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Sharon Is Changing The Rules Of The Game In Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon sees in Syria's military presence in Lebanon a good opportunity to widen the scope of his confrontation with the Arabs and a way out of the Palestinians' humanitarian trap against Israeli forces. On April 16, after Israeli war jets attacked a Syrian position along Lebanon's strategic Mdairej-Dahr Al Baydar line at the western edge of the Bekaa, Sharon's top advisor Raanan Gissin told CNN that Israel had changed the rules of engagement in Lebanon.

Gissin said Syria could "no longer have it both ways", adding: Syria's military presence in Lebanon from then on must prevent any anti-Israel attacks from across Lebanese territory. Otherwise, Israel will single out Syrian positions in Lebanon for reprisal attacks. In other words, if Syrian wants to stay in Lebanon it must pay the price of ending all anti-Israel hostilities from Lebanese soil.

The fact that Israel retaliated against the Syrians for an attack on Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms by Hizbollah on April 14, an attack in which one Israeli soldier was killed (the first Israeli casualty since "Mr. Security" Sharon came to power in March 2001) made the situation more complicated for Damascus. After Israel withdrew unilaterally from South Lebanon on May 25, 2000, Syria told the Lebanese government that the Shebaa Farms - a very small enclave which Israel captured from Syria in the June 1967 war - were part of Lebanon's southern territory; but Israel and the UN insisted they were part of Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. Since Israel did not withdraw from the farms, Syria-backed Hizbollah said its struggle to liberate any Lebanese territory still occupied by Israel continued. So Hizbollah has occasionally attacked Israeli forces in the farms and has since called its actions "legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory". Since Syria only gave the UN a simple letter - with no maps and documents - saying the farms were part of Lebanese territory, the UN says any attack there was a violation of a UN Security Council resolution that called for Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.

In other words, as a Lebanese Christian leader says, Syria gave Beirut as a present "a bomb in Lebanon's name set to explode against Israel, at Lebanon's expense". But Sharon now says because the Christians want the Syrian presence in Lebanon ended, Israel is no longer keen on attacking vital Lebanese infrastructure and is more interested in singling out Syria's military positions for retaliation (see this week's Recorder). If this leads to war between Israel and Syria in Lebanon, Sharon will be satisfied that an ensuing Lebanon civil war could eventually cause a dismemberment of both Lebanon and Syria.

Thus, Israel is expected to hit Syria's military positions along the strategic Mdairej-Dahr Al Baydar line, the western edge of the Bekaa plateau or valley, which has been heavily fortified by Syria. This area lies under an air corridor which Israeli war planes were using in air raids on Damascus. As this area had no air defence at the time, Israeli air force jets could fly through it safely and reach Damascus within minutes. Before Syrian troops entered Lebanon in April 1976, Damascus considered this area its weakest point in its military confrontation with Israel. In 1969, when then Lebanese President Charles Helou was negotiating the Cairo agreement with the Palestinians under the auspices of then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser - an agreement which was to legalise the PLO's military presence in Lebanon and its anti-Israel raids from across Lebanon's southern border and which was partly to cause Lebanon's civil war - Syria's then defence minister Hafez Al Assad asked for this area to be fortified by Syrian troops and a Soviet-supplied Syrian air defence system. Beirut refused at the time because this was to amount to Syrian occupation. It was thanks to Abdel Nasser's intervention that Assad did not have his way with the Lebanese government. But when Syrian troops entered Lebanon in April 1976, their first move was to seize and fortify this area. Since then, Syria has considered this area the most vital part of its presence in Lebanon. If Syria does not prevent Hizbollah from attacking Israel in Shebaa Farms and if Sharon orders reprisal attacks to concentrate on Syrian positions in this area, then an Israeli-Syrian war in Lebanon would become a strong possibility. This could spark off a Christian-Muslim civil war, with the Christians continuing to insist that Syria's military presence in Lebanon must end. Sharon could find an Israeli-Syrian war in Lebanon a way out of international pressure on his government resulting from Israel's fight with the Palestinians as Israeli-PA peace talks are likely to remain deadlocked as long as Sharon refuses to give the PA more territory than its present holdings - see Arabs-Israel).
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Apr 23, 2001
Words:788
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