Syria tries to play the referee in Lebanon

The Lebanese government is expected to announce this week that national reconciliation talks in Geneva will be convened by mid-March, according to Lebanese Cabinet officials. Such talks could open the way for a new government and major reforms to end nine years of civil strife.

Intense negotiations are under way in Beirut and Damascus as the Lebanese and Syrian presidents try to carry out pledges made during last week's two-day summit. A new era of warm relations appeared to have opened up between the two leaders. But there are strong indications that both governments face obstacles.

It appears Syrian President Hafez Assad will have to use his considerable leverage - including the financial aid and arms his government provides - to wring an agreement out of the Lebanese opposition.

In Damascus, Mr. Assad spent the weekend in talks with opposition leaders. He is trying to convince Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Shiite Muslim ''Amal'' chief Nabih Berri to give Lebanese President Amin Gemayel a second chance.

Despite reports they had dropped demands for Gemayel's resignation, both continue to repeat such a demand. They claim they would attend a national conference only if the first topic is a new chief of state.

Both have taken a hard-line stand since being summoned to Damascus Friday. Mr. Berri said he did not expect talks to begin in the near future because of the wide gap between the Christian-led government and the opposition forces. And Mr. Jumblatt issued an ultimatum to Gemayel to formally abrogate the controversial May 17 Israeli-Lebanese accord by tonight or face a collapse of the new peace efforts.

(Berri said Sunday he and Jumblatt had reached agreement with Assad on a formula for scrapping the May 17 accord, Reuters reported. No details were given.) On Sunday, Jumblatt's allies in the pro-Syrian National Salvation Front, former Christian President Suleiman Franjieh and former Premier Rashid Karami, were expected to join the Damascus negotiations. Gemayel traveled to northern Lebanon Saturday to brief both on his plans, hoping they will serve as a ''cooling'' influence on other opposition figures.

Before heading to Syria, Mr. Karami said, ''President Gemayel's visit to Damascus has put the wagon on the right path, thus heralding that our crisis was nearing its end.'' He called the current effort ''a historic turning point.''

Meanwhile, in Beirut, the Lebanese government has begun crucial negotiations with Israel and the US on new security arrangements to replace the US-mediated May 17 accord. High-level officials say Gemayel guaranteed to Syria that the pact would not be implemented, but asked for time to look for an alternative before formally cancelling it.

He is looking for a substitute that would ensure Israeli withdrawal and also passify Lebanon's Christian community, which has traditionally looked to Israel for support. Christian dissidents have threatened to withdraw their support for Gemayel if he voids the treaty without an alternative arrangement.

Informed sources indicated that the Syrians may have offered some bait, suggesting unofficially and off the record that they would not allow Palestinians and other non-Lebanese groups to infiltrate the south, so that the Israelis will feel no need to remain either in full force or through the residual presence allowed by the May 17 agreement. This, in effect, would amount to the same arrangement made for the Golan Heights, the former Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Lebanese sources who participated in last week's summit also claim Assad has indicated a willingness to discuss partial Syrian ''regrouping'' of its estimated 40,000 troops in Lebanese areas ''not of strategic importance'' - meaning far from the front lines with Israeli forces in Lebanon - as a show of good faith.

The Lebanese government has refused to reveal details about its efforts, but diplomats say it will be far more difficult than anticipated in light of recent hard-line statements out of Israel, and the fact the first round of negotiations with Israel took five long months. In case there is no progress, Lebanese sources have indicated the government will then be prepared to cancel the accord outright.

The fragile nature of efforts in both Beirut and Damascus has been reflected in a weekend of violence, despite optimistic claims that a cease-fire personally endorsed by Assad would go into effect last Friday night. Instead, Beirut and the surrounding Shouf mountains witnessed a vicious round of fighting, in which at least one dozen people were killed and 50 injured, according to police.

Beirut's state radio and local papers claimed Sunday that the cease-fire would be implemented within the next 24 hours. If so, and a truce manages to last longer than the dozens of other cease-fires over the past nine years, then it will serve as the first indication that the deal worked out in Damascus last week - which a Lebanese Cabinet minister called ''a huge leap forward'' - can be carried out.

One other possible hopeful sign came from Jumblatt's top aide, who said the Druze chief might be willing to withdraw his demand if official inquiries are launched by Gemayel to find and punish political or military personnel responsible for ''excesses'' in dealing with the opposition over the past 17 months.

The aide, however, cautioned that Jumblatt would continue the call for resignation until the outcome of the investigations, which Gemayel reportedly also agreed to in Damascus, to make sure they were ''credible.'' The government's inquiry into the massacre at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, which found no one to blame, has remained a sore point among Muslims.

The improvement in atmospherics at last week's Gemayel-Assad summit was a key aspect of diplomatic efforts this weekend.

On Thursday, Gemayel described the atmosphere as ''excellent.'' Political leaders and newspaper editorials in both countries have begun to herald each other, a dramatic change.

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