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SYRIA - The Palestinian Factor.

Before Hariri was assassinated, the Baathist regime had invited to Damascus Sultan Abul Einein, a Fatah Palestinian leader based in a refugee camp in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. It was alleged that Abul Einein returned from Damascus with arms and explosives. It was also said later that arms were being distributed among Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and among some Lebanese groups which used to have militias during the civil war.

In his March 5 speech to the Syrian parliament, President Assad said Syria's troops in Lebanon will be redeployed to the Beqa' Valley and, after talks within the Higher Lebanese-Syrian Council, will be withdrawn to the Lebanese-Syrian border. Later Syrian Culture Minister Buthaina Sha'ban explained that the troops will be withdrawn to within the Syrian side of the border. But Assad brandished another security card by telling the Syrian parliament: "Get prepared for another May 17 and our forthcoming battle to foil it" - he was referring to a Lebanese-Israeli peace agreement signed on May 17, 1983, but later foiled by Syria and its Lebanese allies in another cycle of civil war.

Within hours of Assad's speech, Abul Einein told the Lebanese and foreign media the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - said to exceed 450,000 - will not give up their weapons unless and until "we have received [international] guarantees that UN Resolution 194 will be implemented. This calls for the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in pre-1948 Palestine, i.e., Israel proper, which Israeli leaders have said repeatedly they will never accept. In this specific angle of his security card, Assad raised the potentially explosive issue of resettling the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, which neither the Lebanese nor the Palestinians would even want to discuss.

Islamic Jihad, one of the armed Palestinian rejectionist groups which field suicide bombers against Israel and which both Israel and the US call terrorists, is headquartered in Syria and Lebanon. In Lebanon, as in Syria, Islamic Jihad is based in Palestinian refugee camps. But whereas the Assad regime has some control over the camps within Syria, those in Lebanon are said to be fully armed and out of reach to the Lebanese Army.

Accusations by Israel that Syria was behind a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv on Feb. 25, which killed five Israelis, proved damaging to both Assad's regime and its Lebanese allies - although Damascus denied it had anything to do with it. Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bombing; but six hours later, it denied the claim, apparently under pressure from the Syrian government. The Syrian reporter who first wrote of Islamic Jihad's acknowledgment was said to have received phone calls from Syrian officials who criticised him for his lack of "patriotism".

That only served to highlight the weakening grip Assad's regime had over political groups and militias which it has supported and which in the past would have worked in close co-ordination with Damascus. Instead, Syrian opposition figures say, many now appear to be pursuing their own interests.

"The problem is, everything is being done against their will", said Michel Kilo, a prominent member of the Syrian opposition, referring to the Baathist regime. "But politics as usual simply can't provide the diplomacy needed now", Kilo added.

With Syrian troops in Lebanon now to be redeployed to the Beqa', armed Palestinian groups in refugee camps in Lebanon may act freely against Israel and stage attacks inside the Jewish state. It remains to be seen whether or not the Lebanese Army and/or Hizbollah will be willing and able to control the camps in southern Lebanon.
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Title Annotation:Arab-Israeli conflicts
Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Mar 7, 2005
Previous Article:SYRIA - The Jordan Factor.
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