Israel's Lebanon Retreat Is a Gift to Syria

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Syria's President Hafez Assad must be grinning, if not giggling. Israel, which announced Tuesday that its withdrawal from Lebanon will be completed within days, is retreating under fire and leaving no buffer between itself and the hostile Hezbollah guerrilla forces who have filled the vacuum. The 2,500 strong South Lebanon Army, Lebanese Christians who'd fought Hezbollah's predecessors in that country's civil war and became Israel's proxy force in its occupation zone, is collapsing faster than you can say "Syria" as its soldiers either flee to Israel or surrender. Meanwhile, the U.N. has reacted coolly to the idea of beefing up its peacekeeping contingent in Lebanon — hardly surprising, since right now, there are no peace deals in place for it to police. The situation is a godsend to Syria, which has dangled its ability to enforce the peace in Lebanon as an incentive for Israel to complete a peace agreement involving Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights, and Prime Minister Ehud Barak's warning to Israelis that more uncertainty and violence lies ahead along the northern border appears to be a sober assessment of a withdrawal undertaken in the absence of peace with Damascus.

And so Israel's northern border towns awoke to the new reality Tuesday with orders to stay in their bomb shelters and warnings that the situation may persist for some time. Israeli planes trying to slow Hezbollah's advance drew a number of civilian casualties in south Lebanon, prompting fears that the guerrillas would employ their standard reaction of firing Katyushka rockets into northern Israeli towns. And although the retreat remains widely popular across partisan political lines in Israel — after 22 years the occupation of southern Lebanon was achieving little and costing many Israeli lives — it leaves Israel's northern border more vulnerable than ever.

Israel has warned that it will respond with heavy air attacks to any strikes from across its northern border, and its defense minister Monday even kept open the possibility of going back into Lebanon if the situation deteriorated. But the first option has proved singularly ineffective in countering the threat from Hezbollah, and the second is unlikely to be politically tenable for the Israeli leadership. Of course, Hezbollah's primary objective has always been to liberate south Lebanon, and it may be content soon to bask in its success and push for a greater share of political power in Lebanon rather than risk undermining its support in that country by provoking post-withdrawal Israeli retaliation. Still, in the weeks ahead the security situation on Israel's northern border could become increasingly volatile, and that may even prompt new efforts to restart the stalled peace talks with Syria.