Mon, 07 Feb 2000

Danger for Syria and Israel in Lebanon

By Jack Redden

DAMASCUS (Reuters): The violence in south Lebanon is a dangerous game for both Syria and Israel, a spur to renew their peace talks and a warning of worse bloodshed if they don't.

Since the start of the year, Lebanese guerrillas have killed four Israeli soldiers and six members of the Lebanese militia they pay to help control a strip of occupied land north of Israel's border -- most in recent days.

Israel has threatened revenge and unleashed daily air raids but so far both sides have kept within the terms they accepted in 1996: no firing at or from civilian areas.

The real danger would come if either side violated the limits.

That could complicate efforts to resume peace talks, now halted by a Syrian demand that Israel first provide a commitment to return the occupied Golan Heights.

Israel has called for Syria to stop Hizbollah guerrillas, saying it has ultimate command. Syria just as firmly denies control but defends their right to fight to end Israel's 22-year- long occupation.

Both sides are probably partly right.

Western military experts say Hizbollah could not fire the amount of ammunition unleashed at their enemy without steady resupply, which could operate only with Syria quiescence.

However, Hizbollah also long ago reached a level where Iranian or other foreign trainers they had in the 1980s are not needed.

It is also intensely secretive -- a reason it is more successful than many Israeli foes -- and many military experts doubt the Syrians have tight tactical control.

Israel has accused Syria of ordering Hizbollah to step up the heat in Lebanon to force Israel back to the peace talks on Syrian terms. Syria denies any connection.

In reality, both sides have been using Lebanon as a bargaining card.

Many diplomats cited a looming crisis there by the middle of 2000 as a key ingredient in the decision to resume negotiations in December after a break of nearly four years.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has vowed to take his troops home by July from what is now a deeply unpopular involvement in Lebanon.

He says that will be with an agreement, but does not say what he will do if there is none.

If Israel withdrew without a treaty and the frontier remained peaceful, the Jewish state would have tamed the last active war front.

Syria, which has kept its own front with Israel quiet since 1974, could no longer dangle the prospect of peace in Lebanon as an incentive to return the Golan.

"This is a threat Syria cannot ignore," said an Arab politician, raising the prospect of an Israel content to live in this state of hostility indefinitely provided it is behind peaceful frontiers.

But the pressure cuts both ways. If Barak withdrew from Lebanon without peace, there could be subsequent attacks over the border -- easily arranged with no Syrian fingerprints, said a military expert in Lebanon.

Barak would then be under pressure to retaliate massively. It might return Lebanon to rubble but would be unlikely to provide security.

Israel would have little to show for the 22 years in Lebanon that were supposed to eliminate the threat of attacks.

"Israel's demands that Syria halt Hizbollah attacks could be seen as a sign of weakness," a diplomat said of the view from Damascus.

Syria's President Havez Asad knows Barak wants to honor his election promise to leave Lebanon and says it will be under an agreement with his neighbors.

Perhaps it is a sign that both Asad and Barak are serious about making peace -- and reminded by events in Lebanon of the alternative -- that diplomats in Syria say they detect no indication the peace process is at a dead end.

Intensive contacts are under way. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara last Wednesday met British envoy Lord Michael Levy and spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Last Thursday he discussed the peace process in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and a meeting with Kishichiro Amae, the new ambassador of Japan.

But until peace is actually reached, the struggle in Lebanon is likely to continue: guerrilla successes met by intensified Israeli air raids.

Barak will press on with talk of withdrawal. Syria will not object to attacks that keep up pressure for a treaty that returns all occupied land.

"I don't think Syria can change the tactics of Hizbollah," said the diplomat. "Anyway, they would see no reason to change."