Report: Syria still lingers in Lebanon
By Barbara Slavin, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Two years after claiming to withdraw, Syria still occupies up to
180 square miles (4.5%) of neighboring Lebanon and smuggles arms to militants
there, says a report by a Lebanese democracy group.
Current and former U.S. officials, along with regional experts, say the findings of the report are credible and largely in line with U.S. intelligence.
The report was put together by the International Lebanese Committee for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, a private group of Lebanese businesspeople, democracy advocates and exiles. Surveyors scrutinized the central and northern two-thirds of the 227-mile border between Lebanon and Syria. The southern portion, patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers under a cease-fire agreement that ended last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah militants, was not surveyed.
The report concludes that Syria maintains army camps in Lebanon, along with "dozens of smuggling passages" used to "infiltrate foreign fighters and weapons." It adds that Palestinian militants and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard allied with Syria remain on Lebanese soil.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer in Lebanon and Middle East specialist on the White House National Security Council, said the findings "look very credible to me. The areas indicated on the border have long been in de facto Syrian control."
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Augustus Richard Norton, a Middle East expert at Boston University and author of Hezbollah, a new book on the Shiite militant group, said the report appeared "credible to a considerable extent, bearing in mind that much of the border has been disputed since Lebanon's independence" in 1943.
France ruled Syria and Lebanon after World War I, which broke up Ottoman Turkish control of most of the Middle East.
Kristen Silverberg, an assistant secretary of State, said the border survey underscores the challenges facing Lebanon's pro-Western government.
"There is mounting evidence of illegal weapons shipments passing from Syria into Lebanon, which destabilizes the country and the region," she said.
Syria refuses to formally demarcate the border and has no embassy in Lebanon, which it has asserted in the past is part of a greater Syria.
The Syrian government sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 to try to stem a civil war — a move that began a 29-year occupation. Under pressure from the United Nations, it withdrew 14,000 troops in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. A U.N. tribunal is investigating allegations that Syria was behind that murder and those of other Lebanese politicians.
Last month, a car bomb killed another anti-Syrian politician, parliament member Walid Eido. A bomb also killed six U.N. peacekeepers from Spain. Katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon into northern Israel for the first time in a year.
Fighting has gone on for weeks between Lebanese troops and Islamic extremists in a Palestinian refugee camp in the north near the Syrian border. Lebanon's government says the militants are led by extremists who slipped in from Syria, which Syria denies.
Lebanon's pro-Syrian factions, including its president and parliamentary speaker, are locked in a power struggle with anti-Syrian Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his allies.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon complained last month that arms for Hezbollah and Palestinian militants are shipped from Syria into Lebanon. A U.N. border assessment team chided Syria for refusing to recognize the frontier with Lebanon. Israel also violates Lebanese territory, Ban said, with up to 32 flights a day of unmanned surveillance aircraft over the country.
Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations Bashar Jaafari disputed the new report, calling it "baseless, null and void." He said Syria has abided by U.N. resolutions and favors demarcating the border.
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