TEL AVIV (May. 23)
Israel has asked the United States to convey a warning to the Syrian government that it will not tolerate changes in the military status quo in Lebanon as a result of the Syrian-Lebanese “brotherhood pact” signed in Damascus on Wednesday.
Israeli officials consider the accord a virtual takeover of Lebanon by Syria, with some calling it tantamount to annexation.
But the message sent via Washington was to caution President Hafez Assad not to exercise his new control in a way that would cross the metaphorical “red line” that has kept the two nations from clashing in Lebanon in recent years.
The most serious infringement would be the southward movement of Syrian troops toward the Israeli border, which Israel would not permit.
Otherwise, Israel will measure Syria’s intentions by the extent to which it allows terrorist groups to operate from southern Lebanon.
The prevailing atmosphere reported in southern Lebanon was one of “acute tension.”
Palestinian guerrilla groups and two Shi’ite groups, the pro-Syrian Amal militia and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah or Party of God, were said to be bracing for a pre-emptive Israeli military strike in response to the Damascus agreement.
But there were no signs of the massive Israeli military buildup in the southern Lebanon security zone or along Israeli-Lebanese border that had been reported by foreign news media.
Israeli officials have denied anything more than a heightened alert in response to events in Lebanon. Officers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon confirm there have been no unusual Israeli military preparations in the region.
ASSAD MAY PROCEED CAUTIOUSLY
Israeli experts acknowledge Syria won a diplomatic victory by subjugating Lebanon. But one expert on Syria, Hebrew University Professor Moshe Maoz, believes Assad will proceed cautiously.
“I think Syria’s aim is not to swallow Lebanon because they tried to do that in 1976 and had problems digesting it,” Maoz said.
He was referring to the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon, at the nominal request of the Arab League, to try to end the civil war that had broken out between Moslems and Christians.
“I think that Assad has now become more clever, more realistic. His control will be indirect,” Maoz predicted.
According to other experts, the “brotherhood pact” contains no timetable for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and thereby legitimizes their presence.
It weakens calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and turns the country into a Syrian protectorate, these experts say.
They point to the growing weakness in the Christian camp, which has refrained from confronting Syria. The Lebanese president who signed the pact, Elias Hwari, is Christian. But he owes his position entirely to the Syrians.
According to some Israeli analysts, the feeble response from the once militant Christian community stems from a lack of support abroad and Syria’s improved image in the West, including the United States, which appreciates its participation in the recent war against Iraq.
The daily Yediot Achronot, in a long analysis of the Syrian-Lebanese pact, said it may have “affected Israel’s prestige among its supporters in Lebanon” but “did not substantially change the security situation along the northern border.”
“Moreover, the claim that increased Syrian involvement in Lebanon provides Israel with more security is not groundless,” the paper observed.
It said there has been a longstanding covert agreement between Israel and Syria, dating from 1976, when Syrian troops entered Lebanon “with the blessings of the then prime minister (of Israel), Yitzhak Rabin.”
The understanding was broken briefly when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and clashed with Syrian forces.
Thereafter, “Israel obtained Syria’s covert agreement to its operations in the security zone while Syria obtained covert Israeli agreement to its operations in the rest of Lebanon,” Yediot Achronot said.
“Damascus and Jerusalem alike have created a murky picture of their relations in Lebanon. But the truth is there are more points of assent between Syria and Israel regarding Lebanon than points of dissent,” the newspaper claimed.
“Although the Syrians wish Israel could be rooted out of the security zone, they will shed no tears if Israel remains there, because that provides more legitimacy than yesterday’s agreement to the continued presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon,” the paper said.