The Wheel Turns again in Lebanon

October 25, 1990|By William Pfaff

PARIS. — AS THE CONFLICT in Israel evolves from one of nations to a struggle of peoples, Moslems and Jews murdering one another because one is Moslem, the other Jew, the communal struggle in Lebanon approaches its logical outcome, which is destruction of Christian Lebanon.

Lebanon's Christianity is why it has survived as a nation since before the Arab conquest of the seventh century, in a region since dominated by Moslems. Lebanese Christians, mostly Catholics of the ancient Maronite rite, welcomed the Crusaders, joined them, survived them, and still managed to keep their independence afterward under the loose rule of the Arab and Turkish authorities controlling Syria.

Their destruction today comes from two causes. First is the Israel-Palestine struggle. Second is the Christians' failure to recognize limits to what they could reasonably expect. The Greater Lebanon the Christians aspired to has fallen to ambitions of a Greater Syria. Those who are ambitious for a Greater Iraq -- or a Greater Israel -- might reflect on the fate of Lebanon.

In the 1920s, when the modern Lebanese state was created, the Christians sought too much, got it and now are being destroyed by it. They wanted a Greater Lebanon with a big population of Moslems subordinated to the Christian elite. The result was that by the 1950s there were more Moslems in Lebanon than Christians. The poor Shi'ite part of the Moslem population was open to radicalization under Iran's influence.

In 1976 the Christians rashly invited the Syrians into their country to protect them from radical Moslem militias allied with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Syrians came and have never left.

The Christian leader who, with Iraq's support, has defied the Syrians during the past year, Gen. Michel Aoun, believed that by attacking both his rivals in the Christian camp and the Syrians he could provoke a crisis that would compel the United States or France, Lebanon's traditional protector, to save Christian Lebanon.

No one saved him. He was forced to capitulate two weeks ago by a Syrian air and ground assault that caused some 1,500 casualties among his followers. Another 100 or more were subsequently murdered in cold blood, their hands bound -- presumably by Syrian troops. The general now is in refuge in the French embassy.

He did not understand that most Americans today only think of Lebanon as a terrible and hopeless place where a mindless American intervention in 1983 brought death to 241 young Marines.

As for the French, their government no longer believes the Christians can survive without compromising with the Moslems and acknowledging Syrian regional predominance. France, like virtually the whole of the diplomatic community, sees Lebanon's last chance in implementing the so-called Taef Agreements, reached last year under Saudi Arabian and Arab League auspices. Those shift political power away from the Christians toward the Moslems, and leave Syrian forces in place.

General Aoun failed, finally, to recognize that Syria's President Hafez al Assad possessed a check he was free to cash, payment for having joined the U.S. and U.N. alliance against his old enemy Saddam Hussein and sending troops to Saudi Arabia. He lost no time in cashing it. Asked about Syria's virtual annexation of Lebanon, a prominent figure in the Bush administration said at the beginning of this week that he didn't know much about the situation and preferred ''not to get bogged down in Lebanon.''

Greater Syria, a theme in Syrian politics since the 1920s, in theory envisages the incorporation into Syria of Jordan and Iraq as well as Lebanon -- and of Israel, if that could be managed. Saddam Hussein of Iraq is not the only man in the Middle East with large ambitions.

Lebanon nonetheless might have survived its internal tensions had it not been for the Israel-Palestinian struggle, which drew the Palestinians, Syria and then Israel into Lebanon's conflicts. The Christians wanted to stay out of that war. Lebanon's Moslems wanted alliance with the dispossessed Palestinians.

When King Hussein of Jordan drove Palestinian guerrilla organizations out of his country in 1970, where they had become a state within his state, they went to Lebanon, where they became the single most powerful military factor.

Their presence accelerated the breakup of Lebanon into its communal parts, each possessing its own militia, and the Palestinians' actions provoked Israeli reprisals, and eventually the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, meant to put the Christians back into power over the Moslems.

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