US ups pressure by excluding Syria and Lebanon from roadmap process. Mohalhel Fakih reports from Beirut
Lebanon and Syria on Sunday criticised the Mideast roadmap for peace for excluding both countries from the US-led peace efforts. Both countries were not invited to attend Tuesday's Sharm El- Sheikh Summit and were only vaguely mentioned in the "third phase" of the Mideast roadmap peace plan. Beirut and Damascus have been warning that a viable and lasting peace in the region would not be reached without their participation. Washington, however, has signalled that the two neighbours and close allies would not partake in the making of a new Middle East if they do not fulfil a long list of demands.
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A Lebanese girl, Doaa Hijazi, plays with other children on the barrel of a tank left over by Israeli-allied Lebanese militiamen in the southern village of Tibeh
This leaves Lebanon in a dilemma. On record Beirut does not oppose the roadmap, but top Lebanese leaders have strongly criticised the plan for not clearly addressing the country's conflict with Israel and for not supporting the Palestinian right of return.
Lebanese House Speaker Nabih Berri said the roadmap aims to resettle Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and warned that Israel's decision to ban their return amounted to a "threat". Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri said Lebanon would back the Palestinians' approval of the roadmap, but would oppose the resettlement of the refugees in Lebanon.
While top Lebanese officials insist there is ongoing dialogue with Washington, they stress that Beirut would not yield to US demands. The US wants the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbullah, deploy Lebanese Army troops along the border with Israel, press for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, and abandon water-pumping projects located closeIsraeal, along the Hasbani River.
All these demands are problematic for Beirut. The Lebanese government has been struggling to restore a sense of socio- economic and political normalcy to the country, following the 1975-1990 civil war and Israel's May 2000 pullout from South Lebanon.
Influential Druze leader and head of the Progressive Socialist Party, MP Walid Jumblatt, branded the US demands as an "Israeli-US roadmap" for Lebanon. Rejecting the pressure on Beirut and Damascus, Jumblatt called on the government to bolster Hizbullah's military capabilities to "defend" Lebanon.
Hizbullah features high on a US list of "terrorist" organisations, despite strong condemnation from Lebanon and Hizbullah. Both insist that the group, which led resistance operations against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, is only engaged in a campaign to drive Israel out of the disputed Shebaa Farms located on the border with Syria's occupied Golan Heights.
Syria too has been resisting pressure to disarm Hizbullah. The US and Israel have accused Damascus and Tehran of providing Hizbullah with military support. Both deny the charge, but have been coming under mounting pressure to neutralise the group. In a recent interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made it clear that "as long as (Hizbullah's) action is limited to Lebanese territory, we will continue to support it."
Hizbullah Secretary- General Sayed Hassan Nasrallah remains defiant. He told supporters in Baalbek in east Lebanon that disarming Hizbullah is not currently an option. He cited Israel's continued occupation of Shebaa Farms and its detention of Lebanese resistance figures. Nasrallah also lashed out at the Sharm El-Sheikh Summit. "This summit will polish Ariel Sharon's image and I congratulate Syria and Lebanon for not participating," Nasrallah said.
This view was not shared by the Christian opposition who called for a withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The Qornet Shehwan Front, made up of prominent MPs, academics and political figures, went as far as demanding an "alternative authority" to "restore" the country's "sovereignty". In a move warmly received by the Lebanese authorities, Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir urged dialogue and said Christians would not "be used" to pressure Syria in Lebanon. Sfeir maintained, however, that the time had come to "clarify" ties between the two neighbouring states.
Meanwhile, Lebanon, Syria and Iran are taking seriously US and Israeli threats to shift attention to their countries now that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had been toppled. Offices of Palestinian factions operating in Damascus have become inactive. Syria also ended up supporting UN Security Council Resolution 1483, which lifted sanctions on Iraq, despite previous reservations.
Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported meanwhile that Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been removing weapons from the Marjayoun border area close to Israel. The daily also claimed that Iran stopped its alleged training of Hizbullah hang-glider pilots.
Still, Beirut has not ruled out an Israeli military strike, and is deeply concerned about the fate of some 400,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.
In an alarming reminder of the volatility of their presence, and days before Sharon's cabinet voted to ban the return of refugees, Fatah militants loyal to PA President Yasser Arafat clashed with militants from the Osbat Al-Nour and Osbat Al-Ansar Islamist groups in Ain Al- Hilweh refugee camp. Eight people were killed.
It remains unclear if Lebanon would have any say in the future of the refugees, given its absence from the process to implement the "roadmap". For its part, Lebanon wants the refugees repatriated, blaming them for decades of civil strife and lawlessness in some parts of the country.