Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Second-front Sideshow - Is Syria turning Lebanon into a battle zone again?

When Syria's late president, Hafiz al-Asad, died in June 2000, Syrian officials circulated the story that he had expired while on the phone to his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, as the two men discussed what they would bequeath their children's generation.

The story was bogus, but also symbolic: Even in death, it implied, Asad maintained a grip on Lebanon, one that stretched on into an indistinct future. The message was fundamental enough to Syria's interests that the country's apparatchiks had to edit Lahoud into Asad's passion play.

In the past week a more pernicious aspect of the Syrian-Lebanese bond -- Syria's use of Lebanon in its conflict against Israel -- has threatened to amplify the war in the Middle East. As the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to the region, he risked finding himself breaking up not one but two fights, one of them along the southern Lebanese border.

Two key developments occurred locally after the recent Arab League summit in Beirut in late March. As Israel pursued its onslaught against Palestinian towns in the West Bank and Gaza, successive attacks were mounted against Israel from Lebanese territory. By yesterday, the attacks had escalated from individual actions into the rocketing of northern Israeli towns.

Meanwhile, Syria announced last week it would redeploy its forces from Beirut and its surrounding areas to Lebanon's Biqaa Valley, thus implementing clauses of the 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war. Ironically, the Syrians spent years undermining Taif by ignoring calls for a redeployment.

To put this all into context one must return to May 2000, when Israeli forces withdrew from south Lebanon after a 22-year occupation. The UN drew a boundary between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria that it called the "blue line." The Lebanese government recognized the line, except in an area of southeast Lebanon known as the Shebaa Farms. It argued the land was Lebanese, and that Israeli must vacate it. The UN replied the land was actually Syrian and that Lebanon had no claim to it.

There was a simple reason for the Lebanese assertion: It satisfied Syria's need for a motive to pursue armed conflict by proxy in the Shebaa Farms, in order to maintain military leverage over Israel during future negotiations over the Golan Heights. (Israel seized the Golan from Syria in 1967.) Syria and Lebanon gave Hizbullah a green light to harass Israeli forces in the farms area, defending this as legitimate resistance.

Cut to the latest attacks (which in targeting Israeli territory were different from Hizbullah's operations in the occupied Shebaa Farms). These were the work of Damascus-based Palestinian groups. The Lebanese government declared it opposed military action against northern Israel and arrested several Palestinian militants. However, the attacks continued, mainly because Syria wanted them to. Coupled with the Hizbullah raids in the farms area, these attacks threaten to provoke a spiraling conflict.

What is going on? Simply, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, is using Palestinian groups to respond to the Arab League's recent adoption of the Saudi peace initiative. The plan offered Israel normal relations with the Arab states in return for a withdrawal from occupied Arab lands, recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital, and a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The Israeli government, led by Ariel Sharon, rejected the plan. Ironically, Syria could not stomach it either: It promised Israel normal relations, which the Syrians had refused to do before Israel accepted a full withdrawal from the Golan. Syria's security-oriented regime cannot easily manage relations with a detested enemy. And Asad fears that once Arab states normalize relations, he will have no leverage over Israel if it reneges on a Golan withdrawal agreement.

So, the Syrians are using cross-border violence in Lebanon to derail the Arab initiative. They hope that a conflict will delay progress indefinitely. The Syrian troop movements inside Lebanon were designed to prepare for a possible Israeli backlash. They allowed the Syrians to regroup their forces, but also to claim that whatever happens henceforth in Lebanon is not their responsibility.

That is, of course, patently false. Israel has seen through the Syrian game, while the U.S. has expressed distaste for Syrian policy. Last Thursday George W. Bush noted: "It's time...for Syria to decide which side of the war against terror it is on." And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld remarked earlier: "States like Iran, Iraq and Syria are inspiring and financing a culture of political murder and suicide bombing."

Despite its criticism of Syria, however, the U.S. has always tolerated paramount Syrian influence in Lebanon: Washington believes that Syria alone can bring Hizbullah to heel. But if Syria is accepted as an agent of stability, then the Bush administration might want to clarify what has become of this quid pro quo in south Lebanon.

If Colin Powell is to make headway in the Middle East, he will have to revive the Arab initiative. It provides the only realistic long-term political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether Asad and Sharon approve of it or not. Indeed, the fact that both men are trying to scuttle the proposal suggests it has genuine merit.