While yet another round of talks is under way in Damascus aimed at promoting a political settlement in Lebanon, leaders of the Christian community here are defiantly ruling out a compromise with their Muslim counterparts.
"They are playing in the mud," Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian militia group known as the Lebanese Forces, said of the Damascus talks. "We call this poetry."
Dany Chamoun, leader of the National Liberal Party and a prominent Maronite Christian, said he also regarded the talks as pointless.
"Syria wants a settlement on its own terms," he said in an interview. "Syria's aim is the complete hegemony of Lebanon."
The Gemayel Factor
The unknown quantity in the often fractious Maronite Christian community is President Amin Gemayel, who has sent representatives to negotiate in the Syrian capital but who has opposed making concessions to the Muslims in the past.
The latest round in the Syrian-sponsored talks coincided with Damascus' decision last month to send an additional 7,000 troops to West Beirut, where they ended months of anarchy among Muslim militia groups, driving gunmen off the streets.
Shortly after the Syrian intervention, Muslim leaders met in Damascus and agreed to a plan for redistribution of power in Lebanon that would reduce the prerogatives of the Lebanese president, who is by law a Maronite, and shift them to the Cabinet, which is headed by a Sunni Muslim premier.
Christian leaders, as well as a broad range of Christian intellectuals, journalists and government officials interviewed recently were critical of the proposed compromise. There was little evidence that Lebanon's Christians were prepared to sacrifice what they regard as sacrosanct political principles even if they could obtain a long-term peace after 12 years of factional fighting.
Focus on 1988
Many Christians have already begun turning their attention to the summer of 1988, when a successor will be chosen to replace Gemayel as president. People are beginning to refer to Gemayel as a "lame duck" and talk about postponing any decisions on Lebanon's political future until he is replaced.
Geagea and Chamoun, for example, said in separate interviews that they both consider themselves candidates for the presidential post. Not coincidentally, they are both sharply critical of the deal being offered by Syria.
"It means the annihilation of our society and its replacement with another society," Geagea said in an interview at the windowless bunker that houses his headquarters in the Karantina quarter of Beirut. "We are talking about the abolition of any kind of Christian society in the Middle East as a whole."
While Geagea, a 39-year-old former medical student, sees the future in apocalyptic terms, he has nonetheless attracted a powerful following in the mountainous Christian enclave east of Beirut.
Figures such as Geagea and Chamoun continue to insist on "decentralization" of Lebanon, which means, in practice, the break-up of the country into cantons loosely united under a weak federal government.
The process is well advanced in the Christian sector, which has its own ports and tax collectors and is even trying to open its own airport. Similar "cantonization" is under way in the Druze areas of the Shouf Mountains, but other Muslim groups, particularly the Sunni Muslims, are afraid that they will be left with little territory to call their own. Syria, which wants to retain a unified Lebanon, is also strongly opposed to the canton approach.
President Gemayel at one point floated a trial balloon proposing that in return for Syrian deployment in West Beirut, the Lebanese Forces militia should hand over positions to Christian elements of the Lebanese army.
Geagea and others recoil at the comparison between the Lebanese Forces and the ragtag Muslim militias of West Beirut and have so far refused to consider withdrawing.
In fact, Geagea said the Lebanese Forces under his command, which he estimated at 15,000 men but Western sources place closer to 10,000, is being "restructured" to "take the shape of an army."
Emphasis will be placed on "unit structure" and officer skills through the creation of an officer training school, Geagea said, noting that the school has already produced 150 graduates.
Chamoun maintained that while frequently squabbling, the Christians would refuse to compromise on three demands: abolition of Lebanon's system of allocating government jobs by religious quotas, maintenance of the powers of the president and equality in Parliament between Christians and Muslims.
The Christians are demanding "secularization" of civil service jobs because the Christian community is better educated than its Muslim counterpart and would be expected to win the lion's share of the jobs in a completely secular system.
Asked if she regarded Geagea as the political hope for the Christians, one government official, also a Maronite, said, "Off the record 'no,' but on the record, 'maybe.' "
Some Western diplomats here see Gemayel and the Syrians moving closer together as the Lebanese president is pressured by Geagea and others and the Syrians seek the means to put pressure on the Muslims of West Beirut.
"It's a natural alliance," said one Western envoy recently.