LEBANON: Will Syria invade or stay put?
Leaders of Lebanon's American-backed March 14 coalition have publicly voiced fears that Syria is planning to launch an invasion of their country on the pretext of clamping down on Islamic extremists based in the northern seaside city of Tripoli.
Security officials in Lebanon and Syria have accused such militant groups of responsibility for a pair of attacks in Tripoli and Damascus that have killed at least 24 people over the last week. Syrian President Bashar Assad has complained that northern Lebanon has become a hotbed for extreme Islamic groups.
The attacks followed Syria's decision to amass what some describe as thousands of troops along the Lebanese frontier. Damascus says it was to interdict smuggling. But former President Amin Gemayel, leader of the Christian Ketayeb movement said the troop deployment was “not innocent."
Meanwhile, Saad Hariri, leader of the Sunni Future movement, accused Damascus of being responsible for the violence. He accused Syria of “infiltrating extremists to north Lebanon to carry out terrorist attacks targeting the Lebanese army and civilians."
Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces movement, went even further, saying that Assad was laying the groundwork for a return to Lebanon, which his military was forced to leave after a prolonged occupation ended in 2005.
In a television interview, he said Assad's charge that north Lebanon poses a threat to Syria's security is aimed at "setting the atmosphere for Syrian intervention in Lebanon."
As proof of Syria's intentions, March 14 leaders allege that Assad compared Moscow's troubles in Georgia to Damascus' in Lebanon in an interview with the Russian business daily Kommersant. It's an ominous statement that could indicate Syria was looking for an excuse to invade its smaller neighbor.
But did Assad really say that? So far, no credible news sources have unearthed the actual remark, and an English-language version of the Kommersant article makes no such reference.
Most likely, March 14 leaders are upping the ante for fear of an imminent rapprochement between Washington and Damascus. Over the last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior American diplomats met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem in Washington.
Lebanese fear Americans will sell them out just as they suspect the George H.W. Bush administration likely gave the late Syrian President Hafez Assad the OK to invade Lebanon in 1990 in exchange for his support of the U.S. war to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
In any case, most Middle East experts doubt Syria would do something so brash as to re-invade Lebanon without an explicit OK from the West, especially because Damascus has gotten peace talks with Israel, and sit-downs with high-ranking officials in Washington and Paris as well as all sorts of cash and prizes in exchange for... well, for staying put and not doing a darn thing.
Syria so far has had to take no steps in order to shake off its pariah status. It has not downgraded its ties with ally Iran or reined in its alleged support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
Would Syria mess with a good thing by invading Lebanon and angering the West?
— Borzou Daragahi in Beirut
Photo: Syrian troops on the northern side of the Syrian-Lebanese border on Sept. 22. Credit: AFP / Getty Images
P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.