Lebanon is trade-off for peace Country's freedom becomes non-issue in Israeli-Syrian talks

January 04, 1996|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With tacit U.S. acceptance, the dream of an independent Lebanon is likely to becoming a casualty of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

In its drive to nail down a peace treaty with Syria this year, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres has signaled that it won't object to continued Syrian control of Lebanon so long as the Israel-Lebanon border is secure.

The future of Lebanon has never been the most burning issue between Israel and Syria. Negotiations between the two bitter Middle East foes, which resumed yesterday at the secluded Wye River Conference Center on Maryland's Eastern Shore, have mostly focused on Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights in exchange for full peace with Syria.

But both countries, and their U.S. intermediaries, recognize that an understanding over Lebanon has to be part of any lasting deal between Israelis and Syrian president Hafez al Assad.

"If they really come to grips with each other, they will have to reach agreement on Lebanon," says Harvey Sicherman, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "And the address will be Damascus, not Beirut."

An Israeli official, in an interview, said Jerusalem's preference is for Lebanon to be independent of Syria. But if Syrians insist on continued control, Israel would need guaran-tees that Lebanon would not be used for attacks on Israel, the official said.

State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, citing the department's news blackout on the Wye conference, declined comment when asked yesterday whether the United States was willing to accept a continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon. He also refused to restate official U.S. policy of supporting Lebanese sovereignty and the withdrawal of all foreign forces.

"I'm just not going to go into that kind of substantive question at a time when all of these issues are being discussed at the Wye Plantation," Mr. Burns said.

For Lebanon, a land trampled by foreign armies for centuries and most recently wracked by civil war and foreign invasion, the result of an Israeli-Syrian deal may be a bitter moment.

"Lebanon has always been an odd man out. Lebanon has always been an afterthought, and that's a tragic reality," says James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, who is of Lebanese ancestry.

"There's a deep fear among the Lebanese that their independence is neither understood nor respected," he said.

Lebanon, with a population of some three million, is unique in its religious mix, with large populations of both Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Christians, its historic cosmopolitan openness and its tradition, between intervals of communal violence, of at least attempting to govern itself democratically.

The Lebanese civil war that began between Christians and Muslims in 1974 became a conflict of Balkan proportions.

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976, amid an Arab clamor to end the civil war that killed 60,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. By 1981, clashes had broken out between Syrians and Lebanese Christian forces.

When Israel invaded Lebanon with the help of Lebanese Christian militias in 1982 mainly to drive out the Palestine Liberation Organization, its forces pushed Syrian troops from Beirut into the Bekaa Valley.

U.S. Marines joined a multinational peacekeeping force in a doomed attempt to build Lebanese sovereignty. But the force quickly became identified as a partner of the Christian leadership. It withdrew shortly after 241 marines were killed in a single truck bomb attack on their barracks.

Syria filled vacuum

Lebanon dropped off the scope of chief international anxieties. Syria resumed control over much of the country.

In recent years, the Syrian forces in Lebanon have stripped the Christian establishment of its long-held superiority in the affairs of the country.

Many Lebanese, particularly its Christians, are bitterly resentful of the Syrian occupation.

"Enslavement to a ruthless totalitarian regime simply can't be called peacemaking by any stretch of the imagination," says Habib Malik, the son of a former Lebanese foreign minister who is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But U.S. calls for Lebanese sovereignty have rung particularly hollow since 1990, when the administration of former President George Bush became indebted to Syria for joining the coalition that fought Iraq in the Persian Gulf war.

When the current Israeli-Arab peace process began in 1991, Syrian hegemony was all but acknowledged. In his memoirs, then-Secretary of State James A. Baker III describes a meeting with Lebanon's foreign minister, adding: "We both knew that Lebanon wouldn't do anything without Assad's approval."

In some ways, both countries have benefited. Syrian troops prevent renewed civil unrest, and Lebanon's free-wheeling capitalism and Bekaa Valley drug trade have both boosted Syria's beleaguered economy.

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