Cease-fire in Beirut raises hopes. Syria's low profile seen as helpful to Christian-Muslim agreement

The latest moves to end the crisis in Lebanon have sparked some optimism that a settlement to the 11-year-old civil war may be in the making. At the same time, warnings are being sounded about the obstacles and problems that lie ahead.

Christian and Muslim members of the 10-man Cabinet met Tuesday -- for the first time this year -- and announced a truce between their warring militias. They also said they had agreed to draw up a new national charter defining the country's future political system.

The meeting was held amid strict security precautions at a building on Beirut's defunct racetrack, near the confrontation line dividing Christian east Beirut from the largely Muslim western section.

Prime Minister Rashid Karami announced after the three-hour session that the new national charter would affirm Lebanon's unity and its Arab identity, and would embody reforms to its political system and Constitution. A preliminary draft of the charter is expected to be discussed Friday.

In addition to ordering their armed factions to abide by a complete ceasefire, under the supervision of the Lebanese Army's Beirut command, the Christian and Muslim leaders also agreed to halt propaganda attacks through the radio stations and newspapers controlled by the rival militias.

In theory, a truce is already in place. But there are frequent exchanges of gunfire and grenades along the ``green line.''

While the new truce might improve the political climate, some observers are skeptical about the chances of achieving a fully effective ceasefire, in the absence of measures to eliminate the confrontation line and withdraw the combatants.

But the meeting and agreement to formulate a new national charter crystallized a remarkable transformation that has come over the Lebanese political scene in recent weeks.

Since January, the Muslim side, led by Prime Minister Karami and encouraged by Syria, had angrily boycotted the Christian leaders, and demanded President Amin Gemayel's resignation. This followed Christian rejection of last December's Syrian-sponsored settlement accord, signed in Damascus by Shiite Muslim, Druze, and Christian militia chiefs. The Christian signatory, Elie Hobeika, was humiliatingly expelled from east Beirut after his followers were defeated by rival Christian militia factions loyal to President Gemayel and his allies.

Initially, Syria and its Lebanese supporters insisted that the Damascus agreement must be applied to the letter, as the only formula capable of saving Lebanon.

But Gemayel rode out the storm, and last weekend Syria's President Hafez Assad signaled his approval of the new dialogue moves, in talks with Muslim and Christian opposition leaders in Damascus.

But the initiative had apparently come from the Lebanese themselves. Muslim leaders responded positively to overtures launched by Gemayel on Aug. 1. Syrian support came later, and has been low key.

Syria's low profile is seen as important in improving the prospects for success. A major reason cited by the Christian leaders for opposing the Syrian-sponsored accord last time was that it ceded too much of Lebanon's sovereignty to the Syrians.

The absence of overt pressures and sponsorship from Syria has clearly made the new peace moves more palatable to the Christians, observers say. The Christian political and militia chiefs have always been deeply suspicious of Syrian intentions, accusing Damascus of wanting to annex the country.

The discreet nature of Syrian support for the moves is also seen as allowing Damascus to save face after the blow to its prestige dealt by the Christian rejection in January. In addition, it also reduces Syrian exposure should the new initiative fail.

A powerful factor motivating the Lebanese to move towards an accord has been the specter of economic collapse looming over the nation. For many years, the Lebanese pound was rated in single figures against the dollar. But in recent months it has slumped to more than 40 to the dollar, causing alarm and hardship in an economy where most goods are imported.

That concern is already high on the agenda of the revived dialogue. The Tuesday meeting agreed on the need to bring illegal militia-run ports and other institutions back under the authority of the government, whose exchequer has been hard hit by the loss of customs revenues siphoned off by the factions.

While the reconciliation moves have prompted hopes that a solid truce might be achieved, observers point to numerous obstacles in the way of a definitive settlement of the crisis. These include:

Israel's continuing presence in south Lebanon, and Syria's presence in the east and north.

Rejection by hard-line Christian leaders of the ``distinguished'' relations with Syria that Muslim leaders want to see. The Christians also reject the involvement of small numbers of Syrian troops in the largely successful recent security plan in Muslim west Beirut.

Disapproval of the current initiative by Iranian-inspired Islamic fundamentalist factions. At a meeting attended by the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, they also formally rejected the United Nations Security Council resolution which mandates the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. Implementation of that UN resolution is a cornerstone of the Beirut dialogue.

The Christian and Druze desire for a loose, decentralized system to preserve gains and independence of cantons carved out in recent years. The numerically superior but dispersed Shiites have an interest in demanding a fair share in a more centralized structure.

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