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Assad Rolls the Dice at His Own Peril

Middle East:If Israel's northern border is attacked now, it will result in a clash with Syria. The ball is in Damascus' court.

May 28, 2000|ZEEV SCHIFF | Zeev Schiff is the military affairs correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz

May 24 marked the opening of a new chapter in the history of the drawn-out war between Israel and Lebanon, its northern neighbor. On that day, the Israel Defense Forces pulled out of the security zone in Lebanon that they had occupied.

Yet the fighting on Lebanese territory began long before 1982. Thirty years ago, on May 12, 1970, Israel carried out its first big foray into southern Lebanon. I accompanied the Israeli forces as a representative of the Israeli press and witnessed the IDF reprisal operations in response to attacks on Jewish settlements in the Galilee.

Many Israeli forays and all kinds of operations have been carried out since, including full-scale war in 1982, when the IDF advanced to Beirut.

Four years earlier, in 1978, the U.N. deployed a multinational force in southern Lebanon that stopped neither the war on Israel nor what followed. It is hoped, now, that the United Nations will succeed where it once failed.

While Israel's enemies in Lebanon have changed through the years, they never included the Lebanese army itself. Initially, it was Palestinian organizations that attacked Israel from Lebanon. After 1982, the Shiites banded together against Israel, which made the mistake of remaining in Lebanon for three more years.

When the IDF withdrew in 1985, it left behind the South Lebanon Army militia to operate under its aegis in the security zone along the border on the Lebanese side.

The fight against Israel was continued by the Shiite Amal organization until a more extremist body, Hezbollah, took over. Hezbollah was also responsible for blowing up the camps of the American Marines in Beirut and of the French forces that arrived as part of a multinational force.

The Palestinians were either expelled or left and were replaced by Lebanese Shiites, who fought against the Israeli occupation. Not satisfied with just attacking Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, they periodically fired rockets at Israeli settlements in the Galilee, causing Israeli casualties.

There are two other important protagonists in the background: Syria and Iran. The Syrians actually directed Hezbollah operations, supplying them with arms and ammunition that came from Iran via the Damascus airport. The Iranians supplied the Shiites in Lebanon with money, training, arms and other types of aid.

The climax was reached when, a few months ago, the Iranians delivered long-range rockets to Lebanon. From time to time, the war spread beyond the borders of the Middle East. When Hezbollah was beaten in Lebanon, it refrained from a direct hit against Israel, but sent people out to blow up the offices within the Jewish community in Buenos Aires and, later, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, having kept his word that he would pull the Israeli soldiers out of Lebanon, hoped to do it in the context of a peace treaty with Damascus. But these talks ran aground, and the government decided on a unilateral move.

From now on, Barak has set new rules. He has instructed the IDF to spare no effort in the defense of Israel from within and not beyond its borders. This is a different security concept: Israel defending itself vis-a-vis Lebanon without occupying territories of a neighboring country.

Admittedly, this was attempted years ago and failed. Barak repeatedly issues reminders that Israel will deal a powerful blow to those who attack its citizens and soldiers within its borders and to those who are behind such an attack.

The key to the future in Lebanon is largely in Syrian hands. For the time being, there is no telling what Syrian President Hafez Assad intends to do.

Damascus has two alternatives. One is that Assad will continue to back terrorism against Israel from Lebanese territory by various means. He also could recruit Palestinians from other organizations under his control. That course of action would lead to a military confrontation with the Syrians, first in Lebanon and later possibly in the Golan Heights. In the course of these clashes, Lebanon stands to suffer serious damage to its infrastructure.

Assad well knows the risks, including those to his son Bashar's legacy. He has been warned.

The other choice is a cooling down process, in the wake of which the peace negotiations with Israel would be revived and would include Lebanon, which now is, practically speaking, under Syrian rule. Assad doubtless understands that after the withdrawal from Lebanon, the Israeli public will experience no pressure to make concessions on the Golan and certainly not on Sea of Galilee water to which he also lays claim. Assad understands that pressure in Lebanon to pull out his troops will increase now that Israeli forces are no longer deployed there.

That is the great gamble of Barak and his government. He can succeed and thus turn over a new leaf. But if Israel's northern border flares up again despite the withdrawal, and if Israel becomes involved in a military clash with the Syrians, the gamble will have been a bad one.

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