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An Old Fox Begins Taming a Young Lion

April 17, 2001|URI DROMI | Uri Dromi, a reserve colonel in the Israeli air Force, is the publications director at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — The Israeli air force attack Monday on a Syrian radar post in Lebanon was long overdue.

For too many years, the Syrians have been using Hezbollah, their proxy in Lebanon, to harass Israel indirectly without having to face the consequences. Israel, all those years, committed the error of struggling against Hezbollah instead of taking the bull by the horns, namely confronting the real puppet-master: Damascus. That seems to have changed.

Why does Syria continue its support of Hezbollah's militant activities against Israel when Israel fulfilled its obligations according to the U.N. Resolution 425 by fully withdrawing from Lebanon last May?

The answer is simple: What really frightens the Syrians is that, after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, it is their turn. According to U.N. Resolution 520 and even the 1989 Taif Accord, which the Arab countries themselves adopted, all foreign forces should leave Lebanon, including the Syrians. Add to this the unprecedented voices of students, journalists, clergymen and others in Lebanon demanding that the Syrians leave, and you get the picture. The Syrians need a certain level of turmoil to justify their continued presence in--or rather, occupation of--Lebanon, as "protectors."

Syria is heavily invested in Lebanon, with about 35,000 troops plus 1 million Syrian workers. And there is another factor, drugs. U.S. narcotic agencies have concluded that without Syrian military participation, the huge system of growing, producing and transporting drugs in Lebanon would have collapsed, much to the chagrin of the top people in Damascus for whom Lebanon was a source of income and a power base.

When the young Bashar Assad took over as president after his father died, I believed he would prevail over the old guard. And when he bragged about trying to introduce the Internet into Syria's hitherto closed society, I had great hopes. While Assad means "lion" in Arabic, it seemed to me that a breakthrough would come not thanks to the lion but rather through the mouse of the computer. I was wrong.

Like a novice who must prove that he doesn't shame his father's legacy, Assad has taken a strong anti-Israel stance. At the Amman Arab Summit, he went as far as saying that Israel society is more racist than the Nazis, something even his father wouldn't have said. Those of us who have been around nodded knowingly. Unlike his father, he hasn't had his baptism of fire with Israel. He didn't lose the Golan Heights like his father did in the Six-Day War of 1967; nor did he witness 100 of his aircraft get shot down in one afternoon in the 1982 Lebanon war.

That is precisely the problem. Instead of doing the wise thing by curbing Hezbollah, talking with Israel and getting the Golan Heights back, the young Assad may act rashly. If he does, he might find out that the old fox, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has some tricks in store for him.

Maybe Syria's old guard will prove useful after all, by quieting Assad down. Or the senior statesman in the region, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, might do the job. Or Syria's wish to be accepted as a member of the U.N. Security Council could prevail.

One way or another, the moment of truth for Assad has come. Let's hope he doesn't act foolishly.

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