, is concerned for the safety of the 16 American and other foreign hostages thought to be held by Hizballah or other militants. Because many of the captives are believed to be held in bullet-scarred buildings in the southern suburbs, any precipitous Syrian military action there could endanger them. Some Western diplomats held out hope that the growing Syrian pressure on Hizballah could provide a new opportunity for the release of some hostages. Exploring that chance, Lieut. General Vernon Walters, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, held talks with Assad in Damascus last week.

It seemed unlikely that the U.S. was prepared to pay as high a price as France did in negotiating the release earlier this month of its three remaining hostages in Lebanon. Last week newly installed Socialist Premier Michel Rocard announced that Paris was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Tehran after a hiatus of ten months, a move promised by ex-Premier Jacques Chirac’s government in exchange for Iran’s help in freeing the French captives. In addition, the agreement allegedly called for France to repay as much as $1 billion on an outstanding loan made by Iran. While refusing to confirm the secret details of his predecessor’s deal with Tehran, Rocard declared, “France gave its word. It will be kept.”

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