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Is Damascus the Key?

Beirut Waits

by ROBERT FISK

It’s about Syria. That was the frightening message delivered by Damascus yesterday when it allowed its Hizbollah allies to cross the UN Blue Line in southern Lebanon, kill three Israeli soldiers, capture two others and demand the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

Within hours, a country that had begun to believe in peace–without a single Syrian soldier left on its soil–found itself once more at war.

Israel held the powerless Lebanese government responsible–as if the sectarian and divided cabinet in Beirut can control Hizbollah. That is Syria’s message. Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s affable Prime Minister, may have thought he was running the country but it is President Bashar Assad in Damascus who can still bring life or death to a land that lost 150,000 lives in 15 years of civil conflict.

And there is one certain bet that Syria will rely on; that despite all Israel’s threats of inflicting "pain" on Lebanon, this war will run out of control until–as has so often happened in the past–Israel itself calls for a ceasefire and releases prisoners. Then the international big-hitters will arrive and make their way to the real Lebanese capital Damascus, not Beirut–and appeal for help.

That is probably the plan. But will it work? Israel has threatened Lebanon’s newly installed infrastructure and Hizbollah has threatened Israel with further conflict. And therein lies the problem; to get at Hizbollah, Israel must send its soldiers into Lebanon–and then it will lose more soldiers.

Indeed when a single Merkava tank crossed the border into Lebanon yesterday morning, it struck a Hizbollah mine, which killed three more Israelis.

Certainly Hizbollah’s attack broke the United Nations rules in southern Lebanon–a "violent breach" of the Blue Line, it was called by Geir Pedersen, the senior UN official in the country–and was bound to unleash the air force, tanks and gunboats of Israel on to this frail, dangerous country. Many Lebanese in Beirut were outraged when gangs of Hizbollah supporters drove through the streets of the capital with party flags to "celebrate" the attack on the border.

Christian members of the Lebanese government were voicing increasing frustration at the Shia Muslim militia’s actions–which only proved how powerless the Beirut administration is.

By nightfall, Israel’s air raids had begun to spread across the country–the first civilians to die were killed when an aircraft bombed a small road bridge at Qasmiyeh–but would they go even further and include a target in Syria? This would be the gravest escalation so far and would have US as well as UN diplomats appealing for that familiar, tired quality–"restraint".

And prisoner swaps is probably all that will come of this. In January 2004, for example, Israel freed 436 Arab prisoners and released the bodies of 59 Lebanese for burial, in return for an Israeli spy and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.

As long ago as 1985, three Israeli soldiers captured in 1982 were traded for 1,150 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners. So Hizbollah knows–and the Israelis know–how this cruel game is played. How many have to die before the swaps begin is a more important question.

What is also clear is that for the first time Israel is facing two Islamist enemies–in southern Lebanon and in Gaza–rather than nationalist guerrillas. The Palestinian Hamas movement’s spokesmen in Lebanon yesterday denied that there was any co-ordination with Hizbollah. This may be literally true but Hizbollah timed its attack when Arab feelings are embittered by the international sanctions placed on the democratically elected Hamas government and then the war in Gaza. Hizbollah will ride the anger over Gaza in the hope of escaping condemnation for its capture and killing of Israelis yesterday.

And there is one more little, sinister question. In past violence of this kind, Syria’s power was controlled by the Hafez Assad, one of the shrewdest Arabs in modern history. But there are those–including Lebanese politicians–who believe that Bashar, the son, lacks his late father’s wisdom and understanding of power. This is a country, remember, whose own Minister of Interior allegedly committed suicide last year and whose soldiers had to leave Lebanon amid suspicion that Syria had set up the murder of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister, last year. All this may now seem academic. But Damascus remains, as always, the key.

ROBERT FISK is a reporter for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s collection, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Fisk’s new book is The Conquest of the Middle East.