Lebanon talks will stress unity and power sharing
Two more US marines were injured in Beirut Sunday as Lebanon's warlords gathered in Geneva for crucial peace talks, contrasting events which underline the fragile situation in the troubled Middle East nation.
Hopes of political reconciliation and a permanent cease-fire now rest with the Christian and Muslim rivals who are expected to finally sit down at the negotiating table on Tuesday. If they are unable to compromise on a formula for power sharing, then diplomats in Beirut predict a new round of intense warfare - and greater dangers for the multinational peacekeeping force.
The two marines were wounded by rocket-propelled grenades during a 10-minute firefight around their outer perimeter near Beirut International Airport, where rescue efforts continued for the eighth day. The US toll so far from the Oct. 23 bombing of the Marines Beirut headquarters is 229 killed and 70 injured.
Meanwhile, Western military sources said Sunday that the Druze Muslim militia launched a three-pronged attack against the Lebanese Army at Souk al Gharb in the Shouf mountains overlooking the capital. The separate military actions reflected their low level of confidence in the negotiating process aimed at ending eight years of conflict and chaos.
Before leaving Lebanon, former President Camille Chamoun, one of the participants in the Switzerland summit, predicted the outcome had a 50-50 chance , at best. A key Western envoy later agreed.
The overnight Druze assault, which the Army claimed to have repulsed, also indicated that the Muslim dissidents do not feel the Christian-led government is prepared to compromise sufficiently. They have thus turned to the military option again to emphasize their determination to win a greater share of representation for the three Muslim communities that make up the majority of Lebanon's 3.5 million population.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said upon arrival in Geneva that he was not prepared to make concessions, although he was prepared to ''give peace every possible chance.''
The government has publicly taken a conciliatory line. President Amin Gemayel said in Bern that he looked forward to ''brotherly conversations.'' And Johnny Abdo, former Lebanese intelligence chief who is now ambassador to Switzerland, added: ''The President is open to any kind of proposal. He is ready to discuss everything.''
But in a statement indicating the government and its Christian backers still do not recognize diplomatic evaluations that the cause of discontent and strife comes from within Lebanon, Mr. Abdo claimed ''there is no problem between Lebanese.'' He charged the root of the cycle of violence was foreign meddling.
The conference is expected to last from four to seven days. Diplomats feel the most that can come out of this first phase is ''a new atmosphere'' and a government of national unity that would then take up the specific demands for reform.
One key envoy said the US and Saudi Arabia hoped the summit would result in a ''reconciliation of people, with the reconciliation of principles following in later stages.''
The concern is that one or more of the participants will try to focus on one disputed issue, over which the conference will fall apart. One of the most contentious issues on the eight-point agenda is the Lebanese-Israeli accord on withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon.
Many Muslims argue that the pact should be abrogated because it allows Israel a residual military presence in an Arab state. But the Gemayel government, backed by the US, feels there is no viable alternative, although it has acknowledged Muslim concerns by so far not ratifying the treaty.
Progress on a new formula dividing power among Lebanon's 17 recognized sects - revising the unwritten 1943 ''National Covenant'' - would probably take many months of work by a new government, which would include Gemayel and all the participants at the summit. The danger during the second phase is that disputes could again lead to a breakdown or walkout by one of the major players, and a return to the battlefields.
During the negotiations in Switzerland and later, US officials say they will be serving only on the sidelines. Although Saudi Arabia and Syria will both have representatives sitting in as ''observers,'' US special envoy Robert Fairbanks will be in Geneva only to help if asked.
The biggest question mark surrounding this ''make-or-break'' peace conference is Syria, and its intentions. In the run-up to Geneva, the three leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front and the Shiite Muslim chief traveled to Damascus to iron out their positions with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Western sources concede that Mr. Assad must feel that any new government will look after Syria's interests, political and military, or he will once again play the spoiler's role. Most of Lebanon's opposition forces are beholden to Damascus for arms and political pressure, even though they are all thought not to want to make Lebanon part of a ''greater Syria.''