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Syria May Be Wrench in Post-Pullout Plans

Mideast: Israel-Lebanon peace hinges on the power broker's reaction.


BEIRUT — The last Israeli soldiers to leave southern Lebanon on Wednesday shut the gate on 22 years of bloody occupation with a padlock that served to highlight the region's lack of security rather than to guarantee its safety.

Leaders in both countries hailed the completion of the long-awaited pullout, though they clearly were aware that the future of the Israeli-Lebanese border is as uncertain as its past was unstable.

The two nations still face many obstacles to peace, not the least of which could be Syria.

The Syrian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas who fought to oust Israeli troops from a 9-mile-deep swath of southern Lebanon and then moved in to replace them, insist that their victory is incomplete as long as Israel holds a piece of land called the Shabaa Farms in the Golan Heights.

The guerrillas say they will keep their arsenal--augmented suddenly by the discarded weaponry of Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanon Army, or SLA.

"Who will give me guarantees that Israel will not launch attacks against our towns and villages?" asked Hezbollah spokesman Hussein Naboulsi. "We have the right to fire Katyushas [rockets] into settlements if the Israelis kill our citizens."

The weak Lebanese government is being pressed by the United States and the United Nations to assert military control over its southern border region--and by Syria not to do so.

Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss said Wednesday that he hopes for calm on the border. But he told the Beirut daily As Safir that "the dispatch of the army into the area is out of the question."

The overarching question, however, is how Syria will respond to Israel's unilateral withdrawal.

Syria is the de facto power in Lebanon and protector of Hezbollah, which it has used for the last 15 years as its own proxy army to pressure Israel to return the Golan Heights. If Israel wants to stop Hezbollah attacks on its troops and civilians in northern Israel, Syrian President Hafez Assad has argued all along, it will have to give up the heights it seized from Syria during the 1967 Middle East War.

But, failing to strike a deal with Assad, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak decided to undertake a unilateral withdrawal. That left Assad without his biggest bargaining chip, fretting that his demand had been put on the back burner.

Assad has few options. One of them, political analysts say, is to hold out the threat of renewed border violence--such as a clash over the fate of Shabaa Farms.

Israeli officials say that because the real estate was seized in the 1967 war, it should be part of future negotiations over the Golan Heights. And while restating Lebanon's claim to the area, Hoss said Wednesday that he will not make an issue over it now. But Syria says that Shabaa Farms is part of Lebanon.

Barak launched a preemptive attack Thursday against future violence, saying he would consider any assault on Israeli soldiers or citizens from Lebanese soil "an act of war" and would hold both Lebanon and Syria responsible.

"No sovereign government will allow salvos of Katyushas landing in its civilian cities, and Israel is no exception," Barak said.

"Our only objective is to ensure safety along the border," he added. "We will change our rules of engagement; we will not open fire on objectives or targets on the other side of the border unless we are compelled to do so [in] self-defense."

Israel could be expected to launch punishing attacks on Lebanese infrastructure and Syrian bases in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, as well as against Hezbollah guerrillas.

Some analysts say ill health, his nation's economic weakness and his desire for a smooth transition of power to son Bashar will make Assad reluctant to risk all-out war with Israel.

On the other hand, he may be worried that the exodus of Israeli troops will increase popular pressure for the withdrawal of the 30,000 to 40,000 Syrian troops stationed in Lebanon, ostensibly here to help protect this nation from Israel.

There is growing resentment over the political control Syria wields in Lebanon, as well as over the economic impact of more than 800,000 Syrian "guest workers" holding jobs here. Renewed conflict with Israel could be used to shore up support for protecting the Lebanese.

And yet political analysts expect at least a short-term period of relative calm on the border.

"My gut feeling is that we will have a quiet period, mostly because the Israelis have pulled out and the main cause for conflict is largely gone," said Tewfik Mishlawi, editor of the Middle East Reporter.

He said Barak's warning will serve as a deterrent while Syria waits for Israeli attention to turn back to the Golan Heights and Hezbollah's to Lebanon. The group, whose name means Party of God, might want to give its supporters in southern Lebanon a break after two decades of warfare. And it wants to parlay its status as liberator into new votes in parliamentary elections scheduled for August. Hezbollah now holds nine seats in Lebanon's 128-member National Assembly.

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