Syria gains in Lebanon equation as Israeli accord loses
To echoes of gunfire from back home, Lebanon's reconciliation conference seems to be consecrating the diluted power of the country's pro-Western forces. One important beneficiary appears likely to be Syria, whose foreign minister has been participating in the Geneva conference as a distinctly active and vocal ''observer.''Skip to next paragraph
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And even as the conference proceeded, the Syrians were gaining back home in a military and political bid to supplant longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with a less politically elusive, and more pro-Syrian, figure.
Pro-Damascus Palestinians were launching an all-out artillery assault on Mr. Arafat's beleaguered forces in the Baddawi refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli in northern Lebanon. According to Beirut news reports, Syrian planes backed the assault on the Arafat forces with air strikes.
At the conference, meanwhile, Syria and its Lebanese-opposition allies were by Thursday evening inching toward compromise wording to get the country's right-wing government publicly to back off from its May peace accord with Israel.
The Lebanese opposition leaders, apparently with at least acquiescence from Syria, were so far stopping well short of pushing for a stark, literal commitment to ''abrogate'' the accord outright.
But symptomatic of the limited political options of the Lebanese and US governments was the fact both parties were communicating readiness to go a good way toward their opponents' search for what one opposition source called ''a way of saying we want to abrogate the agreement without really saying so.''
At the very least, both Lebanon's governing Christian religious-political figures and the American envoy to the talks were making it clear that they were resigned to the fact that the accord would be in the de facto deep freeze for the foreseeable future.
At time of writing late Thursday, the conference recessed with what sources termed only an indirect call to scrap the Israeli agreement. Although the meeting's agreed statement was not immediately released, the sources said it would cite ''circumstances accompanying the May 17 accord'' with Israel and call on Lebanese President Amin Gemayel to negotiate ''an end to the Israeli occupation . . . and assure total Lebanese sovereignty on all Lebanese territory.''
The overall Syrian line, to go by various conference sources, seemed to be to assure Mr. Gemayel and his allies of greatly expanded support for the Beirut government in return for that government's recognition that the two neighbor states' political and security interests are inextricably tied.
Indeed, more than a few delegates saw the timing of the Syrian move against Arafat's forces as a bid to signal the Lebanese Christian leadership that Damascus is capable of arrogating the key to resolving one sensitive issue for them: the presence of armed Palestinians on Lebanese soil. What will become clear only later is how far either side in such a tacit Syrian-Lebanese understanding can, or will, please the other.
President Gemayel would surely like Syria eventually to pull out its considerable military forces from the north and east of his country - a precondition for any move by Israel to do the same from southern Lebanon.
The Syrians, for their part, would presumably like, in the best of all possible Mideast worlds, some kind of security alliance tying neighboring Lebanon to Syria. Neither of these variations seems a short-range possibility.
And as the Syrians' switching of sides during Lebanon's 1975-76 civil war demonstrated, the entire Lebanon equation can be very fluid.