Just when it looked like the pieces were falling into place, Syria's efforts to sponsor a settlement of Lebanon's decade-old conflict have come unstuck again. Not for the first time, it is the fiercely independent Lebanese Christian community which is putting a spoke in the wheel.
Christian politicians have been increasingly critical of the settlement recently forged by three major Lebanese militias. The militias, which reached agreement under Syrian auspices, included the Shiite Muslim Amal, the Druze militia, and the Christian Lebanese Forces, -- which until this summer opposed Syria's peacemaking efforts.
If sustained, the Christian rejection of this accord will confront Syria with an uncomfortable dilemma. If the Syrians swallow their pride, back off, and begin negotiations all over again, it may prove impossible to get the Muslim side to accept less than the existing accord. The alternative is to impose the accord on the Christians by force. But attempts to do that in 1978 failed, and drove the Christians into an alliance with Israel.
There are already signs that Christian opposition to the accord has been stiffened by a suicide car-bomb attack Tuesday on a monastery outside Beirut, where political leaders of the Christian Lebanese Front were meeting. Five people were killed and many of the politicians were slightly injured in the blast. The meeting was attended by Lebanese Front leaders who oppose the Syrian-sponsored agreement between the militias. Details of the accord have not been revealed, but it eventually provides for a redis tribution of political power that would grant Muslims a greater say, thus lessening the influence of the Christian minority.
``There is no proof yet, but the assumption is that the bomb was a warning from Syria,'' says a Christian source in Beirut. ``There had been a backlash of Christian opinion against the agreement, and this had already paralyzed the Damascus talks. The Syrians issued stiff warnings, then came the monastery bombing. Of course, it may have been agents provocateurs, but. . .''
The bomb attack prompted a one-day protest strike which brought Christian east Beirut to a virtual standstill Wednesday. For many Christians, it was a protest against the Syrian-sponsored agreement and what they regard as efforts by the militia to impose the accord on them. The groundswell of opinion was such that the Lebanese Forces militia, which was not involved in the monastery meeting, had little choice but to endorse the strike.
``In a way, the bombing was just what we needed to stiffen support for our position,'' says an official of one of the Christian parties involved in the meeting.
The situation is full of ironies for the Syrians. In previous attempts to settle the Lebanese crisis, they had concentrated on winning the support of the traditional political leaders, rather than the factional militias which control the streets.
The Christian militia torpedoed a Syrian-backed settlement effort in March by staging a self-styled ``uprising'' against Syrian influence. But a series of blows delivered by Syria's Muslim and Druze allies brought changes in the Christian militia leadership. The new commander, Elie Hobeika, moved swiftly toward Damascus, where his officials negotiated the accord with Amal and the Druze.
On Christian and Muslim sides there was resentment that the three militias had emerged as the only arbiters of Lebanon's future, cooking up an accord which politicians and other excluded parties were expected to rubber-stamp without serious debate. Sunni Muslim leaders complained that their community had been ignored. Shiite fundamentalist factions attacked the accord for compromising with Christians who had collaborated with Israel.
But the most serious reactions turned out to be on the Christian side. Virtually all the political leaders, including President Amin Gemayel, were miffed at being ignored and presented with a fait accompli that many felt would dangerously erode the position of the Christians.
``The text of the accord is obnoxious, and there is no way the Christians can accept it,'' says one Christian political source who is privy to some of its details. ``It is not a question of keeping Christian privileges -- we have to give some away and share power more equally. But this agreement would take us back 200 years.''
``The agreement is also far from democratic,'' he adds. ``The Lebanese Forces do not represent the Christians. They tried to defend us when we were threatened, but they did more foolish things than anyone else. They lack the political wisdom and know-how to negotiate our political future.''
Indpendent Christian sources agree that the militia went too far with Syria, and has been weakened by the backlash.
``There is a reshuffling on the Christian side, and nobody knows how it will come out, and how the Syrians will react,'' one observer says.