Barak's Lebanon Vote Puts Pressure on Syria

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Your move, Mr. Assad. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak threw down the gauntlet to his Syrian counterpart Sunday, in the form of a cabinet decision to withdraw from south Lebanon by July irrespective of the state of peace negotiations with Syria. And that leaves the Syrian president no easy response on the strategic chessboard of the Mideast's most troubled relationship. "The last thing the Syrians want is a unilateral Israeli withdrawal in Lebanon," says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod, "because that would deprive them of one of their most important cards in negotiations with Israel — Syria's ability to guarantee security in Lebanon. In fact, Israel's decision must be at least in part an attempt to turn up the pressure on Damascus to restart their stalled peace talks."

Assad's dilemma is complicated by the fact that the Hezbollah guerrillas who have made occupation of south Lebanon untenable for Israel, far from content to be seen as pawns of Damascus, have their own agenda at odds with Syria's. "While Syria wants to negotiate Israeli withdrawal as part of a package that includes the Golan Heights, Hezbollah would prefer a unilateral withdrawal that would allow them to proclaim themselves the first army ever to have liberated Arab territory from Israeli control," says MacLeod. "But despite a potential conflict with Syria, Hezbollah's enjoying a surge of support throughout the Arab world — Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdallah recently rushed to Beirut to meet with the movement's leaders, suggesting there's strong grassroots support for the guerrillas throughout the Middle East."

Even if Israel is making moves toward realizing Hezbollah's prime demand, its air strikes on the guerrilla movement's positions Monday highlighted the fact that it's not retreating with its tail between its legs, and will extract fearsome retribution for any attacks across its northern border. But such attacks may be unlikely even without Syria leaning on the guerrillas, since Hezbollah would lose much of its Lebanese public support if it attacks the Israelis after they've withdrawn. And the realization that peace in Lebanon may be possible without it may yet spur Damascus back to the negotiating table with Israel.