Syrian Leader Pulls Strings On Israeli-Lebanon Fighting

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad emerged as the major powerbroker in the American-negotiated accord reached Friday by Syria, Israel, and Lebanon.

The written accord prohibits Hizbullah guerrillas, based in Lebanon, from firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel and from using civilian areas in southern Lebanon to launch attacks on Israeli forces. Israel is banned from firing at civilians in southern Lebanon.

The accord will be monitored by a committee that includes Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and for the first time - the United States.

President Assad, who has the ability to rein in or unleash Hizbullah as he perceives it to be in Syria's interest, established himself as the pivotal player in the Mideast drama and once again demonstrated that he pulls the strings in Lebanon.

"It is very difficult to evaluate the agreement in terms of what is written," says Zeeb Maoz, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "To a large degree it will depend on Assad whether this new agreement holds."

Mr. Maoz says that Assad let the Hizbullah loose on Israel because he felt threatened by a recent agreement reached between Israel and Turkey. Israel can now use Turkish air bases and could even launch attacks on missile bases in northern Syria from Turkish soil.

"I think Assad, who is acutely aware of the limits of his power, felt very threatened being sandwiched between these two regional superpowers, and the only way that he could strike back was through Lebanon," Maoz says. "Assad has succeeded in demonstrating to the US and Israel that he can spoil things for a lot of people in the region and that there can be no stability in the region without Syria."

Western diplomats conceded that Assad has again demonstrated his tight control of Lebanon and his pivotal position in any moves to expand Israel's peace with its Arab neighbors.

"Israel handed this victory to Assad on a plate by the way it conducted its offensive against the Hizbullah," says a senior Western diplomat.

Military strikes backfire

The campaign turned against Israel following its April 19 shelling of a United Nations base at Qana in southern Lebanon that claimed more than a hundred Lebanese lives, all civilians.

"The whole episode has merely confirmed that any solution to the Israel-Lebanon conflict will have to go through Damascus and flow from a peace accord between Israel and Syria," the Western diplomat says.

Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah scoffed at the agreement, insisting that the Hizbullah will continue its war against Israeli forces based in the Israeli-occupied buffer strip in the south of Lebanon known as the security zone.

Iran, the main financial and arms backer of Hizbullah, said it regards the diplomatic accord reached after 17 days of hostilities, 200 Lebanese killed, millions of dollars in damage to Lebanon, and the destruction of 1,400 Israeli homes, as a victory.

"We think Hizbullah will be strengthened," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati told a news conference in Damascus Saturday, adding that the accord amounted to the first recognition of Hizbullah's resistance against Israeli occupation.

Peres hails accord as a win

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, at pains to present the agreement as a victory for Israel ahead of May 29 elections, portrayed the accord as a "prelude to permanent peace" with Lebanon and Syria.

"It's the first time that we have Syrians and the Lebanese government as partners," Mr. Peres said at a Friday night news conference.

But Peres's main rival in the May 29 poll, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, ridiculed the Israeli prime minister's claims. "Assad is now laughing in Damascus," Mr. Netanyahu said.

Assad may play along

Maoz, the Tel Aviv University political scientist, says that Assad is likely to cooperate in reining in the Hizbullah only insofar as it serves his interest in securing a broader peace accord with Israel on terms favorable to Syria.

Assad has a record of abiding by agreements that serve Syria's interest, according to Maoz, but does not hesitate to violate them when it is in Syria's interests to do so.

He pointed to Syria's apparent violation of its agreement not to support Kurdish rebels who are fighting for an autonomous region in southeastern Turkey from launching attacks on Turkey from Syrian soil.

There were several recent documented violations of this agreement, he says, following the Israel-Turkey agreement to allow Israel use of Turkish air space.

The Israeli military chief of staff, Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, also at pains to present the accord as a victory for Israel, said that the Israel Defense Forces had never intended to disarm the Hizbullah.

General Lipkin-Shahak conceded that the accord did not amount to a full cease-fire, but insisted that it would bring peace and quiet to northern Israel "for a long time" and had demonstrated to the Hizbullah that it would pay a high price for any violation of the accord.

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