Syria reaffirms role as volatile barrier to Mideast peace

Powell's visit Monday to Syria came after attacks against Israel by Hizbullah.

A series of unclaimed rocket attacks from Lebanon into northern Israel has served as a timely reminder of the key role Syria can play in Mideast stability. The attacks, combined with repeated assaults by the Lebanese Hizbullah organization against the Israeli army over the past two weeks, briefly reenergized the long-dormant Syria and Lebanon diplomatic track when Secretary of State Colin Powell paid an unscheduled visit on Monday to Beirut and Damascus and called for calm. That attention, say diplomats and analysts, is why Syria had given a green light for an escalation along Lebanon's frontier with Israel.

"It was Syria saying; 'look, we're here, why not come and talk to us.' They were telling everybody that they are in a position to escalate or deescalate the situation and therefore cannot be ignored," says Farid Khazen, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut.

That raises an intriguing question. Just how far is Syria willing to go? A possible clue came in the sudden announcement just after the escalation began that Syria was redeploying some of its 20,000 troops stationed in Lebanon. The redeployment was officially said to be in line with a bilateral accord signed in 1989.

But with tensions building along the Lebanon-Israel border, many Lebanese believed Syria was bracing for a potential retaliation from the Israelis. There were also reports that some of the estimated one million Syrian workers in Lebanon were instructed to return home. It is unclear how many heeded the call, but Syrians were reported leaving shantytowns of southern Beirut and areas of south Lebanon.

The escalation appeared initially to be carefully calibrated to avoid a punishing response from the Israelis. But the increasing scale of the attacks made it impossible to guarantee that the Israelis would not respond forcefully. The fighting climaxed on April 10 with four Katyusha rockets hitting a populated area in northern Galilee followed hours later by what UN peacekeepers said was Hizbullah's heaviest artillery barrage against Israeli outposts since 1992.

In further evidence of Syria's saber-rattling stance, pro-Syrian Palestinian factions received orders to mobilize and recruit new fighters in preparation for a possible "opening" of the southern front. "We expect the next step to be an attack on Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. We have no alternative but to mobilize and recruit new members," said Jumaa Abdullah, a spokesman for the Damascus-based, hard-line Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command. Some argue that a limited war between Syria and Israel could boost President Assad's profile in the Arab world, particularly at a time when moderate regimes are under fire from the Arab "street" for failing to adopt harsher measures against Israel.

Professor Khazen says that Syria was "playing with fire" by endorsing an escalation along the Lebanon-Israel border, but doubts that Damascus is willing to engage in a war which it could not possibly win. "Syria believes that Israel will not retaliate. But when people and weapons are involved, an escalation can go out of control," he says. A European diplomat says that although Syria had unleashed Palestinians to stage attacks across the border, it had swiftly reversed the decision.

"The Syrians backed out after a few days when it was clear things were getting out of hand," he says. "It took several more days for the Lebanese authorities to regain control of the border."

Over 50 Palestinians were reportedly detained by the Lebanese Army in the border district, and ten Palestinian gunmen have appeared in a military court in Beirut charged with "exposing Lebanon to hostile [Israeli] action." Army checkpoints have been set up near Lebanese border villages and cars are routinely searched. Plainclothes Lebanese intelligence agents continue to scour remote sections of the border to catch fighters preparing an attack.

The security measures on the ground, coupled with diplomatic pressure and Israeli threats, appear to have produced a clear de-escalation over the past week. No attacks into Israel have been reported since April 10. Even Hizbullah's state-sanctioned operations in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms along Lebanon's south-east border have declined in numbers and intensity. But the Lebanon-Israel border remains a point of tension that can be switched on or off at will and diplomats and analysts agree it is only a matter of time before the frontier heats up once again.

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