Syria will gain most from the Beirut raids

Hizbollah is being used to needle Israel, says Andrew Rathmell
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Israeli helicopter gunships yesterday rocketed Beirut for the first time since 1982. It was a calculated escalation in the worsening cycle of violence between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon. The raid, coming a day after Hizbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, marked the failure of US diplomatic efforts to contain the violence and led to fears that Israel may repeat its 1993 offensive, which displaced 300,000 Lebanese civilians. After that offensive both sides agreed to respect certain lines - no attacks on Lebanese civilians and no attacks into Israel. Both sides have now violated the accord, with bloody consequences.

The attacks were the latest turn in the escalating cycle of violence that has gripped Lebanon in recent weeks. On Wednesday a Hizbollah mortar attack killed an Israeli soldier and wounded three others in Israeli-occupied south Lebanon, a day after a barrage of Katyusha rockets had hit the Galilee settlement of Kiryat Shemona, wounding 36 Israelis. The Katyusha attack was portrayed as retaliation for a roadside bomb in Braachit, north of the Israeli-controlled zone, which killed one Lebanese civilian and injured three on Monday.

The number of Hizbollah attacks on Israelis has risen to more than 100 this year. By the end of March Israeli patience was wearing thin. It was only American influence that restrained Israel from launching a large- scale retaliation.

A combination of Israeli electoral politics, Syrian-Iranian tensions and Syrian-Israeli rivalry lies behind the current escalation. Prime Minister Shimon Peres knows that his weak point in the Israeli elections, set for 29 May, is his perceived softness on security. The steady trickle of Israeli losses in south Lebanon has helped to undermine a reputation already tarnished by the Hamas suicide bombings. By authorising tough action in Lebanon he hopes to regain some credibility. He hopes that an Israeli escalation will force the United States to intervene and pressure Syria, whose troops sit astride Hizbollah's supply lines, to clamp down on guerrilla attacks. Israel's director of Lebanon affairs, Uri Lubrani, warned that Syria would get a "whopping" if it intervened to protect Hizbollah.

Syria is not, however, the only power with influence over Hizbollah. Recent Syrian-Iranian tensions have highlighted the role Iran still plays in supplying Hizbollah's military wing, Islamic Resistance, with training and arms. Iranian training has been partially responsible for the movement's spate of military successes and there are evident splits between Hizbollah's military and civilian leaders.

The former have vowed to fight on while the latter recognise that their future lies in acting as a Lebanese political party since a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty would make their armed struggle redundant.

Divisions between Syria and Iran and within the Lebanese Shia community have been accompanied by signs that the more moderate Shia movement, Amal, has recently increased its armed operations against Israeli troops. Amal is unequivocally a Syrian proxy and has been used in the past to counter Hizbollah when the latter got out of hand. The return of Amal as a military force may demonstrate that Syria fears it is losing control over Hizbollah's fighters.

In any case, for now Syria is happy to see Hizbollah make Israel bleed. The Syrian-Israeli peace talks have been halted since the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings and will not restart until after the Israeli election. President Hariz al-Assad does not however want to be forgotten. By allowing Hizbollah to operate he reminds Israel that it cannot live securely without peace on the Golan, in return for which Assad would pacify south Lebanon.

If the fighting escalates and grabs international attention, so much the better. His nightmare is to be marginalised while Israel builds a regional block with the Palestinians and Jordan. The current flare-up in Lebanon can only serve to distract Israel from this goal.

The writer is a Middle East specialist at the Centre for Arab Gulf Studies, Exeter University.