Lebanon is willing to offer far more generous economic and political concessions to Syria to obtain the withdrawal of its troops than the Beirut government has granted Israel, according to Lebanese officials.
The Lebanese are concerned that the prickly, hard-line Syrian government may not come to the bargaining table and will try to plunge Lebanon into greater chaos. Israel will not pull out its troops under last week's accord with the Beirut government until Syrian and Palestine Liberation Organization forces also leave Lebanon.
In Paris today, Lebanese Foreign Minister Elie Salem expressed hope that the Syrians will agree to talks. "I do not believe that the Syrian position is final," he told reporters.
"I cannot conceive that Syria will remain adamant in its present position and expose Lebanon to the infinite danger that we face," he said. "The choice is between withdrawal with this agreement or the extinction of Lebanon."
Unless Syria agrees to negotiations in a "reasonable time," Salem said, the agreement with Israel will die a "natural death."
In an indication of the tension still gripping Lebanon, 23 bodies have been found in the Chouf mountains following a wave of kidnapings carried out by Christian militiamen and Moslem Druze, Lebanese security forces said Sunday. Reuter quoted the security forces as saying that more than 100 people had been kidnaped by the rival units following the death Saturday of a Druze sheik in the explosion of a land mine. The Druze have had the support of Syria in previous clashes with the Christians.
Advisers to President Amin Gemayel are pondering various contingency plans in the event Syria follows through on veiled threats it has made since the Lebanon-Israel accords. These include the possibility that Syria would close its borders with Lebanon, blocking the country's vital trade link to the Persian Gulf, or stir up conflict inside Lebanon. The advisers are even trying to figure out what they would do if Syria declares the area of Lebanon it occupies an independent state.
Advisers to Gemayel said they always knew that the Syrian phase of the negotiations for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon would be difficult and they say they were prepared for the initial rejection of the accords with Israel. But the sustained, vehement attack, especially the polemical assaults on Gemayel and his government amid warnings of new civil war here were a surprise.
Yet neither Lebanese nor foreign diplomats here express the measure of confidence about the situation that is found in the comments coming out of Washington.
The confidence in Washington involves a "certain amount of whistling in the dark," said a diplomat familiar with the affairs of both the Americans and Lebanese. "It is a tactic of 'keep smiling and hope that the Syrians will be reasonable.' "
"Optimism is premature," he added.
To encourage Damascus to enter the negotiating process, the Lebanese have indicated they are willing to strengthen their economic ties, allowing Syria access to the port of Beirut, making arrangements for financing to help Syria develop agricultural and mineral resources. And they say they are willing to negotiate security arrangements similar to those given Israel as the price for troop withdrawal.
In Lebanon's agreement with Israel, questions of trade were assigned to a joint commission for study. The accord does not require Beirut to recognize Israel.
There is also a strong feeling that if Syria agrees to bargain it would also want some deal with the United States, such as Washington pressuring Israel to return the Golan Heights, and a big cash payment from Saudi Arabia.
"Syria's not going to be inclined to withdraw unless they come out ahead some way," said one western diplomat. "It's not just going to be security."
But these are surmises. The Syrians have set no price for withdrawal and they have not spelled out in any detail their objections to the Lebanese-Israeli accord, which they condemn daily.
The vehemence of their rhetoric has led to growing concern about their intentions. On the other hand there is the feeling that if the polemics are designed to raise the ante for withdrawal, then the Syrians, by rejecting the accords so strenuously, may have no way to come to terms with Lebanon without losing face.
In discussions with Foreign Minister Salem, the Syrians did say they regarded the security zone Lebanon agreed to in its accord with Israel as a threat to Syria's security and they viewed the presence of Israeli military in joint supervisory teams that will inspect security arrangements as a residual force.
The Lebanese-Israeli "liaison offices" created in the agreement are diplomatic missions in disguise, the Syrians said.
"They interpret certain things erroneously, then they shoot them down," a Lebanese official said with exasperation.
The Syrians have refused so far to begin negotiations with Lebanon on withdrawal and they rebuffed U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib when he returned to the Middle East last week, saying they had nothing to discuss with him.
There is a strong feeling here that, if talks with Syria are to be successful the American role will have to be substantially less than it was in the negotiations with the Israelis. It is thought that Syria would reject any arrangement that appeared to be a carbon copy of the accord with Israel and because they would regard a high-profile U.S. role as meddling in what they consider an Arab matter.
To the suprise of some foreign diplomats, the Lebanese express confidence that they will be far better able to handle themselves in negotiations with Syria than with Israel.
"All we knew about the Israelis was secondhand," a senior adviser to Gemayel said in an interview last week. "With the Syrians we have had relations for very many years. At least we know them."
Those relations have been troubled, however, since shortly after Syria's 1976 intervention to stop Lebanon's civil war between the predominantly Christian rightists and the mostly Moslem leftist and PLO forces.
Despite the harsh Syrian rhetoric and the implied threats, Syrian action has been mild. On Tuesday when the agreement was signed, Syria halted traffic in the areas of northern and eastern Lebanon it occupies. It has not repeated this move.
But the Lebanese are making contingency plans in the event that the rhetoric escalates into action. The Lebanon National Council for Economic Relations is seeking alternative routes to Lebanon's principal export markets in the Persian Gulf if the link through Syria is closed.
Gemayel has held rounds of meeting with rival Lebanese sectarian leaders in recent days, giving special attention to the festering violence in the Chouf mountains overlooking Beirut, an area ripe for Syrian intervention.
Over the weekend there were scores of revenge kidnapings between warring Phalangist Christian and Moslem Druze militiamen following the killing yesterday of a Druze sheik in a mine explosion.
The Chouf is now occupied by Israeli troops, but officials in Jerusalem have indicated they intend to withdraw from the mountains soon whether or not Syria agrees to pull out its soldiers.
The prospect of withdrawal by Israel, which has sometimes played a mediating role in the mountains, has raised fears here of an all-out battle between Christians and Druze.
But the problems do not end there. Nabih Berri, leader of Amal, a political group representing Shiite Moslems, said yesterday that a partial Israeli withdrawal consolidating their position in south Lebanon where Shiites are concentrated appears to him suspiciously like plans for a permanent occupation.
"I warn the United States first and the Israelis that if there is any partial withdrawal, the people of the south in Lebanon of Amal will make revolution," Berri warned. "Don't do it."