Shaba Farms / Closing the Deal

The Lebanese government is pleased with itself, and Syria, too, has reasons to smile. As the fighting continues, Lebanese government officials are coming up with new definitions for what is known as 'the complete arrangement,' the one that is supposed to replace the arrangement that existed before July 12.

And so July 12 is joining the long line of historical dates that mark the stages of Lebanon's 'new' independence - just like February 14, the date of Rafik Hariri's assassination in 2005; or May 25, the date of the Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from Lebanon.

Saturday saw another development in the status of Fuad Siniora's government versus the strength of Hezbollah. After the government received 'a franchise' to enter into talks on a prisoner-exchange deal, Energy Minister Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah representative, announced that once the IDF withdrew from the Shaba Farms area, Hezbollah's role as a 'liberating' army would be over, and it would stick to a purely a defensive role.

This is a very significant statement, because it begins to define the conditions for Hezbollah's disarmament.

The government of Lebanon, Hezbollah, the United States, France and the United Nations have all realized now that the key to achieving a long-term and sustainable cease-fire by means of the deployment of the Lebanese Army in the south lies in a resolution to the Shaba Farms dispute.

At this stage, however, it is not enough for only Hezbollah and the Lebanese government to agree that the return of the Shaba Farms area would spell an end to the movement's 'liberating' role. Syria is no less an important player in this regard. In keeping with maps approved by the UN, the Shaba Farms area lies in Syrian territory, so an official document in which Damascus relinquishes the area would be required too. For years now, Damascus has refused to provide such a document.

Will Syria agree to grant one now? An agreement to this end may be reached later in the week, when Syria learns both that it is the only one standing in the way of a settlement, and more importantly, according to Lebanese sources, that Washington is likely to offer Damascus a generous benefits package and a warm return to the 'family of nations.'

The next stage would have to be securing Israel's consent to withdraw from the Shaba Farms area, as this would then be a withdrawal from Lebanese territory; and only then could the Lebanese Army take up positions in the south, perhaps with the assistance of a multinational force - if Hezbollah gives its okay.