Syria prods Lebanese toward a compromise

In an atmosphere suggesting more a theatrical production than a peace conference, Syria is prodding Lebanon's rival warlords toward a compromise plan for their country's political future.

By late Thursday, the main question seemed to be not the shape of such a plan , but the pace at which the talks' Syrian stage managers would decide to unfurl it and the amount of rival rhetoric or histrionics they will tolerate.

But given the depth of substantive differences here, 11th-hour hitches could not be ruled out. Even the Syrians must realize that only the wildest optimist can assume that an accord on issues that have fueled nine years of civil war will stick.

Also, only the talks' proud Swiss hosts would seriously contend - as a local newspaper did Thursday - that the ''tranquil charm'' of Lake Geneva explains the civil behavior of Lebanon's rivals toward each other. Kiss the hand you cannot bite, goes a Lebanese political maxim. But in the past, the rivals have shown a grisly staying power, eventually biting hands once pragmatically kissed.

Still, the consensus among conference sources was that an accord on Lebanon's future was now all but inevitable - probably by Sunday.

''Syria wants it and Syria can get it,'' said an aide to a Lebanese delegate, noting the ''crucial'' role of Syrian Vice-President Abdel Halim Khaddam, officially an ''observer'' here.

This was the general feeling here even after a brief walkout Thursday by former Lebanese President Sulei-man Franjieh on the issue of future ties with Israel.

And whatever the limitations of an eventual compromise, they need not minimize the Syrians' accomplishments here - notably a cease-fire that, by Beirut standards, still holds. On Thursday, the delegates announced agreement to order the release of all those detained or kidnapped by the Lebanese militias in the civil strife.

A political accord would add cement to the cease-fire. It will at least be more ambitious and substantive than its precursors, addressing the root issue of the balance of power between Lebanon's long-dominant Maronite Christians and a long-seething Muslim majority. The main thrust of the emerging compromise is to trim Maronite power in favor of the Muslims, particularly the increasingly assertive and numerous Shiite Muslims.

The main Maronite militia chiefs want to limit this process by creating a ''federation'' in Lebanon giving as much autonomy as possible to Christian areas. The main opposition warlords - the Shiite and Druze delegation chiefs - demand full secularization of a Lebanese political system that now allots specific positions on the basis of religion.

The effect would be a wholesale transfer of authority from the Maronites to the Muslims, beginning within six months, according to a joint Muslim-Druze position paper leaked to the press here.

Neither side will entirely get its way. ''Everyone knows, or at least assumes , Syria will impose a platform between the two extremes,'' said a Lebanese Muslim source, ''and that the Syrians already know almost exactly what shape the compromise will take.''

Most sources seem to assume the result will be something like a proposal made last month by Lebanon's President, Amin Gemayel, a Maronite who has aligned himself with the Syrians as a ''co-mediator'' rather than as a ''party to the conflict.'' Sources near the President say that an accord will likely include:

* Creation of a senate, expanding and diluting a current one-house chamber that is automatically dominated by the Maronites.

* Limiting the powers of the president, who currently must be a Maronite, and expanding those of the Sunni Muslim premier. The premier, currently named by the president, would henceforth be chosen by the parliament. But most delegates believe the institution of the ''Maronite presidency'' will survive in some form.

* Some move toward abolishing ''confessionalism'' - the practice of allocating political or civil-service posts on the basis of religion.

The sources said it was not clear how detailed an accord would be announced. They stressed that constitutionally, changes of the sort contemplated can be made formally only back in Beirut.

Also, the sources said some provision for political ''decentralization'' - while stopping short of Maronite demands - seemed likely. Among other moves said likely was to give the relatively disadvantaged Shiites a larger slice of the country's economic pie. Another probability: some collegial form of political direction for the armed forces to meet the opposition's objection to what they see as a transparently Maronite military.

But any accord could later face challenges by the Lebanese rivals, who are going along with Syria for reasons of vulnerability that may prove temporary. Other outsiders - Americans and Israelis - that previously balanced Syrian influence have curbed involvement.

Even if the Maronite-Muslim equation stays sorted out, there is much potential for trouble in rivalries within each religious group. On the Muslim side, at stake is the relative position of the Druzes, Sunnis, and Shiites - as well as the relative sway of moderates and Iranian-style militants among the Shiites. Among the Maronites, traditional dons like former President Camille Chamoun harbor enmity against the Phalangist forces of Pierre Gemayel, the President's father. At least as deep is the rift between Mr. Franjieh and the elder Gemayel, whom Franjieh holds responsible for a 1978 Phalangist attack that killed his son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.

Sooner or later the Muslims could jockey for position by taking a more militant tack toward the Christians. The Christians could find two targets: Syria's 40,000 troops in Lebanon, or the Lebanese Muslims.

Yet the Syrians may be able to make an accord stick for some time - not, a Lebanese source says, ''by guaranteeing calm, but, literally, by imposing it.''

This is doubtlessly in Syria's interest. Khaddam, sources say, has all but said so explicitly in closed sessions. Syria wants keenly to prove that where the Americans failed to achieve peace, Damascus can succeed.

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