Lebanon’s eagerness to clearly delineate its fuzzy boundary with Syria epitomizes its determination to be rid of the trappings of former satellite status under Damascus’ heel. But Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora went about this with caution.
Last week, he sent a quiet message to the Syrian government stating the time had come to finally mark the border dividing the two countries.
“The Syrians ought to know where their territory ends and Lebanon begins,” Siniora commented wryly.
This week, a surprisingly genial response bounced back from Syrian foreign minister Farouk a-Shara – until it was read a second time. Not only was Syria willing to go ahead with the demarcation, he wrote, but he praised the Lebanese prime minister for his important initiative. He suggested that Syrian teams start marking Syria’s international border from its northern Mediterranean port of Tartus.
But a sly dig was inserted in the note. Of what use was the demarcation project when relations between the two governments were so deeply troubled? he asked, a broad hint at the cloud of suspicion hanging over Damascus in the wake of the UN probe into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Siniora also wondered what the point was of starting the border project at Tartus.
He soon jumped to the trick. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Beirut sources report that he grasped that by starting the project at the northern in Tartus, the Syrians intended to make sure it was never finished, because the border surveyors would need a decade to complete the job.
But the tough-minded Lebanese prime minister was not put off.
He sent Damascus a counter-proposal: Let’s start the demarcation simultaneously at the two ends, he wrote: Tartus in the north and the Shebaa Farms at the opposite end.
This was Siniora’s delicate way of asking a-Shara when would Hizballah begin disarming?
The Shebaa Farms represent a typical Middle East anomaly – or rather, sore thumb.
An enclave 14 km in length and 2km broad on the western slope of Mt Hermon, the 14 Shebaa Farms were wrested by Israel from Syria together with the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in which Syria took part, but not Lebanon.
On May 22, 2000, the United Nations certified Israel’s pullout from South Lebanon and marked the Shebaa Farms as occupied Syrian territory.
Shebaa Farms are the key to disarming Hizballah
At some point, a pro-Syrian government in Beirut decided to claim the enclave as Lebanese territory so as to give the Lebanese Hizballah a rationale for keeping up the war after Israeli troops departed sovereign Lebanese soil.
Syria’s demarcation of the border at the Shebaa Farms enclave, where Israel maintains three large fortified positions, would open up a new can of worms. It would be impossible to overlook the fact that the enclave was defined by the UN Security Council as sovereign Syrian territory. Damascus’s Lebanese ally, Hizballah, would then lose its pretext for staying armed.
To push Damascus up against this wall, Israel has indicated in quiet diplomatic exchanges with American, French and Lebanese representatives that once this slice of territory is formally tagged, there is no bar to pulling Israeli troops out and placing the farms in the hands of the world body. Even if Beirut stakes a claim, Israel will be out of it and leave Lebanon and Syria to fight it out.
But all the parties concerned are fully aware that the fate of the Shebaa Farms is the key to bringing Hizballah into line and forcing it to demilitarize. This is the real nub of the Syrian-Lebanese exchange on the border issue.
Siniora’s proposal to mark the border at the Shebaa Farms therefore touches on the interests of three parties:
Hizballah views it as a provocation and contrary to its interests. The Shiite group is therefore boycotting the Siniora government together with a group of four Shiite ministers, forcing a cabinet crisis and bringing parliamentary activity to a halt.
Hizballah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah is also holding a threat over the Siniora government’s head. Whenever he likes, Katyushas and guerillas can set the Lebanese-Israel frontier sector on fire – as they did as recently as Nov. 21, 2005 – and so precipitate reprisals by the Israeli air force deep inside Lebanon up to Beirut.
The same threat applies to Israel, which is therefore reluctant to unilaterally pull out of the disputed Shabaa Farms strip – and not just because the UN does not appear willing to take it over. Hizballah is sure to get in first and seize the strategic Shebaa Farms which sit on three frontiers, beating the UN and even Syria to the draw.
In Lebanon, only one man is prepared to grapple with this critical issue, prime minister Siniora, but he cannot persuade Lebanese military chiefs to take action. They argue that Hizballah commands a force of some 20,000 men under arms. The Shiite community, moreover, is Lebanon’s largest and a confrontation with Hizballah may well trigger civil war.
Monday, Jan. 2, Siniora invited Hassan Nasrallah for a one-on-one at his office and said to him: “You want me to go against UN Security Council resolution 1559 which obligates me to disarm and demilitarize all Lebanese militias. The only protection Lebanon has at present comes from the international community. If I defy the UN, Lebanon will have no defenses and would be in big trouble.”
Nasrallah was unmoved by this appeal and answered him frankly: “I will never accept any action or sign any agreement that leads to the disarming of the Hizballah. Forget it.”