Syria's moment

So Syria is in and the United States is out as the major player in the next round of Lebanon's destiny. That is the way it is. Hard as it may be for Washington to accept that its best option is to bide its time, to let other actors - the Saudis as well as the Syrians - take the lead for the next few months, it should be willing to step back with some relief as well as grace.

Lebanon's factions are getting ready to return to Geneva for another round of reconciliation talks. If the principal issue was a workable peace and power sharing among Lebanon's Christian, Druze, and Muslim divisions, the talks must be welcomed, even under the evidence of string-pulling by Syrian President Hafez Assad.

It's not certain Damascus will succeed any better than did Washington, acting in concert with Israel and the other peacekeeper forces. The eventual outcome for Lebanon - the options are a small Christian-led state, Christian domination of the whole state, partition into Christian-, Syrian-, and Israeli-dominated sectors, or Arab domination - remains a mystery. Lebanon's military and political leaders are already at odds. After Syria has its go at it, it is anybody's guess who will try next. No major role seems likely for the US soon.

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Washington's mistake in Lebanon wasn't in the motive to help, but in the execution. America's concept of itself as a peacemaker, quite apart from US interests in supporting Israel and securing Arab cooperation, is a permanent and positive national trait.

The US went wrong in making itself a partisan in the Lebanon struggle. It mixed its Lebanon strategy with movement on the West Bank issue. The US, the Israelis, and the Syrians became preoccupied with Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as a prelude to action on the West Bank. Washington never seemed to discern who the enemy in Lebanon was. It did not apprehend the level and logic of Syrian involvement.

At home, the administration tried to sell a prolonged Marine presence in Lebanon and a pronounced US-Israeli strategic alliance as a defense against a Soviet-Syrian menace in the region. It's ironic to note how that argument has been dropped with hardly a murmur in Washington as US influence has lapsed. The fact is, the American public and military are relieved that the Marines have been pulled offshore.

That is not to say, after events have run their course, the US public would not support another round of US diplomacy in the region. But force or gunboat diplomacy will not likely return to style soon. America has had its share of successes in the Middle East the past decade: the Sinai agreements, Camp David, even Lebanon efforts like overseeing the Palestine Liberation Organization evacuation in 1983. Among diplomatic innovations, the US introduced shuttle diplomacy, retreats of heads of state to rural settings, offered incentives to Israel and Egypt to reach an accord. This isn't a barren record.

Still, this is Syria's moment. The Syrians are flying high. They seem to be a problem for everybody nearby. The Jordanians and Saudis fear to misstep. They worry the Iraqis. They're Israel's arch rivals. But Syria has its own domestic opinion upset about Lebanon. It faces its own split over strong man Assad's successors. Some Washington analysts see the possibility that, if Iran gains the upper hand over Iraq, Syria may be moved closer to the United States against a powerful Islamic fundamentalist push from Tehran.

Cancellation of Lebanon President Gemayel's pact with Israel is understandably lamented by the Israelis. Abrogating the pact has made possible Lebanon's return to Geneva for reconciliation talks. But to the Israelis, US acquiescence in the annulment calls into question US commitment as a guarantor of peace agreements. Israel has its own problems with its occupation of south Lebanon. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon was unneeded, its critics say. The cost in lives and shekels strains the Israeli conscience and economy.

What next? The United States, as its election nears, has no readily available card in the Middle East. Israel is not ready to deal with the West Bank. Syria and Israel should quietly be urged to cool it - as if either has the will at the moment to attack the other. There's no need to descend to blame-laying for US disappointment in Lebanon. Washington should accept the hard lessons just learned, bide its time, and get ready for the next Middle East opportunity, which will surely come.

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