Fighting for their political life and the hope of salvaging three weeks of peace talks, Lebanon's Christian majority dug in for a last stand Saturday amid growing signs that their fight to eject Syria from Lebanon is doomed to fail.
Increasingly isolated even from their own nominal Christian government in Beirut, Christian Parliament leaders met through the night in this Saudi mountain resort for the second straight day in an attempt to end 14 years of civil war.
Their talks, conference sources said, could also amount to a political crisis point for Christian army commander Maj. Gen. Michel Aoun, whose threats to ignore any peace plan that doesn't end Syrian occupation have prompted even his strongest supporters in Parliament to consider breaking ranks and moving forward.
Unable to sway Aoun during telephone conversations Saturday morning about a compromise political reform plan, hard-line Christian leader Georges Saade "couldn't face" another telephone call Saturday afternoon and asked other Christian leaders to talk with Aoun, one conference source said.
"There is a kind of tension in the air. Not very good," said another source close to the talks, who asked not to be identified.
The late-night meetings came amid growing pressure to end three weeks of negotiations on a proposed national reconciliation charter that would end the Christians' historic dominance in Lebanon and disband the feuding militias that now constitute the nation's government.
Stalled for weeks over the Christians' refusal to endorse political reforms without a pledge for withdrawal of the Syrian forces that now control two-thirds of the country, the talks came to a head Friday night when Arab League mediators announced a series of new concessions to the Christians that pointedly did not contain any firm schedule for Syrian troop withdrawal.
In two long days of meetings since Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal's return from consultations in Damascus, Christian deputies have been cornered between continued threats from Aoun in Beirut and the certainty of renewed civil war if they do not sign the political reform pact.
Turning up the political heat even further, diplomats from the United States, France and Britain arrived in Taif on Saturday in yet another attempt to pressure Christian leaders into signing the pact that Arab League mediators have described as the last chance for peace in Lebanon.
Sources close to the Christian camp said it is likely that a majority will, within the coming day, endorse the reform plan, which would divide Lebanon's Parliament evenly between Christians and Muslims, despite last-minute statements of opposition from Aoun and top Christian politician M. Dany Chamoun.
Throughout the talks, being sponsored by a tripartite Arab League committee that negotiated the current cease-fire in Lebanon, Christian deputies have sought a stepped-up timetable for withdrawal of the 40,000 Syrian troops that first entered Lebanon in 1976 as a peacekeeping force.
Muslim deputies have urged against a speedy pullout, arguing that the Syrian forces are all that stand against further chaos in a country that is literally governed by warring militias.
In an attempt to break the logjam, Prince Saud held two days of meetings with Syrian President Hafez Assad and other top Syrian officials, returning Friday with some new concessions that would limit the points at which Syrian troops could be stationed after an initial two-year redeployment.
The charter proposed by the tripartite committee calls for Syrian troops, after establishment of a new reform government in Lebanon, to assist Lebanese forces in reestablishing control over the country and then, within a maximum of two years, pulling back to the Bekaa Valley and "other positions" nearby. The charter provides that the Syrian government, "in agreement" with the new government in Lebanon, would decide the exact configuration of the redeployment and how long Syria would remain there.
For the Christians, the wording of the charter has been unacceptable both because it gives the Syrians the upper hand in decision-making and because it contains no firm schedule for a complete Syrian pullout. Moreover, they have been alarmed at its provisions allowing Syrian troops in "other positions" in the Bekaa region, language that the Christians believe could leave the way open for Syrian troops to remain in the mountains above Beirut, within artillery range of Christian enclaves.
Syria has been reluctant to relinquish its strategic positions in the hills and along the critical Beirut-to-Damascus highway.
But Saud, in a series of meetings with Lebanese deputies Friday and Saturday, reported that Syria has agreed that troop deployment in those "other positions" will be permitted only if agreed on by a joint Syrian-Lebanese military committee.
The Syrians also agreed that discussions about the Syrian redeployment would be determined jointly by the Lebanese and Syrian governments, and that either party could call in the Arab League committee to mediate should trouble arise.
As a final concession, Assad reportedly endorsed a Christian demand to establish a security zone free of Syrian troops around the Lebanese Parliament building while deliberations to elect a new president are under way.
The concessions were clearly not enough for Aoun, whose spokesman Saturday night called the proposed agreement "a trap for all Lebanese . . . (that) will not be any more than a surrender to the Syrian will."