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Syria Seeks an Advantage as Conflict Boils Next Door

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of protesters marched recently through the streets of Damascus, the Syrian capital, chanting slogans and throwing stones. Not surprisingly, they marched on the U.S. Embassy. And they chanted slogans at the British compound.

But then they also stoned the Egyptian Embassy.

There has been nervous talk about a second front in Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians opening on its border with Lebanon, but in political terms, that front is already active.

Syria has been waging a campaign to assert itself as a regional powerhouse, with the sometime aid of its junior partner, Lebanon, that has infuriated many of its Arab neighbors, undermined many of the efforts of the Palestinian Authority and raised the prospect of a broader military conflict.

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Syria’s recent actions--which its officials insist are motivated by their unwavering support for the Palestinian cause--have served to highlight a troublesome regional reality, one certain to complicate Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s Middle East peace mission: With so many conflicting agendas on the right and left, there is always at least one party that sees its interest in maintaining instability.

“The Syrians are champions of the status quo, and the status quo has been moving over the past few weeks and months,” said Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to the United States. “This is wreaking massive political losses on Syria, and they are reacting.”

A widely held belief in this region says there can never be a full-scale war without Egypt, and there cannot be full peace without Syria. Egypt says that unless its land is attacked, it will not wage war. But Syria has indicated that until its priorities--for example, the return of the Golan Heights--are addressed, there will be no peace.

Many believe that Syria will do all it can to prevent Palestinian questions from being resolved unless its issues are addressed first, or at least simultaneously. But in the current environment, the Palestinian crisis has taken precedence.

The recent tensions between Cairo and Damascus stem from this regional competition, with each government trying to satisfy seething public contempt for Israel--and frustration with Arab inaction--by demonstrating support for the Palestinians. Damascus chided Cairo for not cutting all ties with the Jewish state. Egypt responded by criticizing Syria for pushing others into armed conflict while it has done nothing to fight for return of the Golan, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

Regional Influence at Stake for Syria

Syria has a lot at stake. In addition to the return of the Golan, it doesn’t want to give up its political and economic control over Lebanon. Syria’s economy is moribund, at best, and it uses its neighbor to the southwest as a safety valve, sending thousands of its citizens to work there. A regional peace initiative would undoubtedly call on it to remove its 30,000 troops from Lebanon, and with that at least some of its hegemony over the smaller state.

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“The Syrians would like to delay any resolution made by the Palestinians as long as they haven’t achieved their goals,” said one Arab official with close ties to the Palestinian leadership. Like other officials, he spoke on the condition he not be identified for fear of inflaming tensions.

“The Syrians wouldn’t like the Palestinians to go ahead because that would mean a lesser deal for them.” Syria, he said, “got the Palestinians to fight, and then gets the Lebanese to fight, while keeping its borders with Israel immaculately proper without one incursion since 1967.”

At the recent Arab League summit in Beirut, Syrian President Bashar Assad said there was nothing self-serving about his country’s priorities, or actions.

After lamenting “Arab impotence” in the face of Israeli aggression, he said, “Our national pillars are a complete [Israeli] withdrawal to 1967 borders, a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and the right of return [for Palestinian refugees].”

Whatever its motivation, Syria has succeeded in forcing itself into the regional dialogue--at times alienating and angering other groups purportedly working for the same Palestinian cause.

When the U.N. Security Council recently voted to ask Israel to end its military operation in the West Bank and withdraw, Syria abstained, insisting that the resolution wasn’t strong enough. But the resolution was supported by the Palestinian Authority, and other Arab states, and Syria was criticized for grandstanding instead of supporting regional interests.

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At the Beirut summit, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who has his job because of support from Damascus, prohibited Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat from speaking via a live satellite hookup to the event. Lahoud’s action, which many blamed on Syrian complicity, infuriated the Palestinian delegation, which walked out for the day.

Then, as the Israeli military campaign spread throughout the West Bank, and Arafat was held under siege in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority formally asked the Arab League to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo. As host of the annual summit, Lebanon’s permission was required--but it denied the request.

Instead, the Palestinian Authority had to scour the league’s bylaws to find another way to hold the meeting. When it succeeded, Lebanon and Syria refused to send their foreign ministers, undermining efforts of the other ministers who attended, officials said.

Syria’s Hand Seen in Hezbollah Attacks

The most volatile--and risky--effort backed by Syria is occurring on the border between Lebanon and Israel. For the first time since Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon nearly two years ago, Lebanese-based militants are firing rockets into Israel.

The group responsible, Hezbollah, is a Shiite militia backed by Syria and Iran. Since the Israeli invasion of the West Bank, Hezbollah has stepped up its cross-border attacks in a disputed frontier area called Shabaa Farms. Although the United Nations certifies that Israel fully withdrew from Lebanon, Hezbollah insists that Shabaa Farms is Lebanese land and therefore justifies continued military resistance.

But Hezbollah would never wage such high-profile attacks without express authorization from Damascus, observers say. If the goal was to be taken seriously or, more to the point, to get attention, it has succeeded.

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Vice President Dick Cheney phoned Assad on Monday and asked him to curb Hezbollah. Two days later, four rockets landed at Beit Hillel, near Kiryat Shemona, an Israeli town just over the border. No one acknowledged firing the volley. But later, in an attack vaunted by Hezbollah, a blizzard of 400 mortar shells fell on an Israeli outpost in the Shabaa enclave.

Israeli warplanes have responded to the attacks by bombing suspected Hezbollah positions inside Lebanon, and Israeli officials warned against a broadened military conflict.

At the same time Syria’s proxy army was fighting, Damascus withdrew its soldiers to a safe distance from the border, apparently seeking to avoid a direct conflict. Then, after its morning attacks, Hezbollah extended an olive branch of sorts late Wednesday, offering to free an Israeli colonel it was holding hostage if Israel stopped its offensive in the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin.

“This is a de-escalation as compared to the outburst of activity in the morning,” Karam said. “Hezbollah fired in the morning and offered some carrots in the evening.”

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