31 JANUARY 1976, Page 7

Triumph for Syria

A special correspondent

Beirut The foundations of Beirut's St Georges Hotel, arguably the best in the Middle East and ,a symbol of the prosperity of the old Lebanon, have been so weakened by the battering the seafront building has taken in the civil war that it will probably have to be pulled down and rebuilt.

But even after nine months of fighting, with a death toll running into five figures and an economy brought to its knees, the message that there will have to be similarly fundamental reforms in Lebanon's unique political system seems hardly to have dented the capacity of the hard-core Christian Right for self-delusion. "Give this country six months, a year at the most," a Christian businessman said last weekend as the latest ceasefire slowly took bold, "and you'll see the old Lebanon back 'as vigorous as ever." But, no matter how quickly the surface gloss is restored to the hideously disfigured face of Beirut, nothing is going to bring back the old order.

Saeb Salam, the Moslem ex-premier who is one of the gerontocratic ruling elite, put it succinctly when he said that the war had shown the country's traditional political leadership to be bankrupt. And a presidential aSpirant, Raymond Edde, expressed it another way when he said that Lebanon now existed under a Syrian mandate. He may have overstated the case. But, if the old Lebanon used to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, Miraculously and profitably insulated from the heat of war and revolution, the new Lebanon ll look more like an Arab Finland, still neutral and independent in some degree, but unmistakably and irreversibly within the sphere of influence of a great neighbour. The Christian dream of a Lebanese Switzerland was not an ignoble one. But too many Christians used it as a smokescreen behind Which they worked for their short-term financial advantage at the sacrifice of their long-term security; in doing so, they dug their own graves. But their leaders, obstinately retaining forty-year-old political ideas, still do not see this. The Falangist leader Pierre Gernayel, talking to visitors in his office, windows shattered and walls pocked by Moslem mortar fire and with his militia holding a front line only two hundred yards away, makes the same old speech: "The Lebanese formula — a model for the world — half the Moslems in Lebanon support us — the highest standard of living in the Arab world — the average Lebanese has no real economic grievances . • ." Gemayel, like the Interior Minister Camille Cbamoun, blames all of Lebanon's troubles on the Palestine commandos and on international Communism. They have a case, but it is fatally Weakened by their refusal to admit that the Palestinians and Left-Wing agitators were able to drum up general Moslem support only because the mainly Christian Establishment had so recklessly misgoverned Lebanon for thirty years. Now the fat cats who have lined their pockets by creating social injustice and exploiting 300,000 Palestinian refugees as a source of cheap labour have slipped quietly away to Paris, London, or Cairo to sit out the war in comfort. They have left behind them, to do the fighting, the Christian militia armies which they financed, manned mainly by a proletariat who, unlike the Algerian pieds noirs, have no foreign bolt hole to run to and who murder, torture, and loot under the banner of Christianity. The Right-Wing murder of prisoners in Beirut's Quarantina district last week is matched by the Moslem rape of Damour, the Falangist razzia in Dbayeh refugee camp by the lawlessness in the streets of Moslem-controlled West Beirut, where arguments about a place in a bread queue are settled with a Kalashnikov.

Many foreign journalists here consider the Christian banner to be more bloodstained than . the Moslem one. But even if the Christians were no more guilty than their enemies of murder, torture, and indiscriminate bombardment in a crowded city, there is no doubt that the political consequences of their military offensives since mid-January have been grave for the Right Wing. The capture of Dbayeh camp, the use of Air Force jets against Left-Wing forces, and the wiping out of Quarantina had two momentous consequences: they lost the Right Wing the remaining support it had from conservative Arab States like Saudi Arabia, which had had an interest in preserving the old balance of power here, and they provoked Syria into using the big stick as well as talking softly at the mediation table.

The decision by the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, to let the Palestine Liberation Army

cross into Lebanon turned the course of the war. Within a few days the Moslems controlled three-quarters of the 'country, the last vestiges ' of State authority had vanished, and the Christians had been largely forced back into their mountainous heartland north of Beirut. The Christians are far from beaten, but if they had fought on instead of agreeing tc peace talks last week they would have done so without any support in the Arab world and with no hope of aid from the West. Open Syrian intervention with its own troops could still bring in the Israeli Army — but aid from such a source would be the final blow for Lebanon's Christians, if they hope to survive by providing the same kind of entrepreneurial and technical services for the Arab world as Hong Kong does for China. The new deal proposed by Syria for Lebanon is not unfair to the Christians: it requires in essence that, as the price of having law and order and national sovereignty restored, the Christians should share power equally with the Moslems who are now the larger community. But the Christians, fearing steady attrition of their position by Moslem salami tactics, will bargain toughly for guarantees that their power will not be further eroded.

Whatever new Lebanon emerges from the holocaust Syria's Assad is the undoubted winner. He emerges as the peacemaker with an enhanced status. He has seen the Palestinian commandos conveniently weaken themselves in a civil war with fellow Arabs, while locking them even more securely into dependance on Damascus. He has maintained the Palestinian guard on his right flank with Israel but has left his options for peace or war with Israel completely open. With Lebanon now under his patronage and his fences mended with Jordan's King Hussein, Assad has made Syria a new force to be reckoned with in Arab affairs, in an ambiguous but extremely strong position between the radical States on the one hand and the Right-Wing countries and Egypt — Sadat's or Kissinger's? — on the other.