Syria, perhaps permanently, has lost control of the situation in Lebanon, and has been trying to regain its regional influence in other directions. So far it has not had much success.
All through September and October, Syria's viceroy for Lebanon, Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, pushed the representatives of the three main Lebanese militias--the Maronite Lebanese Forces, the Shia Amal and the Druze, the so-called Socialists--into formulating a radical program for political reform that would have shared political power equally between Muslims and Christians--that is, the Maronites.
Syria's daring innovation was to set aside Lebanon's traditionally bickering politicians and to work through the young leaders of the men with the guns: In the case of the Maronites, this was the formidable Elie Hobeika.
Even though the Maronites necessarily would have had to yield many entrenched political privileges, the older Maronite leaders, including President Amin Gemayel, gave reluctant approval because of sheer fear of Hobeika's ruthlessness; the older Muslim leaders could not disapprove because they were kept in the dark.
The new plan was ready for signature around Oct. 20. Then last-minute delays began. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, was most reluctant to sit down and sign with Hobeika, who is notorious for having led the Maronite troops who committed the massacre at the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatilla in September, 1982. The Syrians smoothed over this difficulty and the signing was set for Oct. 25. Then the Shia leader, Nabih Berri, insisted on bringing in some of the other Muslim leaders, which was done, and the signing was postponed to Nov. 3. But momentum and secrecy were both lost.
Taking advantage of this pause, the most prestigious of the traditional Maronite leaders, the octogenarian former President Camille Chamoun, plucked up enough courage to denounce the concessions Hobeika had made on behalf of the Maronites. Suddenly everyone began attacking the deal they had all agreed on the previous week.
The collapse of the Syrian initiative into the usual Lebanese confusion exposed the essential weakness of Syria's political position: If one Lebanese faction, usually antagonistic to Syria, refused the Syrians' overlordship, there is no way of bringing the recalcitrants to heel because the Syrians absolutely refuse to send their troops into Beirut. Because of the political stalemate, the militias of Syria's local surrogates, the Druze and the Shias, fought each other in a ferocious five-day battle in West Beirut at the end of November. Syria could not impose restraint even on its own allies.
After this military and political debacle, Syria concocted yet another security plan for West Beirut; it came into effect Dec. 11 and it has no better chance of success than all the earlier ones. On the political plane, the traditionalist leaders on both sides are back in command and are happily tearing the ill-fated Syrian plan to pieces. Optimists predict there could, perhaps, be some political progress in three or four months' time.
Meanwhile, baffled in Lebanon, Syria has been trying to repair its shaky alliance with its only regional ally, Iran. For many months Iran has been critical of Syria's role and its methods in Lebanon. More painful was the fact that for the past two months Iran has delayed its supply of oil to Syria, oil on which Syria is heavily dependent. This was partly due to Iraqi attacks on the Kharg export terminal and partly because Syria has paid nothing on the oil debt it owes Iran, now amounting to about $1.3 billion. A high-powered Syrian mission went to Tehran earlier this month and effected some repairs.
But there was no meeting of minds on another point of difference, one of far greater importance to Iran. This is Syria's rapprochement with Jordan, which Iran dislikes so much that, at the level of President Ali Khamenei, it has threatened to revise or even terminate alliance with Syria. Syria, the Iranians declare, could be allowing itself to be dragged by King Hussein into a separate Camp David-type of peace settlement with Israel.
Far from accepting this assessment, Syria has resolutely proceeded toward a reconciliation with Jordan. After a visit to Amman by the Syrian prime minister came an announcement that the Jordanian king would soon visit Damascus. As for the peace process, the two countries agree there must be no separate talks with Israel, that any negotiation must be under the auspices of a large international conference. Since the United States and Israel reject such limitations, clearly the process is not going to get anywhere; therefore the peace process does not provide a solid or lasting basis for Syrian-Jordanian understanding.
Syria, trying hard to bring order to Lebanon, will continue to fail because it lacks the military boldness and the political nerve to impose a settlement, by force if necessary, on the Lebanese--who will never agree among themselves. A rapprochement with Jordan, which strained Syria's working alliance with Iran, would be no compensation for a failure, even a well-intentioned failure, in Syria's Lebanese backyard.