Syria has long claimed it is tied to Lebanon
in more ways than one. Over the last two weeks this statement has
proven to be far more on the money than Syria would have ever imagined
- or hoped for - as the wave of terrorist attacks that reared its ugly
head in Lebanon has now exported itself to Syria.
Terrorist acts in Syria have been rare, but over the last two weeks
a number of bombs have exploded in and around the Syrian capital. The
government in Damascus remains tight-lipped, as always, when it relates
to security matters; however, statements by President Bashar Assad
allude to the origin of those attacks as Salafi groups based around the
northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli.
Needless to say, Mr. Assad's statements have set off warning bells
in Beirut as the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora
looks with great trepidation at the statements from Damascus as well as
the recent deployment of about 10,000 Syrian troops backed by armor and
rotary-wing aircraft along the Lebanese border, even if the official
government line is to tone down those fears.
Speaking to this reporter, a Lebanese government spokesman repeated
what the Syrians have been saying, that Syrian troops have deployed to
the border area to fight smugglers. Asked if there was reason to worry,
the spokesman told this reporter that the "Syrians are free to deploy
their forces on their side of the border." He added, however, that the
government in Beirut has asked the Lebanese army to establish liaison
with the Syrian military.
Lebanon has good reason to worry. Syria has long eyed Lebanon as a
rebellious province rather than as an independent country. Damascus has
yet to open an embassy in Beirut, despite promises by Mr. Assad to
French President Nicolas Sarkozy last July when the Syrian president
was brought out of years of isolation and invited by Mr. Sarkozy to
attend the Bastille Day military parade in Paris. Yet, instead of one
ambassador arriving in a shinning limousine, there are fears in Beirut
that Damascus instead may dispatch several thousand envoys armed with
AK-47s and traveling aboard T64 Soviet-era tanks.
How did the security situation deteriorate in Lebanon to this point?
Things started going bad for Lebanon on two fronts. First is the
growing strength of the Salafi movement in the country, but primarily
in the north around the port city of Tripoli. This new development has
Syria, which long has battled the Islamists, very worried.
Second is the growing power and influence of Hezbollah and absence
of the Lebanese state's authority in the country's south. This has Israel very worried.
Washington is taking those fears seriously. The Pentagon is preparing
to install X band radars in Israel's Negev Desert early next year. The
X band radar, once fully installed, would give Israel 2 or even 3 times
the range in which it could track inbound Iranian and Hezbollah
missiles. It also would give Israel the possibility of attacking Iran
and Hezbollah without too much worry about retaliation.
And if Syria and Israel can agree on any one thing, it most likely
would be that the weakness of the Lebanese state and its inability to
control its own internal security are detrimental to the security of
both Syria and Israel.
Speaking at a conference in Geneva last month organized by the
International Institute for Strategic Studies, Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland,
a former director of Israel's National Security Council, told delegates
that he advised that the Israeli Cabinet need not view negatively the
re-entry of Syrian troops in Lebanon. His reasoning was that, with
Syria in charge of security in Lebanon, Israel would have a return
address to any terrorist activity coming its way across the Lebanese
border. Damascus would be liable to retaliation and therefore would
ensure that Hezbollah followed the new guidelines. A case in point is
the calm that has existed on the Golan Heights since Syria and Israel
signed a truce in 1973. Whereas with Hezbollah on its own in south
Lebanon, retaliation, as demonstrated during the Second Lebanon War two
summers ago, remains futile.
Having said that, Israel appears to be rearming its air force with
new weapons designed to fight this new type of nonconventional war.
Israel is acquiring 25 F-35 fighter jets made by Lockheed Martin. The
plane comes in three versions: the conventional type, a carrier type
and the VTOL - vertical take-off and landing. This advanced technology
would allow Israel to deploy its aircraft relatively closer to the
Lebanese border, to protect conventional airfields - a difficult task,
given that conventional airstrips would be prone to Hezbollah rocket
While a renewed Syrian incursion into Lebanon would be a setback in
terms of establishing democracy in the Middle East, it would address
one of Syria's and Israel's major problems. Of course, Syria might not
act on its urge to cross that international frontier into Lebanon
without at least a tacit green light from Washington. And just how
likely is Washington to turn the other way, given that Mr. Siniora's
government is considered pro-American?
Suffice it to remember one of Winston Churchill's famous lines: "We
have no lasting friends, no lasting enemies, only lasting interests."
The Lebanese have been unable to consider themselves a unified
nation, behaving instead as feuding clans. They have allowed outside
political influences to give credence to another saying, from the
Latin: "Divide et impera," or divide and rule.