Lebanon: Stability or Chaos, Peace or War?
For Israel, will Syrian President Bashir Assad become the peacemaker or the aggressor?
By C. Hart | August 6, 2007
The divide in Lebanon’s government between pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian ministers is creating a chaotic situation that could lead to civil war. It could also lead to two separate governments within the country which would cause further destabilization of the nation.
Hizballah, one of Lebanon’s growing political parties, has been accused of abetting in the assassinations of anti-Syrian government ministers, with the aim of gaining a majority control in Lebanon’s parliament. The militant terrorist army wants Lebanon to become a Syrian puppet regime, resulting in increased political and military power for Hizballah, securing its already strong presence in the south of the country.
International demands on Syria remain high, with a recent move by the UN to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashir Assad to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Hizballah. Syria’s obstinacy undermines the agreement between Israel and Lebanon after the war last summer.
In the meantime, in defiance of that same agreement, Hizballah has re-armed itself in preparation for a future war with Israel. Syria is encouraging Hizballah both politically and militarily because Assad needs a distraction from the UN Tribunal, which is calling for his account in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, and several other Lebanese leaders.
When the stakes for Assad become too high, it is expected that he will unleash Hizballah guerrillas to fight Israel, in addition to committing his own troops to war against the Jewish state. Already, Assad has been preparing for such a scenario, fortifying positions on the border with Israel; opening up roads leading from Damascus to the future warfront (Quinetra); getting more sophisticated equipment from Russia, with promises of arms purchases from Iran; and securing strategic alliances (including China) for diplomatic backing in order to justify a future confrontation.
An Israeli military official stated a few weeks ago that a war with Syria would be 10 times stronger than what the population faced in the summer of 2006. Furthermore, an even larger confrontation with Syria’s strategic military partner, Iran, has had Israeli military leaders scrambling to purchase more sophisticated air defense systems and state-of-the-art war planes, as well as launching advanced spy satellites into space for more accurate intelligence gathering on Iran’s nuclear program.
But, it’s the current saber-rattling by Assad that has caused Israelis to worry, as well as recent threats by Syrian-backed Lebanese leader Hassan Nasrallah. He has stated publicly, that Hizballah has long-range missiles that can hit anywhere in the Jewish state.
Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has tried to calm the population assuring citizens that he does not think the north will heat up any time soon. Olmert has made peace overtures toward the Syrian president, despite Assad’s insistence that any start-up of negotiations would require Israel to completely withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Olmert believes Assad might be willing to compromise. Yet, according to Israeli Major General (res.) Yossi Peled, within Syrian society from school textbooks to the mentality of the population, there is an underlying hatred towards Israel. “And, every Syrian has a mission to take back the Golan Heights,” he said, speaking in Jerusalem at the Israel Newsmakers Forum.
Polls indicate that Olmert does not have the support of most Israelis to give away the strategic Heights to the Syrian dictator. Currently, a clear majority of the Jewish population, 63-70%, favors staying on the Golan Heights. Even if Israel withdrew from the entire Heights, only 51% of Syrian’s would be interested in a lasting peace with the Jewish state. Peled says Israel cannot take the chance of giving up such a strategic military asset merely hoping for peace under Assad’s rule.
Recent indicators reveal that Syrian reformists living abroad do not believe that Israel should make a deal with Assad, but instead should wait until Syria chooses leaders interested in reform. That make take many years, and time is running out for Israel and Syria.
According to Hebrew University Professor Moshe Maoz, the Syrian president knows that Israeli guns are 55 kilometers from Damascus. However, Assad wants the Golan Heights back, as well as, greater influence in Lebanon. Maoz asked the rhetorical question about Assad: “Is he going to be the aggressor or peacemaker with Israel?” Maoz believes that without the American Administration involved as a third party to peace negotiations, any attempt at making a peace deal will fail.
When considering a deal with Syria, Maoz claims that most former prime ministers of Israel have been willing to give up the Golan Heights, even Benjamin Netanyahu when he was prime minister. But, today, Netanyahu speaks differently. In May, at a conference in Israel sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Institute, Netanyahu stated: “We’re surrounded by authoritarian dictatorial regimes of one shade or another. And therefore, the only kind of peace that can last opposite a dictatorship like Syria’s, is a peace which you can defend. If you cannot defend the peace, the peace doesn’t hold. If we get off the Golan Heights, we get a piece of paper, but not a peace we can defend. The only way we can defend it is to stay on the Golan Heights.”
Most political and military leaders in Israel are coming to realize that if there are no direct peace negotiations with Assad, then there will be war with Syria. It’s just a matter of time. Peled, himself is concerned. “It’s impossible to talk about a relationship between Israel and Syria without mentioning the last war one year ago. And, the result of that war very much influenced this relationship. It’s the first time in 30 years that Syrian senior officers, when they sit and talk, say to each other: ‘the IDF (Israel’s Defense Forces), is not what we thought. We are able to fight them.’ Even if they are wrong, and they are wrong, the fact is, it’s their attitude toward the IDF, and it means maybe we are on the road to a new war between us and them.”
Peled talked about the difference between peace in the north of the country and peace in the south. Israel gave up the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, but it did not endanger strategic areas in Israel, or deal with points in such close proximity such as main roads, water sources, and industry. He claimed that Israel must take into account how it would protect itself in a crisis once a deal had been finalized. “Peace for us is not a goal. If a nation that fought so many years becomes a tired nation that starts to think that peace is a goal, we put ourselves at a very high risk. The goal is the assurance of the existence of Israel as a free nation. That’s the goal. If we achieve that, let’s hope we can do it and also achieve peace. But, the priority, first of all, is to assure the existence of this country.”
While Israelis continue to debate whether peace with Syria is a good idea or not, and whether the lack of peace will soon lead to war, Peled tried to explain that he is basically a man who wants peace. But, his comments were not convincing, and pointed towards war. “We should come to an agreement with Syria that will not include giving back the Golan Heights. If you say there is no way to do it, I prefer to live with the Golan Heights.”
Meanwhile, challenges lie ahead for the Lebanese people after their recent election, with many wondering whether the country will enter a period of stability or chaos. The same question is on the mind of Israelis. Some feel the countdown with Syria has begun -- first in Assad’s determination to gain greater influence and control over Lebanon; second, in Assad’s determination to obtain the Golan Heights either through peace or war.
For now, Israelis are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best. They know Israel will eventually come face to face with Syria, not knowing exactly what side of Assad they will soon encounter.... the peacemaker or the aggressor.