The most recent Hizballah cross-border attack in the Shebaa Farms area on April 14, and the subsequent Israeli air raid against a Syrian radar station on the Dahr al-Baidar ridge, have heightened fears of a regional conflict between Syria and Israel. These fears are probably unfounded, given the reluctance of both Syria and Israel to enter into a major conflagration. Instead, the episode further exposed the interlocking—and at times contradictory—interests of the various actors on the Syrian and Lebanese side, including Syrian president Bashar al-Asad, Hizballah and Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

The Israeli attack followed the latest of a series of Hizballah operations in the Shebaa Farms area. Both the Lebanese authorities and Syria argue that the farms are occupied Lebanese territory, which justifies resistance attacks. Israel responds that the area is Syrian, and will be returned once a final peace deal is worked out with Damascus in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 242. The UN, in drawing a so-called “blue line” last year to confirm the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, concurred with this interpretation.

The UN’s ruling notwithstanding, Hizballah sporadically attacks the Israelis with deadly effect. Last autumn, Hizballah abducted three Israeli soldiers in the farms area, and they remain in Hizballah’s custody. On February 16, Hizballah fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli vehicle, killing one soldier. In the most recent attack, another soldier was killed. Beginning in December 2000, both Israel and—indirectly—the US repeatedly warned the Syrians that Israel would consider them responsible for Hizballah attacks in the Shebaa Farms area. Ariel Sharon reiterated the warning upon taking office earlier this year.

Separate Interests

Israel’s raid on the radar station showed the fundamental vulnerabilities of the various Lebanese and Syrian actors. Though Hizballah is the more prominent player on the Shebaa Farms front, Syria sets the tone. After the Israeli withdrawal last May, Syria was compelled to maintain leverage with Israel in the event of resumed negotiations on the Syrian-Israeli track, and to provide justification for the continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon—a presence that has sparked recent protest from Lebanese political forces. The Shebaa Farms appeared to afford the perfect opportunity to do both.

But Syria has maneuvered on weak political foundations. While the Lebanese authorities have justified continued resistance in the farms area, the attitude among the Lebanese population and internationally has been far less supportive. Lebanese civilians are tired of a conflict that can invite Israeli raids against Lebanon’s infrastructure. The US and the UN have repeatedly cautioned Syria and Lebanon not to authorize Hizballah attacks. Along with France, the US and the UN have also asked the Lebanese government to deploy sizeable units of the Lebanese army along the border. Both Lebanon and Syria have resisted the deployment, for fear that the Shebaa Farms would cease to be a military flashpoint.

Mixed in with these dynamics has been Bashar al-Asad’s assumption of power in Syria. It is increasingly evident that Bashar’s authority comes from his being the lowest common denominator in a Syrian leadership that, in most respects, has become a house of many mansions. In Lebanon, this has meant that Bashar has been unwilling, or unable, to make changes in the policy advanced by his father. Bashar has continued to support military operations in the Shebaa Farms area, even though the political and economic cost to Lebanon could be prohibitively high.

Hizballah and Hariri

Hizballah’s interests are served by keeping an open military front in the Shebaa Farms area. When Israeli forces withdrew from the south in May 2000, Hizballah feared a crisis of relevance. Without a military resistance effort to mobilize the party faithful, Hizballah’s leadership faced a potentially divisive internal debate on the party’s future. The farms imbroglio has postponed this presumed crisis, ensuring that Hizballah will continue to play a paramount role in Syrian policy vis-a-vis Israel in Lebanon.

The outbreak of the intifada strengthened Hizballah’s hand. Not only did militants in Palestine see the party as a point of reference, but increasing regional tensions delayed any prospect of final Arab-Israeli peace settlements. Meanwhile, Hizballah’s military capabilities have reportedly been enhanced, particularly with receipt of long-range Katyusha rockets from Iran. Hizballah can now threaten to fire rockets deep into Israel, if Israeli retaliation for attacks in the Shebaa Farms area targets civilians. The party’s main objective is to sustain a low-level conflict contained in the vicinity of the farms. Israel’s attack on the Syrian radar base was designed to change the rules of the game.

