Lebanon "Gains" Arab & Int'l Confidence As US Tries To Draw Syria From Iran-Led Axis.
BEIRUT - Once again, Lebanon has become a front in a US-led effort to draw Syria out of an Iran-led axis of regional players. With a weak central government facing a stronger Shi'ite movement, however, Beirut seems to be gaining Arab and international confidence and Israel is inviting Syria to a resumption of peace negotiations.
The invitation was made by Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz. But on Aug. 21 Israeli PM Ehud Olmert ruled out peace talks with Syria - suspended since late March 2000 - as long as Damascus "supported terrorism". Yet his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says she has set up a team to negotiate with Syria.
Whether or not the US and Israel can separate the Ba'thist regime of Bashar al-Assad from the Iran-led axis is an issue less crucial to Washington's confrontation with Tehran's Shi'ite theocracy. Syria under Assad is the weaker link in the axis, while on the opposite side most Arab states agree with the US that Lebanon must be separated from bargaining over the future of the Golan Heights and Iran should not undermine a renewed Arab-Israeli peace process.
By seeking to fragment the Iran-led axis, which includes Hamas and other Palestinian rejectionist groups, the US is projecting a new image for itself as being the force which aims to keep Arab states united. At the same time, however, Iran is being shown as the force which is seeking to dismember Iraq, Lebanon and other Arab states (see fap2-IraqUnityAug28-06).
A confrontation between Iran and the US over Tehran's nuclear ambitions may be averted as the Shi'ite theocracy is showing signs that ultimately it may accept a bid for uranium enrichment to be done on Russian soil. But Tehran's projection of Iran as a leading Middle East power is being confronted by a broad US-led alliance including the most prominent Sunni regimes in the Arab world.
Meeting in Cairo on Aug. 20, Arab foreign ministers expressed their readiness to contribute to Lebanon's reconstruction. With Saudi Arabia and Kuwait having deposited $1.5 bn at Lebanon's Central Bank to boost its currency, the UAE pledged to rebuild schools and hospitals in south Lebanon and help remove landmines; Qatar will rebuild the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail. Kuwait is setting aside $300m for the rebuilding effort. This is in addition to $550m promised by Saudi Arabia for reconstruction and humanitarian aid.
Saudi Arabia has offered to host an Arab summit meeting for Lebanon in Makkah. An international donors conference for Lebanon is to be held in Stockholm on Aug. 31. But these are still not strong enough to give the Beirut government the type of support it needs to assert its independence from the Iran-led axis. The alternative the Lebanese government has is of Beirut becoming the capital of an Iran-led axis in the Middle East rejecting American leadership and not letting the EU play a major role in the region.
Apart from generous Arab aid and a Saudi determination to outmatch Iran's financial assistance to Lebanon's Shi'ites led by Hizbullah, Beirut has received financial and humanitarian help from France, the US and other OECD states. But the inclusion of Israel in a US-led alliance against Iran is undermining the Arab states' role. The Lebanese army spreading to the south still needs that all "illegal armed groups" there vacate the area so that UN-authorised foreign forces can join in the peacekeeping effort.
Israeli PM Olmert on Aug. 21 ruled out any resumption of peace talks with Syria, which have stalled since late March 2000. He said: "As long as Syria continues to support terrorism, there is no basis for negotiations. When Syria stops support for terror, when it stops giving missiles to terror organisations, then we will be happy to negotiate with them". The PM was speaking one day after Israel announced that Foreign Minister Livni had set up a ministerial working group on Syria, seen in the local media as a first step towards renewal of peace talks. Syrian legislator Suleiman Haddad on Aug. 21 downplayed comments by an Israeli cabinet minister in which he called for a resumption of peace talks, saying: "Israel's actions contradict its words. If it really wants peace with Syria, it has to endorse...the land-for-peace principle".
Olmert on Aug. 21 said peace talks with Beirut were possible, echoing a similar statement made by Lebanese PM Fou'ad Siniora. Olmert said: "If the Lebanese government continues this way and if Prime Minister Siniora continues with his efforts to bring about a change in Lebanon, I have no doubt that negotiations" with Beirut will lead to formal relations between Israel and Lebanon.
