News Analysis: Syria May Be the Big Winner of Cease-fire in South Lebanon

Surprisingly, Syria has emerged as the big winner of “Operation Accountability,” Israel’s weeklong barrage of targets in southern Lebanon.

Syrian gains in the confrontation between Israel and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah may well be registered in the history books as a rare phenomenon in that a third party made a political profit from a military conflict — without firing a shot.

Israel came out of the confrontation with a limited military advantage. No more Katyusha rockets will be fired at settlements in northern Israel, according to verbal assurances made over the weekend.

But Hezbollah remains in the arena and is still loudly proclaiming its right to operate freely within the Israeli-controlled security zone along the border in southern Lebanon.

For an entire week, Syrian President Hafez Assad remained cool and aloof. When asked to intervene to stop the Hezbollah attacks, his aides insisted that they could do nothing to stop a “legitimate resistance against occupation.”

But then the Americans turned up the pressure, and Assad changed course.

U.S. officials were concerned that Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s planned visit to the region this week would be overshadowed by the shooting and the Lebanese refugee problem.

PRESSURE FROM BEIRUT

Damascus also came under pressure from Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, the millionaire who had succeeded, with the help of Syrian bayonets, in stabilizing the shaky Lebanese political infrastructure.

The Lebanese premier warned Assad that the 270,000 refugees who had gathered around the Lebanese capital could endanger the stability of the government.

Syria, the political power that really calls the shots in Lebanon, did not want to lose the measure of stability it had achieved during the past three years at great effort.

More importantly, Syria realized that if the fighting continued, the entire peace process could go down the drain — a possibility Damascus wants to avoid.

Consequently, Syria took the necessary measures to signal Hezbollah that the Katyusha party was over.

Syria stopped the supply line between Teheran and Hezbollah headquarters in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, and it gave the Lebanese army the green light to limit Hezbollah activities.

But the Lebanese army did little. It set up several roadblocks, preventing the free movement of Hezbollah fighters, and in some reported incidents, it prevented them from deploying Katyusha launchers.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s leadership got the message so quickly that Damascus did need not even have to cut the flow of money from Teheran.

Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Velayati, rushed to Damascus to try to persuade the Syrians that the show should go on.

But for the first time in the delicate relations between Syria and its eastern neighbor, Assad said no. Too much was at stake. The American pressure was heavy; the stakes were too high.

Eventually, the Iranians, too, joined the deal — after the Syrians convinced them that there was more to gain from a cease-fire.

BUT AT WHAT PRICE FOR ISRAEL?

Just the same, all the parties concerned reiterated via various channels Sunday that the cease-fire applies to northern Israel, but not the security zone in southern Lebanon.

Indeed, fewer than 24 hours after the ceasefire went into effect, a Hezbollah unit attacked a military post manned by the Israeli-supported South Lebanon Army.

During the same period, Assad said in a message to his soldiers that Washington should concentrate on putting an end to the Israeli “occupation” of Lebanon. He said Israel could not ask for security guarantees as long “as the occupation continues and it attacks civilians.”

The secretary-general of the Hezbollah movement, Sheik Hassan Nassrallah, declared Sunday that “no one asked and no one would dare ask us to disarm ourselves.”

Analysts here are sharing the view that Israel will pay the price for Syria’s positive intervention. But it is not yet clear whether the price will be paid in Lebanon or on the Golan Heights, where the Syrians are also seeking an Israeli pullout.

The cease-fire agreement was received with general satisfaction at Sunday’s weekly meeting of the Israeli Cabinet. Most ministers felt that the results of Operation Accountability would have a positive effect on the Christopher mission.

Even Environment Minister Yossi Sarid of the dovish Meretz bloc, who was the most vocal in his opposition to the military operation, praised Rabin for the way he handled the crisis.

“The settlement is better than I had expected,” said Sarid, who a week ago had expressed the fear that the operation would get out of hand.

Rabin told the ministers that one needed time to see whether the cease-fire would hold. “It is an understanding, not something that is glued with cement,” he said.

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