The third actor in the evolving drama is Rafiq al-Hariri. Since returning to office last autumn, the prime minister’s priority has been to revive an economy that many assume is destined for collapse. Hariri has little sympathy for continued Hizballah operations. He legitimately fears that Israeli retaliation against Lebanon’s infrastructure might fatally undermine economic confidence. This disagreement over aims has twice provoked public clashes. Hizballah’s February attack came a day after Hariri pledged in Paris that Lebanon would avoid provoking Israel. The prime minister condemned the attack, referring to Hizballah’s propensity to “monopolize” the resistance. Hariri’s al-Mustaqbal newspaper was among the first to describe the April 14 operation as unwise.

What’s Next?

It is unclear why Hizballah attacked Israeli forces at such an apparently gratuitous moment. The attack was certainly a step in the long process of imposing ground rules in the Shebaa Farms area. The Syrian “green light” could have been payback for Hizballah secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah’s speech two weeks earlier, in which he defended Syria’s presence in Lebanon. Perhaps the operation was part of a wider Syrian effort to benefit from the growing Arab consensus opposing Israel, or even a result of domestic Syrian pressure on Bashar to act tough in Lebanon.

Whatever the reason, the attack pushed Syria into Israel’s trap. Israel’s decision to limit its retaliation to Syrian forces was audacious. It revealed that Sharon was again willing to play domestic Lebanese politics, as he did two decades ago. Not only did the Israeli response emphasize that the Lebanese authorities cannot control their own policy on Israel, it played to the growing opposition in Lebanon to Syria’s military presence. Moreover, it affirmed that Lebanon’s and Syria’s interests were separate—indeed incongruous—an approach that has long been a pillar of Likud’s approach to Lebanese affairs.

By limiting their response to Syrian forces, the Israelis denied Hizballah an excuse to bomb Israeli population centers, since Lebanese civilian populations were spared. The Israeli government did not order its civilian population in the north to take shelter, suggesting that it did not expect a rapid response. Moreover, by pinpointing the attack Sharon avoided serious international condemnation, and carried through on his earlier promise to respond to attacks against Israeli soldiers.

But the radar station bombing will have a more long-term impact in Syria. Bashar finds himself with three unpalatable options: to pay a domestic price for doing nothing, to widen the conflict to northern Israel, possibly provoking a war Syria does not want, or to wait for a chance to hit back at the Israelis in the Shebaa Farms area, or elsewhere. The last option remains the most likely. But waiting would introduce an imbalance into the long-standing Syrian-Israeli “strategic dialogue” in Lebanon: Israel has wide latitude to retaliate against Syrian forces throughout Lebanese territory, whereas Syrian counterpunches are limited to the Shebaa Farms.

Have the Rules Changed?

It is too early to affirm, as the Israelis have, that the rules have changed in Lebanon. The Syrians will certainly continue to encourage Hizballah operations, while also contending with the growing anxiety of the Lebanese government. If Israel again decides to attack Syrian soldiers, a scenario similar to the one that took place in 1981 might be revived. At the time, Israel shot down a Syrian helicopter to defend its Christian Lebanese Forces allies, prompting the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Asad, to move anti-aircraft missiles into Lebanon. Fears of war prompted US intervention to resolve the crisis. But if another Israeli attack compels Bashar to respond as his father did in 1981, the potential disadvantages could be immense: US or international mediators would undoubtedly seek to include the military neutralization of the Shebaa Farms in any package deal to defuse the crisis. This would greatly weaken Bashar.

Current Syrian policy in the Shebaa Farms area seems destined to antagonize the Bush administration, which appears unwilling to challenge Syria’s role in Lebanon. With Saddam Hussein uppermost in the minds of US policymakers, the US recently sought to bring Syria into a wider regional arrangement to contain Iraq. Bashar has not taken advantage of this, even after many Arab states turned away from Iraq at the recent Arab League summit in Amman. The Israelis may be successfully pushing Syria into a confrontation with the US over Lebanon, and the Syrians seem, unwittingly, to be playing along. The prevailing wisdom is that Hafez al-Asad would not have fallen into this predicament.

How to cite this article:

Michael Young "Walking into Israel’s Trap?," Middle East Report Online, April 19, 2001.

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