Syria and Israel warn of brutal war in Lebanon

Reports of secret talks in Jerusalem threaten the Middle East peace process, reports Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
Beirut - The seeds of a new and brutal war in southern Lebanon are being sown this week as a virtually powerless ceasefire committee prepares to start work amid threats from Israel of "uncontrollable escalation" and a warning from Syria of a "war option" if the conflict is not resolved.

This menacing exchange has effectively changed the "land for peace" equation upon which the Arabs and Israelis were to come to terms. Now, it seems, the chilling formula is "peace or war". And no one doubts where a new round of violence will start: southern Lebanon.

A report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz yesterday that the new Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has secretly met a Syrian "envoy" in Jerusalem to discuss withdrawing from Lebanon, has only added fuel to the fire. The Israelis have publicly - and the Syrians privately - denied that any such meeting took place; and, given Syrian president Assad's refusal to conduct secret talks with Israel, little credence was attached to the report. But the Syrians can identify a consistent Israeli tactic: to offer a peace - unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, thus isolating Syria - which is unacceptable, and then to blame Syria when it refuses to deviate from the original terms of a solution to the Middle East conflict.

President Hrawi of Lebanon, whose government is controlled by Syria, has already refused to accept a unilateral Israeli withdrawal, not least because Israel is demanding that 22,000 Syrian troops be withdrawn from Lebanon as part of the deal.

Israel knows Syria will not pull its forces out of Lebanon on these terms (so the Arabs suspect); the Lebanon initiative is an excuse to heap further blame on Damascus and make way for a conflict with Syria or its allies on Lebanese soil.

In five days' time, ceasefire officials from the United States, Israel, Syria, France and Lebanon are to pay their first visit to the south of Lebanon. The UN, who were not party to the Israeli-Hizbollah truce, will host representatives of the five powers on the Israeli-Lebanese frontier. But none of the officials has the slightest idea how the ceasefire will be monitored.

More than 170 civilians were killed by the Israelis in April when the Syrian-supported Hizbollah militia fired rockets into Israel after a Lebanese boy was killed by a bomb in southern Lebanon. After Israeli artillerymen massacred more than 100 Lebanese refugees under the UN's protection, the five powers announced they would set up a committee to control the fighting in southern Lebanon. At the UN base at Naqqoura, the old force comman- der's conference room, large enough for 45 people and equipped with two telephones and a solitary map of southern Lebanon, has been set aside for the committee, although the Lebanese are themselves deeply sceptical of its purpose.

In the meantime, Israeli-Syrian relations have worsened sharply. Mr Netanyahu, who has abandoned the negotiations of peace and recognition for Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, has now said that only full-scale negotiations on Lebanon can avoid "uncontrollable" military escalation. General Hikmat Chehabi, the Syrian army chief of staff, has meanwhile said Syria will accept nothing less than "land for peace", and that the "war option" remains open to Syria if the "peace process" fails.

As the Lebanese know all too well, the conflict between Israel and the Syrians is fought out in south Lebanon where the Hizbollah, funded by Iran but encouraged by Syria, continue to assault Israel's occupation troops. Under the terms of the April truce - in effect a "rules of war" agreement rather than a ceasefire - Israeli troops and Hizbollah guerrillas may continue to kill each other inside Lebanon provided they do not shoot into civilian locations, and provided that Hizbollah does not fire Katyusha rockets over the border into Israel. Both sides also undertook not to launch military attacks from civilian areas or from industrial or electrical installations.

Unfortunately, whereas the Israelis want the agreement to disarm the Hizbollah - which would make their occupation of southern Lebanon less bloody - the Syrians (and the Hizbollah themselves) see the committee as legitimising the Hizbollah "resistance" movement. Israelis and Arabs on the committee thus wish to work in precisely opposite directions.

"Just look at the detail," one Lebanese officer commented wearily. "If the Hizbollah kill two Israeli soldiers and then go home to their village, the Israelis are going to want to shell the village. So what are the Hizbollah expected to do? Stand in a field and wait to be hit by a helicopter gunship? And if the Israelis bomb a Hizbollah position, does this mean the pilot can't fly home to Haifa, that he has to land in a field in southern Lebanon? It's ridiculous."

The UN will make no official comment on the work of the ceasefire committee but they are known to be concerned at the possibility of too close a cooperation with the five powers. Nor is it difficult to see why. If UN battalions are asked to give military information about Hizbollah movements to the committee - information to be made available to Israeli delegates - then UN troops' neutrality will be challenged. Equally, UN information on Israeli military positions will have to be made available to the Syrians and Lebanese - and Israel is unlikely to believe that this will not then find its way to the Hizbollah.

All in all, a bleak prospect for southern Lebanon.