Syria's Assad may 'go for broke' in Lebanon troop-withdrawal talks
Beirut — The future does not look hopeful for the Lebanese-Israeli agreement or for United States attempts to stabilize Lebanon in preparation for broader Middle East peace efforts.
* In one week of shuttling, US envoy Philip Habib has not made the kind of progress needed to launch Phase 2 of the talks on withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon.
* Syria now appears to be playing for bigger stakes in exchange for entering negotiations under US direction.
* The Arab world is divided, making it difficult for Lebanon to rally support to pressure Syria.
* And the situation on the ground in Lebanon is disintegrating as a new round of factional kidnappings and killings threatens to trigger broader conflict.
Western envoys close to the talks now concede it may take weeks to break the deadlock following the Syrian rejection, and at a price that may not be acceptable to the Israelis.
US options are limited since the government of Syrian President Hafez Assad still refuses to receive Mr. Habib. Condemnations of the US-designed agreement continue to pour out of Damascus in the harshest terms.
Lebanese Cabinet officials insist Syria can be brought to the negotiating table. But the question is now on what terms.
There are growing signs that Mr. Assad may attempt to link withdrawal of his 40,000 troops from Lebanon to restoration of the Golan Heights captured by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.
The Syrian leader may feel he can afford to ''go for broke'' because of indications from Washington that it recognizes the principle of returning all territories occupied by the Israelis.
But there is a major difference in terms of timing. US officials appear to think of the Golan Heights as the last step in a broad settlement, after solving the Palestinian problem. The Syrians view it as the first step. And Western envoys admit that US reassurances about the eventual return of the Golan Heights are not likely to satisfy the insecure and stubborn Syrians.
Yesterday, Israel radio quoted a top Israeli official as categorically rejecting any linkage between resolution of the localized Lebanon dispute and the status of occupied territories. The official specifically referred to the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel formally annexed in 1981.
Meanwhile, the Syrians appear to be playing a stalling game, which has the potential to be dragged out for months. There are increasing signs that they may call for a summit of the 21 Arab League states to debate the agreement.
Syrian attempts to rally support for its position do seem to have made headway in recent days, after visits by government officials to key Arab capitals.
The Kuwaiti reaction is considered a fair sampling. The conservative, pro-US sheikhdom has so far been lukewarm to the Lebanese-Israeli agreement. Cabinet Secretary Abdel Aziz Hussein announced after a Cabinet session Sunday: ''Any agreement concluded with Israel must be discussed by the Arab states collectively so they may take the final decision at the proper time.''
US diplomats say a summit would be a ''disaster'' for the agreement, in part due to the time required but also because consensus is traditionally so difficult between moderate and militant Arab regimes.
And Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salam warned this week that if the withdrawal does not take place ''within a reasonable time,'' the agreement ''will die a natural death.''
Washington appears to be relying on Saudi Arabia to preempt a summit by organizing a meeting between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents. The bait would be Lebanese willingness to outline a deal providing security and economic arrangements between the two countries that would pacsify Syria.
The Beirut press has reported that King Fahd is soon to dispatch Crown Prince Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to Beirut to push for a dialogue.
But there is deep concern that all the political maneuverings may be overtaken by events on the ground in Lebanon.
A vengeance campaign of kidnappings and killings broke out over the weekend between rival Christian and Druze militias in the hills overlooking the capital. Although the government managed to negotiate the release of more than 100 abductees, the atmosphere remains explosive.
The incidents were followed Monday by the discovery of a car bomb in a Christian area and an attack by gunmen on a Druze office in Beirut.
The violence is politically significant because relations between the Christians and Druze militias are viewed as a litmus test of reaction to the agreement. Diplomats have long felt that factional fighting would be the spark for a Syrian-Israeli conflict in Lebanon. The Christian ''Lebanese Forces'' are allies of the Israelis and support the accord. The Druze are backed by Syria and key leaders have pledged to wreck the agreement.