Mideast conflict widening

An Israeli retaliatory raid yesterday ups the stakes for Syria, and for Hizbullah rebels.

In a region already on edge, an Israeli bombing raid against a Syrian radar site in Lebanon is heightening concern about the possibility of a wider Middle East confrontation.

Israeli fighter jets struck a Syrian radar station in Lebanon early yesterday as payback for repeated attacks against Israeli soldiers by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed guerrilla group Hizbullah.

It was Israel's most direct strike against a Syrian target since its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and signals a new "price list," for those who attack Israel, says an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Israeli raid also presents newly installed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with his most significant crisis yet, one that will drive a current debate in Lebanon about Syria's heavy-handed role in its affairs.

But if there is a price to pay for actions along the border that separates the three nations, the US may ultimately bear some cost. "Every action like this strengthens fundamentalism, strengthens extremist factions," says Nadim Shehadi, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University in Britain, referring to the Israeli strike. "What you may be waking up here is a monster that would be directed against the American presence in the region."

Throughout the Arab world, the Palestinian intifada has generated popular anger at Israel and its main backer, the US. Arab governments have shied away from the aggressive actions that demonstrators and some columnists have demanded.

For the most part, these governments want to avert a confrontation with Israel or antagonizing the US. In some cases, Arab leaders want to move toward peace with Israel, not further strife.

But they are wary of their frustrated citizens, who generally have few democratic means to express themselves, since the Arab world is mostly governed by monarchs and dictators.

In an atmosphere where governments are perceived to be impotent in the face of Israeli actions against Palestinians and now Syrians, and powerless to turn around the US-led embargo of Iraq, militant groups may find their moment.

No such group is perceived as being more successful than Hizbullah, or Party of God, which has long opted to battle the Israelis with arms, not merely words. On Saturday, Hizbullah fighters attacked an Israeli position in an area known as the Shebaa Farms, which Israel seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when it took the Golan Heights from Syria. Lebanon also claims the Shebaa Farms area, which is why Hizbullah continues attacks against the Israeli military there.

After its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israel maintained what it called a "security zone" in the southern part of the country, and Hizbullah relentlessly attacked Israeli soldiers in the zone, gradually weakening Israeli resolve to stay. Then Prime Minister Ehud Barak unilaterally pulled the Israeli military out of southern Lebanon last year, retreating to borders recognized by the United Nations.

Israelis hoped their withdrawal would halt such attacks - in vain, it turns out. Last October, Hizbullah fighters abducted three Israeli soldiers, and killed others during attacks in November, February, and last weekend.

"All these attacks are for us unbearable," says Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli military spokesman. "What happened yesterday night was a clear message to the people who are supporting [Hizbullah] ... making it clear we can no longer tolerate a terrorist policy on Israel's northern border."

In part, Hizbullah is motivated by a desire to seize Israeli soldiers in order to swap them for the freedom of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails. Israel keeps the Lebanese to trade for long-missing Israelis.

Although Syrian President Assad is said to admire Hizbullah's resolve in tackling Israel, the group's actions now compel him to devise with some sort of response to Israel.

"I don't think he will respond militarily but politically," says Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a political analyst in Damascus. He adds that the Syrian leader may use the attack to portray the Israelis as aggressors and thereby score some political points.

Mr. Shueibi says the Israeli leader has erred in attacking Syria directly, since the threat of a regional conflagration will now force the US to involve itself more intimately in the Middle East. A revived US role might curtail what the Israelis can do to contain the Palestinian uprising.

In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has demonstrated a willingness to ratchet up the firepower and the tactics the Israelis use to contain Palestinian unrest.

Most analysts agree that Syria would be foolish to strike back at the Israelis with force. But Assad has been strident in his condemnations of Israel and will be under pressure to respond.

In recent months the Lebanese have engaged in an unusually audible debate about the Syrian presence in their country. The Syrian military maintains some 30,000 troops in the country and a vigorous intelligence apparatus, despite a 1989 agreement that envisioned Syria's withdrawal.

Until there is a comprehensive regional peace with Israel, the Syrians say, their role in Lebanon is justified.

It isn't clear how the Israeli strike could affect this discussion. "This bombing ... will feed that debate and strengthen those who are against a Syrian presence," says Achmed Moussalli, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut. "Some people here will be happy with this because the real source of power in Lebanon was hit."

But Mr. Shehadi at Oxford says the attack will solidify the Syrian position in Lebanon. "This will certainly quiet anti-Syrian protest, because it will be seen as pro-Israeli."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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