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Israel cautious after Syrian troops leave Beirut

JERUSALEM, June 24 (JTA) — Israeli experts are downplaying Syria’s surprise decision to pull its soldiers out of Beirut, but say it could mean that Lebanon’s army will soon take greater control over the country.

One year after Israel withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon, there now are no Syrian soldiers in the Lebanese capital, the first time since 1976. Yet Israeli experts cautioned that this still was only a partial move.

Syria still deploys some 15,000 soldiers in the hills east of Beirut and in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on the border with Syria, said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University’s Middle East Studies Department.

Onn Winkler, who teaches at Haifa University, likewise questioned the significance of Syria’s Beirut withdrawal.

“I don’t see them leaving Lebanon in the near future,” Winkler said. “They may lower their profile,” but Lebanese Prime Minister “Rafik Hariri must still coordinate every strategic move with the Syrians.”

Winkler added that Syria continues to maintain its political influence in Lebanon through its allies in the Lebanese Parliament, government and army.

Although Israeli military experts shared the view that the Syrian troop redeployment did not change Syria’s overall control of Lebanon, the move did mark a certain change in Syrian politics, they said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad “wants to appease the Lebanese opposition,” said Professor Keis Firo of Haifa University. “He also wants to create a more positive atmosphere in Europe on the eve of his scheduled visits to France and Germany” this week.

Syria’s withdrawal from Beirut followed a long Maronite Christian campaign against the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese soil.

Spearheading the campaign was Nasrallah Sfeir, patriarch of the Maronite church, who was one of the first to dare speak out publicly against the Syrians.

Lebanese Christians make up some 35 percent of that nation’s population.

Assad initially rejected their demand, but when the powerful Druse leader Walid Jumblatt also called to re-evaluate the Syrian role in Lebanon, Assad understood that Syria’s days in Beirut were numbered.

The Syrian troop redeployment is “actually a tactical move, and it is too early to tell whether it is a sign of weakness or self-confidence” on Assad’s part, Zisser told JTA.

Of perhaps greatest importance to Israel, the Syrian withdrawal from Beirut may signal a more significant role for the Lebanese army.

Ever since Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon, Israel — joined by the United Nations — has called on the Lebanese government to take control over security in the region.

Hariri’s government has a vested economic interest in keeping the region quiet, but it has refrained so far from confronting Hezbollah, which retains control over southern Lebanon and has staged a number of cross-border attacks on Israel.

Beirut is still waiting for a green light from Damascus to disarm Hezbollah, the only militia in Lebanon that has yet to lay down its arms.

Assad has shown no sign that he wants to disarm Hezbollah. Indeed, he has maintained the policy of his late father, Hafez Assad, who consistently supported Hezbollah’s anti-Israel activities — perhaps to pressure Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria.

Earlier this year, after Hezbollah fired on Israeli forces, Israel attacked Syrian radar installations in Lebanon.

Some military analysts believe Bashar Assad removed his troops from Beirut to keep them out of harm’s way, should Israel order further attacks on Syrian forces in retaliation for future Hezbollah attacks.

The Beirut redeployment may be a defensive action on Bashar’s part, but it remains unclear whether he may yet adopt a dovish stance toward the Jewish state.

Winkler said it is still “too early to tell” whether Assad will pursue peace with Israel — a move that would distance him from the policy of his father, who forced Israeli negotiators to accede to virtually all of his territorial demands but still couldn’t bring himself to sign on the dotted line.

“I still don’t know how to read young President Assad,” Winkler said. “I don’t know whether he is like his father or whether he may yet turn out to be another Anwar Sadat,” the Egyptian leader who signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979.

The redeployment of Syrian forces from Beirut began June 14. Three days later, the Syrians turned over to the Lebanese army 18 strategic positions and large bases in the capital.

There was no change in the deployment of other Syrian forces on Lebanese soil, however. In other words, Syria lowered its military profile in its “sister” country — a term Syria uses to justify its military presence in Lebanon — but its overall presence remained the same.

Pressure for a Syrian pullout grew steadily after Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon. After the Israeli withdrawal, Syria could no longer offer the pretext that its soldiers were protecting Lebanon from Israeli aggression.

Not only were growing numbers of Lebanese tired of being stopped at roadblocks manned by Syrian soldiers, they also were weary of Syrian competition in the economic sphere.

Cheap agricultural imports from Syria compete with Lebanese products, and some 500,000 Syrian laborers have taken the place of Lebanese workers.

“Syria is a very poor country,” Winkler said. “It cannot do without the Lebanese market.”

Syria’s direct military involvement in Lebanon dates back to April 1976, when Syrian troops entered Lebanon and gradually established their control over areas strategically important to Damascus.

Hafez Assad moved in his forces to counterbalance the growing power in Lebanon of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its Druse allies.

Assad justified the intervention by pointing out that the two Arab “sister” nations were bound by language, culture, kinship and history.

Israel gave its tacit approval to the move, provided Assad did not cross a “red line” by putting his troops in a menacing position along the Lebanese- Israeli border.

Israel also hoped that the presence of the Syrian army would weaken the PLO. This hope proved false, however, and six years later Israel invaded Lebanon in an effort to destroy the PLO, which had set up a terrorist mini-state in southern Lebanon.

Israeli forces ultimately forced PLO leader Yasser Arafat to flee into exile in Tunisia, where he remained until the Oslo peace process allowed his return to the Gaza Strip in 1994.

While demanding that Israel withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon, Syria ignored its own commitments over the years to withdraw from Lebanon — citing statements by its Lebanese client governments praising the Syrian presence.

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