Background Report the Situation in Lebanon

Stem warnings by Israel, backed up by a general alert and re-enforcement of its troops along the northern border and a demonstrative flight by Israeli fighter planes over Beirut, are credited with halting Syria’s offensive against Lebanese Christians, at least for the time being. Syrian artillery that had been laying siege to the Christian quarter of Beirut, ended their barrages Friday and remained silent today.

Why the Syrians ended what one Israeli leader termed their attempted systematic destruction of the Christian community in Lebanon, is not entirely clear. The growing force of world opinion is believed to be a factor. But more important, in the short run, was the risk of a confrontation with Israel. There could have been no misunderstanding in Damascus of the seriousness with which Israel regards the rapidly deteriorating situation in Lebanon and its commitment to protect the Christian minority.

Five separate warnings were given by Israeli leaders in public statements Thursday and a strongly worded message was conveyed to the Syrians through the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, emphasizing that Israel would not remain indifferent to the Syrian onslaught on Beirut.

A SERIES OF WARNINGS

Premier Menachem Begin, speaking at the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel, deplored the “terrible massacre of Christians” in Lebanon and said his primary concern was the safety of Israeli citizens along the northern border.

Defense Minister Ezer Weizman told military correspondents that Syrian domination of Lebanon would radically alter Israel’s security posture. “Our position has been transmitted to the Syrians, “he said. He observed that “If this is what is happening to one million Christians and the enlightened world remains indifferent, what will happen with three million Jews?”

Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office said “The Syrians are prepetrating a massacre on the Christian population of Beirut. We have promised and committed ourselves not to let the Christian population in Lebanon be annihilated.” If the Syrian onslaught continues, Israel “shall consider stops to be taken,” he said.

Gen. Shlomo Gazit, chief of military intelligence, told foreign newsmen that the Syrian attack has direct implications for Israel and any Syrian attempt to alter the status quo in Lebanon would have far-reaching effects on Israel’s security. Moshe Arens, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, said today that the world and the U.S. in particular knows that Israel cannot remain impassive if Syria takes over Lebanon.

SITUATION SIMILAR TO JORDAN IN 1970

The situation in Lebanon has been likened by some here to that which prevailed in Jordan eight years ago. In 1970, King Hussein ordered an all-out offensive against Palestinian terrorists who were then lodged in great numbers in Jordan. Syria attempted to overthrow Hussein and sent troops toward Jordan. But Israel warned the Syrians at the time not to cross the “red line” and Damascus abandoned plans to invade Jordan while Hussein’s forces successfully drove the terrorists out.

But the situation in Lebanon today is less clear cut. In 1970, Hussein acted out of fear of a PLO take-over of his country. In Lebanon, since 1975, there has been intermittent civil war between Moslems and Christians, complicated by the presence of Palestinian terrorists who set up their bases in south Lebanon after being ousted from Jordan. The Syrian position was ambiguous.

Their 30,000 man “inter-Arab” peace keeping force–a Syrian army with a few taken detachments from other Arab countries–originally backed the Christians. The PLO was not ready, at the time, to take orders from Damascus, Israeli sources say. But when the civil war ended in the fall of 1976, the Syrians switched sides, leading to a deterioration of the Christian position which reached a climax this summer.

DIVISIONS WITHIN LEBANON

The first objective of the Syrians was to create a rift within the Christian camp, Israelis say. They backed a pro-Syrian Christian faction headed by former President Sulieman Franjiyeh whose power base is in the town of Zgharta, north of Beirut. This group, described abroad as Christian “moderates,” governed the country alongside the Moslem majority through President Elias Sarkis and Premier Salim el Hoss.

Opposed to them were the 8000-strong Christian Phalangist party, headed by Pierre Jemayel, which claims to be the true leader of Lebanon’s three million Christians, and the National Liberals, headed by former President Camille Chamoun, which maintains its own small private army. Chamoun and Jemayel seemed determined to prevent a Syrian take-over of the country. They regarded the existence of their private armies as the sole barrier to Syrian control.

Last month Sarkis met with President Hafez Assad of Syria at Latakia, Syria. They agreed that the Lebanese regular army should gradually assume security duties performed by Syrian forces. That solution appeared to satisfy the Syrians and the Christians as a step toward restoring normal conditions in the country.

But just as the new plan was about to be implemented, Phalangist gunmen killed pro-Syrian Toni Fronjiyeh, son of the former President and a personal friend of the Syrian President’s brother, Rifat Assad. The Phalangists massacred 32 of Franjiyeh’s associates in a bloody dawn raid on the town of Ehden in northern Lebanon.

The killings led to a counter-attack on a pro-Phalangist village where many Christians were massacred. The fighting between Christian factions spread to Beirut and the Syrians then intervened. The of ficial organs of the Damascus government denounced the Christians as collaborators with Israel, working against national unity. They called on the Syrian army to deal with the Christians with “an iron fist.”

The belief in Israel is that the Syrians are out to gain ultimate control of at least part of Lebanon. Their immediate goal, according to observers here, is to dominate a front extending from Israel’s northwestern border with Lebanon to the southern border between Israel and Jordan at Eilat. This would surround Israel on two sides and put its population centers in immediate danger. The Syrians have already placed their troops on the Golan Heights on top alert, according to reports from Beirut today. The immediate reason is to counter possible action by Israel.

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