The Lebanese Army is nowhere to be found on the border between Lebanon and Syria. Neither are the peacekeeping troops of UNIFIL and the Lebanese police. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which aimed, among other things, to block the porous border between Lebanon and Syria, has become a dead letter. The area is essentially a no-man's land, predominantly Shi'ite, and is controlled by the large clans whose main income comes from growing cannabis. Past efforts by the Lebanese government to replace the drug crops with fruits and vegetables have failed. This year, the cannabis harvest in the border district of Baalbeq-Hermel is expected to yield $250 million in revenues. The clans protect this income with private armies, armed to the teeth with RPGs, mines and heavy machine guns. It has even been reported that one clan kept a tank in the backyard. If the Lebanese Army or UNIFIL were to try to impose their control on this area, it would involve a bloody war.
Hezbollah also enjoys a strong hold on the region - not because of considerations of ideology or religion, but of livelihood. And so a significant portion of the arms coming from Syria to Hezbollah passes through this area. The border here is permeable and lacks controls, since on the Syrian side, too, people benefit from granting the smugglers free passage, mostly because the Syrian government is unable to address the region's economic difficulties.
When Israel threatens to forcefully end the flow of arms from Syria, it should at least understand the nature of this front. Israel is justly demanding that Syria take control over the arms export to Lebanon, just as it has asked Egypt to stop the arms smuggling from its territory to the Gaza Strip. The U.S. also maintains that Syria can prevent the transfer of terrorists and arms from its territory into Iraq. However, there is a difference between Egypt, which is trying to block the transfer of arms and is even combating the terrorist groups in Sinai, and Syria. Because Syria - which enjoys a newfound status as an internationally recognized state, whose leader hops from Paris to Tehran, and from there to the Turkish resort town of Bodrum, and meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, with Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and whose representatives hold indirect talks with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - this Syria views Hezbollah as a strategic asset and not a threatening rival, like Egypt views Hamas.
Moreover, the group that is essentially become a state and Syria are locked in an alliance based on co-dependence, where neither side wishes to dictate its wishes to the other, but where services are exchanged. This is also the reason why Hezbollah still has a thing to say about Syria's negotiations with Israel.
For its part, Hezbollah continues to run its affairs in Lebanon, and it will not permit the central government to sit at the negotiating table with Israel. Bashar Assad, on the other hand, can shake off his commitment to unify the Syrian and Lebanese tracks vis-a-vis Israel, and fears no surprises in Beirut. After all, Hezbollah will take care of Syria's interests in Lebanon.
Israel has also forgotten Assad's commitment to Lebanon. From its point of view, an independent Lebanon is a lost cause, now that with Syrian assistance, Hassan Nasrallah has taken over Beirut's center of power, including the presidency and the cabinet.
Therefore, the real prize in the talks between Israel and Syria is defined in terms of Syria breaking away from Iran. But herein lies the strategic error. Whether Syria breaks away from Iran or not, Iran will continue to develop its nuclear capabilities. While Lebanon has no centrifuges or enriched uranium, it has turned into a genuine threat, having dragged Israel into a number of wars and perpetuating high levels of tension.
Israel, which is threatening to forcefully put an end to the flow of arms to Hezbollah, cannot simultaneously toy with polite negotiations with Syria. It is difficult to expect Syria to continue negotiating with Israel if it attacks Hezbollah's arms depots, or if it targets the Syrian arms storage facilities that ship to Lebanon. But this is the same Syria that, following American threats and sanctions, knew how to put an end to terrorists and arms entering Iraq and recognized that it must take a step back when Turkey threatened war after accusing Damascus of supporting Kurdish separatist organizations. Syria can and should block the border with Lebanon. This is not a gesture of goodwill toward Israel, but a precondition for continuing negotiations.
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