Syria's control of Lebanon prompts Israelis to warn of repeat of '82 war

June 03, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- A foreign, Arab power increases its influence over Lebanon. Israeli officials express alarm. The Arab power gains effective control of Lebanon's government. Israel publicly warns of the danger of a military clash.

In condensed form, that was the acrimonious state of affairs between Israel and Lebanon until 1982, when Israel invaded its northern neighbor. Now Israeli officials insist that the opening scenes are repeating themselves, even though some of the characters have changed. Some of the officials warn that the reaction may be similar, too.

In 1982, the main outside player in Lebanon was the Palestine Liberation Organization, the controlling force in Beirut and the southern half of the country. Syria was an understudy, deploying troops and missile batteries in the east. Lebanon's central government, unable to discipline the outsiders, was more nearly in the audience than onstage.

Israel made its own probes into the south before the full-fledged invasion of 1982. The war that resulted was Israel's attempt to expel the PLO and to take its place as Lebanon's patron, driving out the Syrians in the process.

Today, they're both back, with the leading role played by Syria.

A treaty signed last month by Syrian President Hafez el Assad andLebanese President Elias Hrawi gives Syria final say over actions by Lebanon's reconstituted government, including defense policies.

The PLO is now the understudy. Joining it is Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia closely allied with Iran that did not exist in 1982 and that ironically is partly the product of Israel's prolonged presence in south Lebanon.

With Syria's apparent approval, Hezbollah and the PLO are said to be arming a growing numbers of fighters in southern Lebanon and moving them closer to the strip of Lebanese territory still controlled by Israel.

Israel remains a few small steps offstage, through its control of that self-declared "security zone."

If the Arab and Israeli forces meet -- or even come close to doing so -- officials here say another explosion is the most likely result.

"I have a notion that it will take some time before we see action," said Uri Lubrani, the official in charge of Israeli policy in Lebanon. "But I have no doubt in my mind that there will be, and that we will have to deal with it."

His remarks reflect Israel's concern about recent actions by Mr. Assad. Officials here are uttering more and more dire warnings that the Syrian president has done to Lebanon what Iraqi President Saddam Hussein tried to do to Kuwait.

Israel now views Lebanon as "some kind of a Syrian colony or proxy," said Yossi Olmert, a government spokesman and specialist on Syrian affairs. "We believe that what the Syrians have in mind for Lebanon is to complete the process of swallowing Lebanon and making Lebanon part of the Syrian orbit."

The new treaty makes formal what Syria had already accomplished on the ground through patience and force -- in part at Israel's expense.

Israel and Syria were among the main combatants during much of Lebanon's 16-year civil war. They backed rival militias, fought each other in air and land battles in 1982, then backed rival would-be governments.

Israel succeeded in expelling the main force of the PLO an driving the Syrians back to northeastern Lebanon. But Syria had the larger victory, since it slowly but firmly filled the power vacuum created after Israel's withdrawal back to the south and the collapse of the U.S.-supported Lebanese government of President Amin Gemayel. Mr. Assad backed and created winners amongthe militias and then used the muscle of his army to make them subservient to Syrian control.

The treaty puts his success in writing. Promising "brotherhood and permanent friendship," the agreement gives Syria a veto over virtually all actions by the government of Lebanon. It calls for "total coordination" in all matters, from foreign affairs to agriculture to the workings of the press -- once the most free and aggressive in the Middle East.

Israel is worried how the agreement might affect long-established understandings with Syria about what each is willing to tolerate from the other on Lebanese soil.

The understandings usually are called "the red lines" -- as in, cross the red line only at the risk of provoking a war. They affect everything from the deployment of aircraft to where militias can operate. Syria has generally respected the red line forbidding it to station airplanes or missiles in Lebanon; Israel has generally respected the line forbidding it to extend the security zone.

Israel's concern is that Syria may use Lebanese forces to test the lines. If the understandings forbid Syrian troops from moving closer to the security zone, they don't necessarily apply to the PLO, Hezbollah or the reconstituted Lebanese army.

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