U.S., Saudis Push Syria Over IDF Withdrawal From Shaba Farms

Syria pressured to demarcate its border with Lebanon, sending message to Hezbollah to disarm.

Saudi Arabia and the United States are pressing Syria to demarcate its border with Lebanon, in order to allow for the beginning of an Israeli withdrawal from the disputed Shaba Farms area, straddling the border between Lebanon and the Golan Heights.

These moves come amid warming relations between Damascus and Washington. This past weekend Syrian President Bashar Assad issued an unofficial invitation to his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama to visit the Syrian capital.

Marking the Syrian-Lebanese border would neutralize the Israeli claim that Shaba Farms was previously Syrian territory, and that a withdrawal must be carried out only in the course of negotiations with Damascus. The United Nations also defines the area as Syrian territory, and did not call on Israel to pull back from it during its 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

Withdrawing from the disputed area would also obviate one of Hezbollah's primary pretexts for continuing to maintain weapons to fight Israel's presence on what it considers Lebanese soil. In marking its border, however, Syria would be sending a strong message to Hezbollah that the militant group's accumulation of arms is no longer part of the country's military strategy.

Such a move would likely bolster the position of Saad Hariri, Lebanon's pro-West prime minister-delegate, as well. Hariri has stated that the Lebanese parliament must tackle the issue of disarming Hezbollah. He has also conditioned forming a government on the Hezbollah-led opposition holding no more than a third of the seats in parliament, thus preventing it from being able to veto key government decisions. The Lebanese Constitution stipulates that certain important decisions must be made with the ascent of two-thirds of parliamentarians.

Lebanese sources said recently that they expected Syria to agree to mark the border in an effort to win favor with both the United States and Egypt; Lebanon engaged in a diplomatic confrontation with the latter during Israel's operation in Gaza earlier this year.

The border delineation may occur after a new American ambassador is appointed to Syria. One of the leading candidates for the post is Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Talks over the border issue began before the June 7 election in Lebanon, when acting U.S. assistant secretary of state Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, a Middle East expert with the National Security Council, presented the request to Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem. Moallem rejected the request, telling them, "Until the Farms are liberated from Israeli occupation, we won't mark the border."

Nonetheless, Moallem seems to have changed his position in recent days, announcing that the border mapping would begin in two months, but that demarcation would begin at Syria's northern frontier.

Meanwhile, Syria is also feeling pressure from Saudi Arabia, as King Abdullah has begun reaching out to Damascus after long-strained relations. Reports from Saudi Arabia indicate Abdullah is scheduled to travel to Damascus on Monday, and may convene a limited summit of Saudi, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian officials in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.