Jewish Journal

Israel Assesses Syrian Withdrawal

by Gil Sedan

Posted on May. 5, 2005 at 8:00 pm

Syrian President Bashar Assad, with his wife, Asma, speaks to press at Rome funeral for Pope John Paul II. Photo GPO/BP Images/JTA

Syrian President Bashar Assad, with his wife, Asma, speaks to press at Rome funeral for Pope John Paul II. Photo GPO/BP Images/JTA

As Syria formally pulled its troops out of Lebanon last month, the Lebanese and the Syrian chiefs of staffs gave speeches to mark the occasion. The words they used were flowery, but their faces were grim.

The military ceremony at Rayak, an air force base in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, marked the end of Syria's control of Lebanon after almost 30 years.

Syria completed its retreat from Lebanon on April 26. It was forced out by a campaign of unprecedented street protests and heavy international pressure, including an American naval show of force off the shores of Beirut that featured U.S. warships.

If, indeed, Syria was responsible for the Feb. 14 assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, its leaders seriously miscalculated. Hariri's murder united Lebanon's Christian, Druse and Sunni communities, who for years had meekly accepted the Syrian yoke, to demand that Syria leave Lebanon.

As a U.N. team in Damascus gathers details about troops, assets and intelligence to verify that Syria's withdrawal is complete, opposition forces fear the Syrian story is far from over.

In Israel, legislator Efraim Sneh of the Labor Party agrees with that assessment.

Syrian President Bashar "Assad's only real interest is to keep the Alawi minority in Syria in power," Sneh told JTA. "He will do everything necessary to achieve that goal, if need be by renewing intercommunal strife in Lebanon or by encouraging Hezbollah to heat up the border with Israel."

On the other hand, some believe Assad will prefer a lower profile just now and so will avoid confrontation with Israel and the United States.

"This is an historic process," Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) outgoing chief of operations, told Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper.

However, he added, "Syria has not relinquished for even a moment its influence in Lebanon and its wish to return there. They build their continuous influence there in other ways."

Most of Syria's allies remain in place. Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian puppet, shows no sign of stepping down voluntarily.

In fact, it was Syria's demand to extend Lahoud's tenure, pushing through an unpopular amendment to Lebanon's constitution last September, which led Hariri to resign the premiership and make common cause with the anti-Syrian opposition.

Some believe the Syrian withdrawal will improve Israel's regional position.

"The Syrian withdrawal is good for Israel because it weakens the Syrian regime and puts Hezbollah in a trap," said professor Eyal Zisser, head of Middle East studies at Tel-Aviv University. "They know they may be next in line forced to disarm. Israel's enemies are weakened, and Israel does not need to move a finger."

But obstacles remain. Syria continues to deploy hundreds of intelligence agents in Lebanon; its Hezbollah ally continues to operate as an armed terrorist group, with an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel, independent of the Lebanese government; and teams of Iran's Revolutionary Guards still operate freely in Lebanon.

"According to one school of thought in Israel's intelligence forces, the Syrian military presence in Lebanon contributed to the relative stability of Lebanon," defense analyst Ze'ev Schiff wrote in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. "Without the strong hand of Syria, Lebanon could slide into internal strife, which could even lead to a civil war, just as happened in the 1970s."

Israel wanted Syria out of Lebanon, and got its wish, said Thaer Abu-Saleh, a political scientist who describes himself as "a Syrian living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights."

But other developments Israel would like to see in Lebanon -- the dismantling of Hezbollah, deployment of Lebanon's army in the south and an Israel-Lebanon peace treaty -- remain remote, he said.

Ever since it helped end Lebanon's civil war -- after years of stoking it -- Syria has been Lebanon's key power broker. When Hariri was able to re-establish Lebanon as one of the economic hubs of the Middle East, it was thanks in part to the stabilizing effect of Syria's military presence.

"The security of Lebanon is linked to that of Syria and vice versa," Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, one of the leaders of Lebanon's opposition, has said. "We do not want, God forbid, to become a center for plotting against Syria."

Lebanon's opposition hopes that as Syrian troops leave, they will take with them the corruption and bribe-taking that characterized their occupation. But Syria is unlikely to give up the economic benefits of its forced partnership with Lebanon.

Among those benefits are jobs for Syrian workers, who send some of their wages back home to their families, a much-needed source of capital in a desperately poor country.

Has the assassination of Hariri, the billionaire who was the engine behind Lebanon's economic revival, brought the era of economic stability to an end?

Not necessarily, Zisser said

"Lebanon stands a good chance to continue on the path of stabilization," Zisser said. "This is not the Lebanon of the '70s, when Syria had the final say on everything."

One of the changes in Lebanon is the new coalition between the country's Christian Maronite and Druse minorities.

In 2001, the Maronites, Syria's strongest opponents in Lebanon, marked a formal reconciliation with their traditional Druse foes to form an anti-Syrian alliance. Hariri's tacit association with the opposition promised to bring his Sunni community on board.

Since June 2001, Syria has carried out a series of troop redeployments in Lebanon, cutting its military presence from 40,000 troops to the 15,000 that were there before the final withdrawal.

Some speculate that Syria's allies -- principally Hezbollah -- will purposely make trouble now to "prove" that Lebanon needs Syria's firm hand. But not everyone thinks this will happen.

"Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah does not want to heat up spirits," Zisser said. "He would rather continue and enjoy the consensus and preserve the old rules. He, too, is waiting for developments in the Lebanese arena."

Lebanese parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held by the end of May. The Lebanese opposition is calculating that it will win those elections, overturning the pro-Syrian majority in Parliament. That would limit Syria's ability to dictate events in Lebanon and almost certainly would end Lahoud's presidency.

Hezbollah, the powerful and aggressive representative of Lebanon's Shi'ite community, avoided the rallies opposing Lahoud and seeking to force Syria out of Lebanon. Shi'ites even mounted a huge rally calling on Syria to stay. Ziv, the IDF general, said the Syrian withdrawal could have unforeseen consequences.

"The Syrian pullout brings the Iranians back to the picture," he said. "Syria out, Iran in. The Iranians will work directly with Hezbollah. Whereas in the past we could exert pressure on Syria to tame Hezbollah, we have less leverage on Iran."

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