MIDDLE EAST

The seeds of a second civil war

MICHAEL POSNER August 8 1983
MIDDLE EAST

The seeds of a second civil war

MICHAEL POSNER August 8 1983

The seeds of a second civil war

MIDDLE EAST

Even in a nation wracked by war and inured to brutality, the events provoked foreboding and predictions of an even more devastating future. Last week the aging leader of Lebanon’s powerful Christian Phalangist movement, Pierre Gemayel, warned that current developments are “reminiscent of the climate of the year 1975”—a reference to the first of eight years of bitter civil war in Lebanon. His grave declaration was a direct reaction to the formation of a Syrian-controlled National Salvation Front, to challenge the legitimacy of the Christian-dominated government of President Amin Gemayel. That coalition, led by leftist Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, former president Suleiman Franjieh, a Maronite Christian, and former prime minister Rashid Karami, a Sunni Moslem, is backed by seven pro-Syrian political factions, each with well-armed militias.

The new civil strife originated two weeks ago when Druze forces in the Chouf Mountains outside Beirut shelled the international airport and surrounding areas, killing 22 people. Jumblatt, taking responsibility for the attacks, vowed to resist efforts by the Christianled Lebanese Army to take control of the Chouf region when Israeli forces begin their withdrawal from there to the southern Awali River area. Said Jumblatt: “The Druze will not accept their

deployment, whatever the consequences.” Indeed, as Gemayel returned to Beirut last week in secrecy from a five-day visit to Washington, Lebanon itself seemed to be in its death throes.

Proand anti-Syrian factions clashed in the northern port of Tripoli after a brigade of 1,000 Syrian troops abruptly pulled out of their positions. In the Chouf, Druze and Christian militias tensely awaited the first sign of Israel’s planned redeployment. In the Beka’a Valley, Palestine Liberation Organization guerrillas loyal to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat ignored an ultimatum issued by Syrian-backed anti-Arafat rebels to withdraw from a frontline camp along the Beirut-Damascus highway. Lebanese state radio reported a major attack on loyalist positions was under way. And in the Israeli-controlled southern districts there were demonstrations after Jerusalem ordered three base camps of the Phalangist Lebanese Forces closed—presumably in anticipation of Israel’s withdrawal.

The retreat, scheduled to begin this

month and to be completed before the end of November, poses a number of serious risks for the Gemayel government. For one thing, it could lead to an effective partitioning of Lebanon, with Syrian control of the east and north, Israeli dominance in the south and the government’s mandate confined to the Beirut region. After 15 intensive hours of discussion in Washington last week, the Israeli and U.S. officials involved in the talks insisted that Jerusalem’s redeployment is only the first phase of the total withdrawal pledged in the Lebanese-Israeli agreement signed last May. As well, the Israeli pullback will be coordinated with both the Lebanese army and the multinational peacekeeping force,to ensure that a power vacuum does not develop in the Chouf, opening the way for a rapid return of Syrian and PLO forces.

At the same time, U.S. military officials in charge of training Lebanese soldiers re§ ported encouraging

progress last week. But

Druze factions in the % Chouf fear that the *2 predominantly Chris-

0 tian army might mas-

1 sacre Moslems, as they

did last September in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. If such a tragedy occurred, it would alienate Israeli Druze factions that have generally supported the state. To forestall a bloodbath, Israel has allowed Druze militias loyal to Jumblatt to rearm in the Chouf and to re-establish dominance over its more conservative rival Druze sect, the Arslans.

But the formation of the National Salvation Front presents a potentially grave threat to Gemayel’s 11-month-old regime. While the president himself airily dismissed his enemies last week as “the helicopter-borne opposition”— Jumblatt has been using a Syrian-provided aircraft—Arab and Western diplomats expressed genuine concern. Western intelligence sources have received several reports of assassination plots against Gemayel, whose younger brother, Bashir, was killed by an assassin’s bomb last September.

The sudden visit to Washington last week of Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defence Minister Moshe Arens offered eloquent testimony to the administration’s mounting concerns about the future of Lebanon. Secretary of State George Shultz declared the talks fruitful and he noted that Israel’s pullback would allow Lebanon to regain sovereign control over more territory. Shultz also pledged to continue U.S. efforts to secure the total withdrawal of all foreign armies, including the 40,000-man Syrian force that effectively rules half of Lebanon.

But Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has given no indication that he is prepared to withdraw his troops from Lebanon. Not only that, but U.S. analysts say that Damascus encouraged the latest fighting in Lebanon and the decision to create an opposition front. In a televised news conference last week President Ronald Reagan accused the Syrians of preventing the Lebanese from achieving full sovereignty. Syria’s official radio countered that Reagan’s accusation “does not make a successful prelude to the mission of the new American envoy to the Middle East.”

The new ambassador, deputy national security adviser Robert McFarlane, left at week’s end for his first trip to the region. U.S. officials noted that the radio specifically avoided saying that Assad would refuse to receive McFarlane, in the same way that he declined to receive his predecessor, Philip Habib. But at Beirut’s Commodore Hotel, where diplomats habitually gather, speculation last week centred not on the prospect of a compromise but on whether July, 1983, may mark the beginning of a second Lebanese civil war.

MICHAEL POSNER in Washington,

with Robin Wright in Beirut.

Robin Wright