Syria sounds note of conciliation in Lebanon
Washington — If one listens carefully enough between machine-gun bursts, one can hear small but positive signals coming from Lebanon. The main signal seems to be coming from the Syrians. They have been telling both the Lebanese and Americans that they are ready to talk about ways of resolving the Lebanon conflict.
President Reagan's special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, is expected to fly to Damascus Monday for talks with the Syrians. Lebanon's Foreign Minister, Elie Salam, visited the Syrian capital last Friday, partly in order to discuss Lebanese President Amin Gemayel's recent meetings with high-level American officials in Washington. According to a report from Beirut, the Syrians agreed to a new cease-fire in Lebanon. This raised hopes in the Lebanese press that a new round of reconciliation talks could be held among the nation's warring factions.
Analysts here are not entirely certain why the Syrians are sounding more conciliatory at the moment. One reason for this is thought to be the uncertainty surrounding Syrian President Hafez Assad's health. Another reason is believed to be a Syrian unwillingness to pursue more than one confrontation at the same time. The Syrians are fighting Arab enemies in Tripoli. At the same time, they must carefully assess the newly strengthened relationship between the United States and Israel. The American retaliatory air strikes on Syrian positions on Dec. 4 have given the Syrians added cause to reflect.
In Tripoli, the Syrians have been confronting not only the forces led by Yasser Arafat but also the Sunni Muslim forces which now control much of the Lebanese seaport. Even if Mr. Arafat escapes from Tripoli, the fighting is expected to continue between the Sunnis and Syrian-backed troops. Arafat's departure, meanwhile, has been delayed by attacks from Israeli gunboats on his forces.
Syria's reaction to the US air strikes has been cautious. The Syrians denounced the raids, but they also said they do not want further confrontation. The Reagan administration, in the meantime, has made clear that it does not seek a war with Syria.
In an apparent attempt to placate the Syrians, President Gemayel came to Washington two weeks ago seeking an amendment or abrogation of side letters to the Lebanon-Israel agreement on the pullout of Israeli forces from Lebanon.
One US-Israeli side letter stipulates that no Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon is required unless the Syrian and PLO forces withdraw simultaneously.
Syria has demanded that the agreement be abrogated. The Reagan administration has opposed any change in the agreement and made this clear to Gemayel. But the Lebanese and Americans do seem to have found a way to work around the Lebanon-Israel agreement. It would amount to freezing the agreement without actually calling it a freeze.
''It is true that we were rebuffed on our suggestions to the United States to amend or abrogate the side letters of the agreement, but we are hoping that we can now work around the agreement to find the mechanism and conditions for the withdrawal of external forces from Lebanon,'' said Lebanon's ambassador to Washington, Abdullah Bouhabib.
In an interview, Dr. Bouhabib said there were some indications from Syria that it was ready for serious discussions with US envoy Rumsfeld over the withdrawal of foreign forces.