WASHINGTON may have helped douse one fire in Lebanon by pressing for Iraq to recall short-range missiles it sent to besieged Christian forces in East Beirut. But the Arab League peace effort remains bogged down. The Arab peacemakers are trying to get enough security issues solved so they can move forward with ideas for political reform and reconciliation in that war-weary country.
The Iraqi missiles have reportedly been recalled. That may not spring the situation free, informed diplomats say, but it removes one pretext and puts pressure on Syria to ease its blockade of the Christian enclave.
When word spread several weeks ago that Iraq was shipping Soviet-built Frog missiles to Gen. Michel Aoun, the acting President of the Christian rump government, alarm bells went off in Syria. Damascus imposed a sea blockade on East Beirut and warned that this was a ``red line'' that could not be crossed.
This complicated the already ``hot'' cease-fire. It forced the Arab League peace committee, made up of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Algeria, to shift focus from addressing serious political differences among Lebanon's religious and ethnic groups to working to improve the security situation. The danger is that those on both sides who want to scuttle the effort to rebuild Lebanon's political unity will use the missiles and other security issues to derail the Arab League team.
Clovis Maksoud, the league's ambassador here, says the parties are coming to realize that there is too much international support for the league effort to blatantly undermine it. Strong endorsements from the US, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and the United Nations have ``left no way for anyone to jump over the Arab League,'' he contends.
The current shelling and other moves are aimed at improving each side's bargaining position, not to achieve imposition of a desired end result, he says. But other observers say the Syrians and hard-line Christians are not ready to play ball, and the challenge for the Arab League remains to so entangle them in this process that they cannot escape.
Patrick Seale, a British expert on Syria, says that despite the unprecedented pressure on President Hafez Assad to withdraw from Lebanon, he won't do it. ``It's a matter of life and death for him and, in his mind, vital for his role in the region.''
Events on the ground could easily get out of hand. ``The situation in Beirut remains extremely volatile,'' John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, told Congress last week. He and others worry about the continued shelling by both sides and the land and sea blockades of Christian areas by Syria and its Lebanese Muslim and Druze allies.
The apparent recall of Frog missiles by Iraq is a positive sign. According to well-placed sources, the missiles were apparently not unloaded in Lebanon and the ship believed carrying them is heading back through the Suez canal.
The US weighed in diplomatically with Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt to stop the missiles, as did the Arab League and others. For the US, it was a question of preventing an escalation of the fighting, of stopping Lebanon from becoming an Iraqi-Syrian battleground, and of halting the proliferation of missiles in the region, informed officials say. The missile issue gave Syria legitimate grounds to complain, they say. Now, however, the Arab League is in a better position to press Syria to lift its sea blockade. That could allow other tension-easing gestures on both sides.
But President Assad has twice found fault with the Arab League plan in private and may well find excuses to delay, say informed diplomats. Christian General Aoun isalso still pressing for direct Syrian participation in any cease-fire committee, which Syria opposes.
The Arab League team hopes as a cease-fire takes hold, it can convene an informal meeting of the Lebanese Parliament outside the country. The members of Parliament would consider league ideas for political reform, rebuilding Lebanon's Army, and gradual withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces, including Syria's 40,000 troops.
If the parliamentarians accept the ideas, election of a president and formal ratification of the reform ideas could follow. The league team is reportedly proposing more power-sharing at the national level and more decentralization. A force of Arab observers under an Algerian commander is planned to witness the transition to a united Lebanese army, which can take over security functions from the Syrians.