Cambridge, Mass. – President Reagan rightly feels compelled to keep the central Government of Lebanon from falling under Syrian control. His options, however, are limited by the growing unwillingness of Americans to lose more Marines' lives in an inconclusive war. At this point, there is only one way to prevent the Syrians from taking charge: by winning over those Lebanese now allied with Syria against their own Government. If these forces can be brought back in, the Government in Beirut can survive and the Syrians will eventually have to leave.
Time is running short for President Amin Gemayel and Prime Minister Chafik Wazzan. Gemayel came to power in September 1982 with hopes of getting all foreign troops to leave Lebanon, of extending government control to the entire country, and ending the civil war. Not only are these goals farther away than ever, but severe economic problems have driven morale to new lows. Many Lebanese now despair of their country ever emerging as a peaceful whole again.
The United States cannot afford to let the Syrians take over. President Reagan has so explicitly put United States prestige on the line in Lebanon that abandoning our allies there would constitute the worst American military loss since South Vietnam. This would send an ominous signal to other states relying on the United States and present the Soviet Union with a major victory. It would mean American acquiescence in the destruction of a staunchly pro-Western government. It would undo the May 1983 accords establishing peaceful relations between Lebanon and Israel while greatly strengthening Syria, America's prime adversary in the Middle East.
To prevent these developments, wooing Lebanese opposition forces away from their alliance with Syria is critical. As it is now, the anti-government elements in Lebanon, primarily Moslems, want Syrian power nearby because they see armed revolt as the only way to win a larger role in Lebanese politics. The groups and militias fighting the Government since 1975 feel deprived of a fair share of power and wealth; if they could be convinced that armed conflict will fail, but that negotiations will work, they too might demand a Syrian pullout.
The United States can help by pressuring the Lebanese Government to offer a better deal to its domestic enemies. Amin Gemayel talks of bringing them in politically, but until now has offered nothing concrete. His motto, "Liberation Before Reconciliation" — suggesting that fundamental changes must await the Syrian departure—hardly reassures those parties depending on the Syrians for military aid.
Steps toward reconciliation might include taking a new census, opening Government offices to leaders of the opposition forces, scrapping the six-to-five ratio of Christians to Moslems in Parliament, and holding new elections. In addition, the Government could demonstrate its good will by considering ways of incorporating existing militias into the armed forces and granting partial autonomy to some regions of Lebanon. Were the United States to demand such steps as the price of support, its assistance is so vast—military aid, diplomatic backing, economic aid, moral encouragement — that refusal would almost be inconceivable.
These concessions would help President Reagan convince the American public that the Lebanese Government is worth backing. They would also provide the basis of a United States policy toward the rebel forces. When the opposition understood that the Gemayel-Wazzan Government must make concessions to keep American support, it would begin to take more seriously the communal talks begun in Geneva last year and now suspended. Further, once it saw the futility of trying to overrun a Government firmly backed by the Americans, it would be more inclined to begin talks and abandon the Syrians.
Weaning the rebels away from Syria holds the only hope to save the Lebanese Government. So long as Damascus finds enough disgruntled Lebanese, Syrian troops will stay in Lebanon. Only after internal Lebanese political problems are addressed and the Lebanese achieve some unity can the Syrians be expelled. Faced with consensus in Lebanon, they would have no political justification to stay; and if they persisted anyway, American and Israeli troops would then be in a position to evict them.
The United States need to convince the opposition in Lebanon that its position is most improved by talking, not fighting; that the United States offers more than Soviet Union.
Daniel Pipes, lecturer in history at Harvard University is the author of "In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power."