Analyze This: Looking at the Golan through a Lebanese lens

Parts of Mount Hermon also offer vistas deep into Lebanon.

har hermon 88 (photo credit: )
har hermon 88
(photo credit: )
Almost every article on the Golan Heights mentions its commanding views down on northeast Israel. Far fewer choose to note that parts of Mount Hermon also offer sweeping vistas deep into Lebanon. In the case of Wednesday's announcement about renewed peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, it might be more accurate to say that Lebanon is looming over the Golan Heights - or at least over the prospect that Jerusalem would be willing to concede sovereignty over the territory to Damascus. Developments in Lebanon, including Wednesday's news that an agreement has been reached to end both recent hostilities and the 18-month-old political stalemate between Hizbullah and the ruling "March 14" coalition, are surely significant factors in driving both Israel and Syria back to the negotiating table. While other elements are, of course, also involved, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's domestic political troubles, and Syrian President Bashar Assad's equal desire for positive "spin" directed at the international community, the ticking time bomb that is Lebanon has undoubtedly affected the timing of the decision from both sides to renew peace talks. That this news broke on the exact same day as the new agreement in Qatar reached between Lebanon's warring factions may be strictly coincidental, but not surprising given that these developments are running on parallel tracks. First off, it is important to stress unequivocally that the Qatar agreement, despite being greeted positively by the Lebanese government and some of its Western supporters - such as the French - is unequivocally a triumph for Hizbullah. Indeed, this was practically a fait accompli, since the Iran-backed radical Shi'ite militia had already achieved its key aims last week, after the Saniora coalition was forced to back down on its attempts earlier this month to rein in the operations of Hizbullah's alternative national telecommunications systems, and replace Beirut airport security chief Wafik Shoukeir, who has allegedly allowed Iranian arms to flow through his domain straight into the arms of Hassan Nasrallah's troops. Hizbullah decisively won the day when its fighters were able to take over large swaths of Beirut without encountering any resistance from the Lebanese army, which simply stood down in the face of aggression against the sovereign government it was pledged to defend. Already last week, analyst Marco Vicenzino noted in Beirut's Daily Star newspaper: "The perception of the threat of violence and use of force is a powerful source of leverage and influence for Hizbullah in Lebanese politics and beyond, which could yield significant dividends and concessions. However, one must distinguish between the reality of using limited force to make a statement and exercising overwhelming force to take full control. "The Saniora government may have correctly calculated that Hizbullah would not use overwhelming force but miscalculated and underestimated Hizbullah's willingness to use limited but decisive force to demonstrate its willingness to take proportionate action when deemed necessary or provoked… Hizbullah's strategy is to create and instill the necessary fear to extract political concessions so that the government will be reluctant to take decisive constitutional/legal action in future." Hizbullah succeed in extracting those concessions on Wednesday, getting Saniora and his allies to award it enough ministers in the Lebanese cabinet to grant Nasrallah veto power over any significant governmental decisions, and a potentially favorable realignment of electoral districts in Beirut. In return, the government received Hizbullah's consent to appoint Lebanese army chief Gen. Michel Suleiman as the new president - a "concession" Nasrallah can now easily swallow since Suleiman gave the order to his troops to stand down when challenged by Hizbullah's fighters. This also comes along with a "pledge" by the militia that they will not again use their formidable arms on the domestic battleground, a consideration that can easily be overlooked by Hizbullah simply declaring any move by the government it finds displeasing to be a "provocation" in violation of the understandings that were reached. As for the real issue at stake here - the core of the conflict - the arming of an Iranian-directed radical Islamic "state-within-a-state" on Lebanese territory - it was vaguely left as a subject for "future discussion." While ordinary Lebanese may understandably be breathing a sigh of relief at the prospect of relative quiet in the streets for the near future, they should not be deluded into thinking of this deal as anything more than a temporary cease-fire in the ongoing struggle for control of their country. Not surprisingly then, the agreement has been warmly welcomed by Teheran and Damascus. Jerusalem and Washington, in contrast, have real reason to be concerned, and not simply because of the agreement's details. The developments in Lebanon are a wake-up call for the West that the so-called "Cedar Revolution" may have reached its limits in challenging Iranian-Syrian hegemony over the Lebanon. It dispels any notion that a purely domestic opposition would develop under Saniora and Saad Hariri's leadership that could successfully challenge Hizbullah's combination of ideological ruthlessness and military might. This provides the direct connection to the renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations, which are at least partly motivated on Jerusalem's part - and apparently now with Washington's blessing - to draw Damascus away from its alliance with Teheran, including Iran and Syria's joint sponsorship of Hizbullah. The latter was always more of a marriage of realpolitik convenience for the Assad dynasty, a way of weakening Lebanese sovereignty to increase Syrian influence over Beirut, in contrast to the deep ideological-religious ties between Iran's rulers and their fellow Shi'ite in Lebanon. Breaking Syria's ties to Iran and ending its support of Hizbullah thus becomes one way for Israel and the West - and perhaps the only way short of direct military intervention - to even the playing field in Lebanon between Hizbullah and that nation's more moderate forces. Encouraging Damascus to make that dramatic strategic shift, though, could involve Israel's sacrificing the Golan Heights; however it is questionable whether even that by itself would meet the high price Assad is likely to set for any change in allegiance. Certain pricy items beyond Israel's ability to provide, such as major economic support from the West (including the US) and the dropping of the international inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri, are also likely to be demanded by Damascus. That is granting Assad is even sincere in pursuing these talks, and not simply trying to "wag the dog" no less than Olmert is suspected of doing. Whatever the case, there are signs of increased strain in recent months between Syria and Hizbullah, especially follow the February assassination of the latter's operations chief, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus. Some reports have suggested that growing Hizbullah distrust of Damascus's intentions is in part responsible for the fury with which it protected its Iranian-arms supply point at Beirut airport, in case the land route via Syria should no longer be reliable. Stopping those weapons convoys to Hizbullah would be a key goal for Israel in any negotiation with Syria. But whether improving the outlook toward Israel from Lebanon is really worth giving up those all-important views from the Golan over the Galilee, is a strategic consideration - and gamble - that this or any future government will have to weigh most carefully.