Syrian control in Lebanon is left off negotiating table

Israel, U.S. set issue aside, look to Damascus to rein in guerrillas

February 16, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria and Israel are sharply at odds in their now-frozen peace talks, but there's one thing they and their U.S. mediators appear already to agree on: Syria can keep Lebanon no matter what the outcome of the latest cycle of violence there.

Far from trying to pressure Syria to give up domination of its smaller and less stable neighbor, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is calling on Damascus to help cool down the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.

There's even a suggestion in Israel that Syrian control could be recognized as part of a peace settlement.

Although Lebanon is supposed to have its own negotiations with Israel, Syria has made clear that these talks won't start until Damascus wins concessions from Israel. Lebanon's top leadership has raised no objection.

"Lebanon will not begin any sort of negotiations before Syria makes progress so that we can continue together on the Lebanese-Syrian track," Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss said in mid-January, according to the Daily Star in Beirut.

Israel's government is preparing to turn over the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peaceful relations between the two countries and effective security arrangements. The only big question is where to draw the new border.

It has also announced a planned withdrawal of its forces from their occupation zone in southern Lebanon this summer -- even sooner with the present fighting.

But neither Israel, the United States nor Lebanon has demanded that Syria withdraw the 35,000 troops it stations here.

Syrian presence in Lebanon has a legitimate basis. Lebanon asked Syria to intervene in 1976, as civil war between Christians and Lebanese Muslims and the Palestine Liberation Organization was tearing the country apart. And Israel did not object then.

Syria has intervened at key points since then, at different times taking on Israeli invaders, Lebanese Muslim, Druse and Christian militias and the PLO.

In 1989, when most of Lebanon's factions agreed to the Taif Accord, signed in Saudi Arabia, Syria was authorized to use its forces to carry it out. Fighting between rival Christian armies raged until Syria ousted Christian leader Michel Aoun in a bloody battle that claimed 750 lives.

Two years later, Syria formalized its hold on the country with a Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination creating joint government institutions for defense, foreign policy and the economy.

Now the influence of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad is pervasive, symbolized recently by a large poster of the leader looking down from Beirut's oceanfront corniche, across from expensive new apartments.

Under the Taif Accord, his troops should have withdrawn from coastal areas. They haven't.

For Damascus, its troop presence in Lebanon serves as an important defense against an Israeli attack on Syria through the Bekaa Valley, as almost happened during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Syria also backs the war being waged by Hezbollah guerrillas against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, which has proved a useful tool in keeping the Jewish state on edge.

With its economy depressed and backward, Syria has found an important outlet for its work force in Lebanon, where 700,000 or more Syrians are prepared to work for as little as $10 a day and take home most of their pay.

Lebanon is often described as Syria's Hong Kong.

Before Syria and Lebanon cracked down, elements in the Syrian military were believed to be profiting from thriving opium production in the Bekaa Valley. Reports of drug-related corruption in the Syrian military persisted at least through 1998.

To Lebanon's benefit, Syria has suppressed sectarian fighting and brought a large measure of stability after a bloody 15-year civil war, allowing the country to start rebuilding its once-vibrant trade, tourism and banking industries and to enter the global marketplace.

Lebanese say Syria also helps protect their country against another Israeli invasion, although Israeli bombers strike Lebanon without Lebanese or Syrian retaliation, whether it's the kind of bombing going on now or the lower-level raids the Israelis conduct periodically.

Lebanon's relationship with Syria comes at a high price. Lebanon boasts of developing democratic institutions, yet its top leadership and all important government decisions must be cleared by the dictatorship next door. Phones are tapped by Syrian secret police and there is a widespread fear of saying or printing anything that would draw Syria's ire.

Lebanon's journalists practice self-censorship, according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report. But there are exceptions: The English-language Daily Star has an online "discussion" feature for readers that allows harsh criticism of Syria to surface.

In contrast to the iron grip it exerts at home, the Assad government rules Lebanon with a more worldly touch, deftly using its links with all important sectarian factions, including both main Shi'ite movements.

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