Geneva — Lebanon's conservative Christian President and his radical Muslim neighbor-state, Syria, have taken the first tentative step toward an entente that could alter the political map of the Middle East.
So volatile remains the situation in and around Lebanon that the shift could yet be overturned by events. Even last week's milestone Lebanon reconciliation conference seems in limbo. It recessed with rival parties giving distinctly different views of what was accomplished and of when the talks will reconvene.
Still, President Amin Gemayel and Syria's ''observer'' at the talks, Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam, have emerged as surprise first-round winners.
The US was a particularly frenetic backstage mediator at the conference. But the extent to which the Americans - and a more immediately crucial offstage party, Israel - are satisfied with the initial conference results is less clear.
If there is a major loser in Geneva's Round One, it would seem to be the main standard bearer of a Syrian-allied leftist opposition, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. Another loser, if to a lesser extent, would be Lebanese Shiite Muslim leader Nabih Berri. Both men came to Geneva talking like lions and left, at least comparatively, like lambs.
In practical terms, what President Gemayel and Syria did was seal an artfully worded compromise on Gemayel's US-mediated May 1983 peace accord with Israel. The pact has been, de facto, in the deep freeze for months but has remained the focus of bitter Syrian invective against Beirut.
The deal was essentially this: The Syrians muted their criticism of the accord and backed Gemayel as Lebanon's legitimate leader in return for Gemayel's assurances he will do all he can to find a way out of the accord and will generally consider Syria's own security interests as key to any disengagement with the Israelis.
But more important than the specific understanding on the accord, conference sources make clear, was the possibility it could prove part of a more fundamental shift in ties between Syria and Lebanon's dominant Maronite Christians.
The Syrians have long seen Lebanon as a natural extension of their own territory, a view made clear by the fact they have, for instance, never maintained an embassy in Beirut. Lebanon's Maronite rulers have deeply resented this. The Maronites see themselves as an island of Western, Christian values in a Muslim Arab world.
Only briefly, interests on both sides converged in an alliance of convenience: at the end of the main Lebanese civil war, in 1975-76, when the Syrians changed sides, abandoning Palestinian and Lebanese-leftist allies in favor of the Gemayel family's Phalange militia. It was within this framework that the Syrians dispatched some 40,000 peacekeeping troops to Lebanon with an Arab League mandate. The troops remain.
In Geneva, Syria moved from almost literally not talking to the Beirut government in the past six months, to what amounts to acceptance of the beleaguered Gemayel as legitimate Lebanese leader. Indeed, the Syrians are said to have hinted even at the eventual possibility of opening a Beirut embassy in the longer run should the seeds of entente flower.
Gemayel, for his part, shelved for at least the time being any serious move to get the Syrian military out of Lebanon. He accepted a conference statement that defined his government's foreign policy focus as putting ''an end to Israeli occupation'' of south Lebanon.
Whether the Syrians came to town with such an outcome already in mind is unclear. But one key to the conference outcome was unexpected backing for Gemayel's legitimacy from the rival, pro-Syrian former president, Suleiman Franjieh.
While the two other main pro-Syrian delegates, Walid Jumblatt and Nabih Berri , were pushing for a formal conference statement that would at least ''freeze'' the Israeli accord, Mr. Franjieh held that the whole question should be deferred for at least a bit in favor of a mandate for Gemayel to do what he can to defuse it.
The Jumblatt and Berri camps avoided any suggestion Syria had in effect switched sides. But Jumblatt, asked whether he was happy with the outcome on the accord issue, declined comment, except to say: ''For me, the issue of (internal Lebanese) political reform is the key one.''
This is undoubtedly true, but also a striking change of tune from earlier statements.
And a source in the Berri delegation said: ''We wanted to freeze the accord, but ended up freezing the conference.'' Indeed, the first round of talks deferred or dodged, rather than resolved, issues.
On the Israeli accord, Gemayel was directed to talk with the US and with various Arab regimes and, presumably, to report back. ''Depending on how those contacts go,'' went one excerpt of a Maronite source's private notes, ''everything could still change.''
Another source added the obvious: The US may have a lot of trouble finding a way to help out Gemayel in his mission, even if so inclined, without running into considerable trouble with allied Israel.
And political reform - that is, the Muslims' insistence that their growing demographic and military strength demands an overhaul of traditional Maronite political dominance - has also been shelved until at least the second round of talks.
Against all this is balanced the fact that fundamental disputes remain between government and opposition. Even on the conference's resumption date, announced as Nov. 14, there are disputes.
The Muslim left says the date is certain and implies Mr. Gemayel is on a sort of probation before then. Gemayel supporters hint the date is flexible and deny that a conference mandate to the Lebanese President is in any sense conditional.
Lebanon, meawhile, remains armed to the teeth. And at least for the past eight years, the tradition has been to resolve what is left unresolved by talking - with bullets.