Olmert's comments came as a fragile truce ending a 34-day Israeli offensive on Hizbullah and Lebanon entered its second week and followed similar comments by Siniora on Aug. 20, when the Lebanese PM said: "I believe if Israel uses all its senses and thinks wisely, I think it will be an opportunity. The opportunity is how to convert what happened in Lebanon - the calamity that was inflicted on Lebanon - to make it an opportunity to move towards real peace".
Israel and Lebanon have never had diplomatic relations since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. Relations between the two have been governed by a 1949 armistice agreement which is upheld by the 1989 Ta'if accord that ended the Lebanese civil war. Hizbullah, which like Iran's Shi'ite theocracy does not recognise Israel's right to exist, says the armistice agreement never guaranteed Lebanon's sovereignty - due to numerous Israeli violations since 1949 - and insists on its Iran/Syria-backed resistance against the Jewish state.
Syria, however, is ruled by a Ba'thist dictatorship - with Bashar having inherited the presidency after his father, Hafez al-Assad, died in June 2000 - which has had a military disengagement accord with Israel since 1974. Brokered by then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, this accord has since made the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights peaceful; but, in the process, Damascus has relied on Palestinian resistance in south Lebanon (since 1969) and Hizbullah's fight since in 1982 to keep a hot proxy war with the Jewish state (see news4-LebanonRegionalJuly24-06, and news5-LebIranUSJuly31-06 & news8-LebME-Aug21-06).
In his speech on Aug. 15, President Assad accused Lebanon's ruling "March 14 movement" of preparing to negotiate peace with Israel, charging that "the March 14 movement was an Israeli product". But Assad said Lebanon's "[Hizbullah] resistance was for peace" - thereby implying that the Iran-sponsored Shi'ite movement was a bargaining chip at Syria's disposal, which has angered Tehran as well as the leadership of Hizbullah - with both Iran and Hizbullah believing they had themselves, and not the Arabs, defeated Israel in the latter's 34-day offensive.
Olmert on Aug. 21 said: "We should not forget that thousands of rockets", fired by Hizbullah at Israel during the Lebanon offensive "came from Syria". Earlier in the day, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres made a similar statement, saying: "I do not think the time has come for such talks, if the Syrians are serious about wanting a return to negotiations they only have to let us know". A veteran statesman and Nobel peace laureate, Peres told Israeli public radio: "We have already had five attempts to talk to Syria and we have even gone a long way in our proposals for the Golan Heights, but all in vain".
In contradictory remarks, however, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Israel's Army Radio Israel could withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace with Syria, adding: "Any political initiative is preferable to a military one, including with Syria and Lebanon. We have paid similar territorial prices for peace with Jordan and Egypt. Syria is a very important country for everything that concerns this region. I think a negotiating initiative with it is legitimate and something Israel should take". Asked about Dichter's comments, Olmert said: "I recommend not to get carried away with any false hopes. When Syria stops support for terror, when it stops giving missiles to terror organisations, then we will be happy to negotiate with them. We are not going into any adventure when terror is on their side".
Hizbullah's representative in Iran Abdullah Safieddine on Aug. 21 ruled out the disarmament of his party and said the group will buy new weapons if necessary. "There will not be disarmament, the UN Resolution  has not demanded that either", Safieddine told Shargh newspaper. Safieddine's comments came as a Turkish daily on Aug. 21 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented five Iranian planes and a Syrian aircraft from flying into Lebanon, suspecting them of transporting arms to Hizbullah.
UN Resolution 1701 calls for disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon - including Syria-backed groups - and prohibits any sales or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon except as authorised by its government. Safieddine said: "God willing, we will have no problem. If anybody wants to resist they will seek to buy arms if need be. As long as the [Lebanese state's] army does not have the capability to defend the country we have to defend it".
A member of Lebanon's March 14 parliament majority, Democratic Gathering MP Akram Chehayeb, later said Safieddine's statement was "not worth being taken seriously", adding: "The Lebanese government is now dealing with this issue and it has unanimously approved Resolution 1701, hence it is committed to it and so is Hizbullah". Chehayeb said once the Lebanese Army was completely deployed to the south, the question of the occupied Sheb'a Farms was resolved and Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails were released, "Hizbullah weapons will lose their role and the government will be the alternative. It is a question of time. We are realising the resolution step by step and once all that is taken care of, we will deal with the weapons".
