Thu, 06 Jan 2000

Syria stands to benefit from violence in Lebanon

By Miral Fahmy

BEIRUT (Reuters): The origins of a surge of violence in Lebanon in the new year are still unclear but some analysts see Syria, keen to maintain a grip on its small neighbor, as a key beneficiary.

Political commentators and diplomats said fierce fighting in the north of the country and attacks in Beirut could help Damascus buffer its role as a vital power-broker in Lebanon.

"I don't think Syria is actually inciting the violence but you must keep in mind that if there is insecurity here, then one party will benefit, particularly now that there are peace negotiations and the issue of Lebanon will be on the table," said a political writer who asked not to be named.

"Making Lebanon seem inept and unstable will be a strong suit in Syria's case to remain in the country after an eventual Israeli withdrawal. It gives them leverage too in negotiations with Israel," he added.

Almost 40 people have been killed since the mountains around the northern town of Sir ed-Dinniyeh rang in the new year with clashes between the army and Islamic militants.

Newspapers have described the fighting as the worst involving the army since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.

As often in Lebanon, the clashes have taken on a sectarian twist, with security sources linking the militants to a string of attacks that targeted churches in October and November.

In an apparently unrelated incident, a Palestinian fired grenades and bullets at the Russian embassy in Beirut on Monday, killing a policeman and wounding two before he was shot dead. A grenade later exploded near an army checkpoint at the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain el-Hilweh in the south.

Syria, which has 35,000 troops in Lebanon, started a crucial round of negotiations with arch-foe Israel in the United States on Monday. The open-ended talks aim to forge a framework for an Israeli withdrawal from Syria's Golan Heights and for future ties.

"The peace talks, the attacks, the clashes are all just too bizarre a coincidence to be unrelated, don't you think?" said one diplomat.

Diplomats and analysts say Syria has in the past used its control over the guerrilla warfare against Israel's occupation of a strip of south Lebanon as a lever in peace negotiations.

Some say the current wave of violence is a ploy by Syria to convince Israel and Washington it holds the key to stability in Lebanon, expected to start its own peace talks soon.

"Even though it seems that other institutions, like the army and the diplomatic community, have been targeted, the only target of this violence is Lebanon itself," As-Safir newspaper said.

"By making Lebanon seem unstable just as it is about to start peace talks with Israel gives the world the impression that it is still an immature teenager that needs guidance."

Syrian forces entered Lebanon as peacekeepers in 1976 to halt the first round of a civil war whose sectarian roots were complicated by Palestinian guerrillas and Israeli invasions.

The Taif accord which ended the war stipulated a Syrian withdrawal but instead Syria entrenched itself in Lebanon's political institutions by putting loyalists in the government and drafting a cooperation agreement still in force.

Syria also has a firm grip on Lebanon's mainly Christian north. "Islamist groups have always had a presence in north Lebanon. It's not news. But what's news is that they've started up now. It begs the question why," the political writer said.

The army identified the militants fighting in north Lebanon as members of the radical Takfir and Hijrah group. Beirut newspapers and security sources said the fundamentalists included Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians.

Security sources said the group might be related to Palestinian radical Ahmed Abdul Karim, or Abou Mehjen, who is on the run from a Lebanese death sentence.

But some analysts and newspapers suggested Syria might be the target, not the beneficiary, of the violence.

The Palestinians, afraid their own negotiations with Israel would be eclipsed by the Syrian-Israeli talks, might be lashing out at Damascus through radicals based in Lebanon, they say.

"Everything is possible. Maybe they are worried, in fact all Palestinians in the diaspora are worried about that. They could be trying to block the Israeli-Syrian talks," a Jerusalem-based Palestinian analyst said. "Lebanon is very fragile."