Waits: Is Damascus The Key?
By Robert Fisk
15 July, 2006
about Syria. That was the frightening message delivered by Damascus
yesterday when it allowed its Hizbollah allies to cross the UN Blue
Line in southern Lebanon, kill three Israeli soldiers, capture two others
and demand the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.
Within hours, a country that
had begun to believe in peace--without a single Syrian soldier left
on its soil--found itself once more at war.
Israel held the powerless
Lebanese government responsible--as if the sectarian and divided cabinet
in Beirut can control Hizbollah. That is Syria's message. Fouad Siniora,
Lebanon's affable Prime Minister, may have thought he was running the
country but it is President Bashar Assad in Damascus who can still bring
life or death to a land that lost 150,000 lives in 15 years of civil
And there is one certain
bet that Syria will rely on; that despite all Israel's threats of inflicting
"pain" on Lebanon, this war will run out of control until--as
has so often happened in the past--Israel itself calls for a ceasefire
and releases prisoners. Then the international big-hitters will arrive
and make their way to the real Lebanese capital Damascus, not Beirut--and
appeal for help.
That is probably the plan.
But will it work? Israel has threatened Lebanon's newly installed infrastructure
and Hizbollah has threatened Israel with further conflict. And therein
lies the problem; to get at Hizbollah, Israel must send its soldiers
into Lebanon--and then it will lose more soldiers.
Indeed when a single Merkava
tank crossed the border into Lebanon yesterday morning, it struck a
Hizbollah mine, which killed three more Israelis.
Certainly Hizbollah's attack
broke the United Nations rules in southern Lebanon--a "violent
breach" of the Blue Line, it was called by Geir Pedersen, the senior
UN official in the country--and was bound to unleash the air force,
tanks and gunboats of Israel on to this frail, dangerous country. Many
Lebanese in Beirut were outraged when gangs of Hizbollah supporters
drove through the streets of the capital with party flags to "celebrate"
the attack on the border.
Christian members of the
Lebanese government were voicing increasing frustration at the Shia
Muslim militia's actions--which only proved how powerless the Beirut
By nightfall, Israel's air
raids had begun to spread across the country--the first civilians to
die were killed when an aircraft bombed a small road bridge at Qasmiyeh--but
would they go even further and include a target in Syria? This would
be the gravest escalation so far and would have US as well as UN diplomats
appealing for that familiar, tired quality--"restraint".
And prisoner swaps is probably
all that will come of this. In January 2004, for example, Israel freed
436 Arab prisoners and released the bodies of 59 Lebanese for burial,
in return for an Israeli spy and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
As long ago as 1985, three
Israeli soldiers captured in 1982 were traded for 1,150 Lebanese and
Palestinian prisoners. So Hizbollah knows--and the Israelis know--how
this cruel game is played. How many have to die before the swaps begin
is a more important question.
What is also clear is that
for the first time Israel is facing two Islamist enemies--in southern
Lebanon and in Gaza--rather than nationalist guerrillas. The Palestinian
Hamas movement's spokesmen in Lebanon yesterday denied that there was
any co-ordination with Hizbollah. This may be literally true but Hizbollah
timed its attack when Arab feelings are embittered by the international
sanctions placed on the democratically elected Hamas government and
then the war in Gaza. Hizbollah will ride the anger over Gaza in the
hope of escaping condemnation for its capture and killing of Israelis
And there is one more little,
sinister question. In past violence of this kind, Syria's power was
controlled by the Hafez Assad, one of the shrewdest Arabs in modern
history. But there are those--including Lebanese politicians--who believe
that Bashar, the son, lacks his late father's wisdom and understanding
of power. This is a country, remember, whose own Minister of Interior
allegedly committed suicide last year and whose soldiers had to leave
Lebanon amid suspicion that Syria had set up the murder of Rafik Hariri,
Lebanon's former prime minister, last year. All this may now seem academic.
But Damascus remains, as always, the key.
Robert Fisk is a reporter
for The Independent and author of Pity the Nation.