The UN resolution calls for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and deployment of Lebanese Army as well as 15,000 international peacekeepers to replace Hizbullah fighters based in the south. Israel wants Hizbullah fighters pushed back to the north of the Litani River, 30 km from the border, in the hope of ending the hail of rocket attacks that were unleashed during the 34-day war. Safieddine dismissed the call, saying: "Hizbullah does not have a [military] base. It is the residents of south Lebanon. They cannot send them out. Hizbullah will remain as it is. We even believe this war made the spirit of resistance more serious. We will do our political work but we will defend our country too".
Iran - as well as Syria - is accused of channelling weapons to Hizbullah - an allegation Tehran denies, saying it only provides "moral support". The Turkish newspaper reported that one of the aircraft Ankara forced to land at the Diyarbakir airport in eastern Turkey belonged to a private Iranian airline.
According to Hurriyet and other reports in the Turkish media, the aircraft was not allowed to leave Diyarbakir for Lebanon, after US intelligence reports indicated the plane carried three missile launchers and containers with Chinese C-802 land-to-sea missiles, identical to the missile that hit an Israeli Navy battleship in July. The detained aircraft entered Turkish airspace after having been prevented from flying over Iraq. Turkish authorities would not elaborate on whether these actions were part of a new policy. It is believed that Ankara has acquiesced to US and Israeli requests to impose stricter surveillance on the passage of Iranian aircraft and their cargo.
Lebanon's Defence Minister Elias Murr on Aug. 20 warned that any group breaking the Aug. 14 ceasefire with Israel would be "decisively dealt with" and considered a traitor. His strong words indicated concern that factions other than Hizbullah, such as Palestinian rejectionists backed by the Ba'thist dictatorship of Damascus, might try to draw retaliation from Israel by firing on the Jewish state.
At a news conference in the Defence Ministry, Murr said Hizbullah was committed to the ceasefire, adding: "We consider that when the resistance [Hizbullah] is committed not to fire rockets, then any rocket that is fired from the Lebanese territory would be considered collaboration with Israel to provide a pretext [for Israel] to strike back".
On Aug. 19, Murr threatened to stop the deployment of the state's army in south Lebanon, a key demand of UN Resolution 1701, after Israel's helicopter-borne commando raid deep in the Beqa' area near Ba'albeck at dawn on Aug. 19. Israel said it launched the raid to interdict weapons shipments for Hizbullah from Syria. One Israeli officer was killed and two soldiers were wounded, one seriously. But it was later revealed that the failed Israeli raid, by commandos dressed in Lebanese army uniforms, was intended to capture a member of the Hizbullah leadership. Three Hizbullah fighters were killed in the shoot-out before the commandos were lifted back to Israel by helicopters of the Jewish state.
Lebanon was in the process of sending 15,000 Army soldiers to the south, putting a government force in the region for the first time since 1969, as part of the ceasefire requirements. Murr's concern arose from the past practice of Palestinian radical groups backed by Syria of firing rockets on Israel but on a much smaller scale than the Hizbullah barrage during the 34-day war.
Lebanese PM Siniora made a tour of devastated south Beirut, surrounded by reporters and TV crew. He was accompanied by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hizbollah backer and head of the Shi'ite Amal party, who said the two leaders spoke with one voice. He then stood aside as Siniora said: "What we see today is an image of the crimes Israel has committed... There is no description other than a criminal act that shows Israel's hatred to destroy Lebanon and its unity". Whole neighbourhoods in the Shi'ite suburbs of Beirut were destroyed.
The EU on Aug. 25 agreed to send almost 7,000 troops to Lebanon, resolving an impasse over who would lead and staff the new UN monitoring force. Italy and France confirmed they would respectively send 3,000 and 2,000 troops with contributions by Spain, Poland, Belgium and Finland. The force will be led on the ground by France until February, after which Italy will take charge. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the EU for providing the "backbone" of the force. But it is still not fully manned - and prospects for its mission in the war-torn south of Lebanon are far from clear.
After an emergency meeting in Brussels with EU foreign ministers, Annan said: "The conference has been a success. More than half of the force has been pledged today". French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the problems surrounding the new force had been resolved mainly because of a new system of chain of command, under which the force commander would answer to an Italian general at the UN in New York. He said this would allow the force to respond much more quickly. Annan said the first wave of 3,000-4,000 soldiers would be send "in the next few days or a week" and insisted - despite scepticism from French President Jacques Chirac - that the target of a force totalling 15,000 troops would eventually be met. Some 2,000 soldiers are already in place as part of UNIFIL, the UN's current monitoring force which has been in Lebanon since 1978.
