Outside anxiety grows about partition or violence in Lebanon

Lebanon seems to be drifting toward either formal partition or forced unity. But the top political actors in that country and Syria are surprisingly complacent, say United States and other Western officials trying to nudge the situation free.

``There is no sense of urgency among the Lebanese,'' laments one well-placed French official. ``They are just continuing their political games as usual, and may well be destroying themselves in the process.''

The US, France, the Vatican, and the Arab League are among the very few outside parties willing to actively seek a solution to the stalemate in Lebanon.

``The situation remains frozen, but many Lebanese politicians are so relaxed. People are even talking of this lasting till next March,'' says an involved Western diplomat.

Lebanon currently has no president or parliamentary speaker, and rival Christian and Muslim governments are vying for power. And there are no signs that the intransigence that prevented presidential elections last month has lessened.

Syria, whose 20,000 to 30,000 troops occupy large parts of Lebanon, and Syria's Lebanese allies continue to stick with their candidate for president of Lebanon, Mikhail Daher. The Maronite Christian enclave around Beirut continues to say no to him but without offering a short list of alternates.

Why the worry? The longer this goes on, the more likely a partition of Lebanon will become permanent - and the more likely the situation will explode violently - informed US officials say.

First, a number of key figures on both sides like the idea of autonomous enclaves. The longer the divisions last, the greater these figures' ambitions become.

Second, both sides are continuing to arm. Iraq is reportedly pouring arms into the Christian enclave as retribution for Syria's support of Iran in the Gulf war.

``Iraq has a lot of weapons captured from Iran,'' says a well-placed Lebanese Christian, ``and it's quite happy to reduce its storage costs.''

The Christian enclave benefits from support from other enemies of Syria as well. Syria, meanwhile, is beefing up its forces around Beirut and giving tanks and artillery to its Druze allies, informed sources say.

Western diplomats say they do not believe Syria will soon begin lobbing shells into the Christian enclave.

``Syria can just sit back and watch the country go to hell,'' says one. But, he adds, it could eventually ``lose patience with Iraq's buildup of the Christians and push its Lebanese allies into action.''

US, French, and Arab League officials fear that if an incident does take place, both sides will be so dug in and well armed that it will cement a partition of the country or lead to a very bloody confrontation.

To date, Lebanon is relatively calm. Its civil service continues to function, with the senior administrator in most ministries trying to be responsive to both the Christian-and Muslim-led cabinets.

This helps to keep the door open for compromise. But ``what's happening on the ground is not bad enough to change people's positions,'' a Western diplomat says.

A compromise may just have to wait for the negative costs to make the status quo unbearable, one diplomat bemoans.

Most recently, the US and France asked the Maronite Christian Patriarch to work with Christian parliamentary deputies to come up with a short of alternate presidential candidates. The list could serve as a means to revive political dialogue.

But informed diplomats say the Christians have not yet been able to whittle the number of candidates down to anything approaching a manageable list.

The US is also trying to overcome the negative fallout from its attempt to find a compromise last month. After negotiations in Damascus, a senior US official tried to convince Christian leaders to accept a Syrian-supported candidate for president. But he ran into a buzz saw of rejection; the move was perceived as a US-Syrian dictate.

The US is trying to edge back onto the playing field. But the challenge for the US and other would-be mediators remains immense. No one has the levers on the ground to make the Lebanese and Syrians get together, one US official says. -30-{et

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