At a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Aug. 25, Chirac described the 15,000 figure of as "altogether excessive", saying: "I can't imagine having 15,000 Lebanese soldiers [which are also being deployed to the south of the Litani River] and 15,000 from UNIFIL in an area half the size of a French department without their bumping into each other". But Annan said he hoped Turkey would join the force. He emphasised commitments from Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, even though Israel has objected to the three Muslim states, with which it does not have diplomatic relations.
On Aug. 23 Syria threatened to close its border if UN troops were deployed along the frontier between the two states. Israel says a UN presence in the area is necessary, to prevent Iranian arms reaching Hizbullah through Syria. But Annan said the UN would only deploy along the border at Lebanon's request - and had not been asked yet.
According to the concept of operations circulated recently and which has not changed, the force will monitor the cessation of hostilities and accompany the Lebanese army as it deploys throughout the south and along the blue line. Its jobs will include ensuring humanitarian access, and assisting the government of Lebanon "at its request, to secure its borders and entry points, to prevent entry of arms and related material". It is tasked with ensuring the area "is not used for hostile activities of any kind", and to "resist attempts by forceful means to prevent it from discharging its duties".
The Syrian Game: March 14 movement politicians in Beirut are accusing the Ba'thist regime of Syria of playing a spoiler role in Lebanon. Pro-Syria elements in Lebanon, notably including President Emile Lahoud, have been obstructing the dispatch of large EU forces to the south. Lahoud has been particularly opposed to a plan by Paris to send a 4,000-stong force and for the French to take command. Lahoud was opposed to the arrival of Turkish troops - although President Assad on Aug. 22 gave a positive response to Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul who visited Damascus to seek an explanation of the Syrian position.
Assad on Aug. 23 voiced strong opposition to deployment of peacekeepers along the border between Lebanon and Syria. The US, France and other powers have said such a deployment was necessary to prevent the smuggling of Iranian and other arms to Lebanon through Syria. There are about 80 routes on this border through which the Ba'thist regime has been smuggling arms and fighters to Lebanon since Syria send its armed forces to Lebanon in April 1976. Although Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in late April 2005, these smuggling routes have been kept open for Damascus-backed armed Palestinian groups - including PFLP-GC of Ahmad Jebril and Fatah Intifada of Abu Musa who function outside the framework of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
On Aug. 23, Assad was quoted as warning any deployment of peacekeepers along the border between Syria and Lebanon amounted to an act of aggression. He said such a move would provoke armed hostilities between Syria and Lebanon.
PM Olmert on Aug. 22 said Israel would only lift its air and sea blockade of Lebanon once an international force was deployed along Lebanon's borders with Syria. His remarks came during talks with the UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. In a talk-show on the US government TV network al-Hurra on Aug. 22, March 14 movement politicians and analysts revealed that, apart from the fact Hizbullah kept its fighters and arsenal hidden south of the Litani River, armed Syria-backed groups were still active in that area.
It was disclosed on al-Hurra that Syria-backed groups had threatened to wage a sabotage war on the French command of UNIFIL, and that the Ba'thist regime was preparing to send al-Qaeda operatives to terrorise the UN peacekeepers.
Among revelations made on al-Hurra, Assad's regime in 2005 had a plan to shoot at protesters and kill many to prevent them from marching on the Lebanese presidential palace to seek the downfall of Lahoud, a puppet of the Ba'thist dictatorship whose term as president was forcibly extended for another three years in September 2004. The Syrian force behind that plan was said to be headed by Assef Shawkat, Assad's brother-in-law and head of Syria's military intelligence who is among the main suspects in the Feb. 14, 2005, murder of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri. Assad's regime is facing a UN probe into that murder and other Lebanese figures killed in 2005 and before; a UN report on this will be issued in September.
To defuse a crisis with Syria, PM Siniora on Aug. 24 told French TV5 Lebanon had no aggressive intentions towards Damascus. He said UN forces could help Lebanese troops secure the country's borders "if requested" by Beirut, adding: "The Lebanese army deployed to the border has no hostile intentions towards Syria. On the contrary, we want friendly ties". Syria on Aug. 24 decided to stop providing electricity to Lebanon.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat News Service|
|Date:||Aug 28, 2006|
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