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Israeli Analysts Ponder Possible Syrian Withdrawal from Lebanon


Israel is watching closely, as international pressure mounts on Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon. Larry James reports from Jerusalem on how such a withdrawal would appear, from the Israeli point of view.

Israeli officials have long complained about what they see as the Syrian threat. They accuse Damascus of harboring and supporting Palestinian terrorist groups; of trying to amass weapons of mass destruction; and of supporting attacks against Israel by Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon. Israel has repeatedly pushed for international action against Syria. It is no wonder that it is now pleased to see others turning up the pressure.

Mass demonstrations in Beirut since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri turned into massive anti-Syrian protests and clearly took the Syrian leadership by surprise.

The United States and France have jointly called on Syria to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution aimed at ending foreign interference in Lebanon.

Israeli U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman told Israel Radio, even tougher action is needed. "Syria needs to be dealt with in a much more forceful way and sanctions are just one of them," he said.

The United States has also accused Damascus of assisting anti-American insurgents in Iraq. And, both Washington and Israel have said Syrian-based militants from Islamic Jihad were behind last week's suicide attack in Tel Aviv that killed five people and injured dozens more.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio it is time for Syria to decide which path it wants to follow - to continue supporting terrorism or join in the fight against it.

Mr. Peres says it is time for the international community to put more pressure on the Damascus government.

It seems the pressure on Syria is already showing. President Assad told "Time" magazine Syria could withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon within the next few months.

Ostensibly Syrian troops were sent to Lebanon by the Arab League in 1976 to bring calm in the midst of a bloody 15-year civil war. The troops have been there for ever since, even though the civil war ended some 15 years ago.

Some Israeli analysts see a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon as inevitable. Professor Asher Susser, director of Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told Israel Radio, such a withdrawal would have a definite impact on Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah will pay the price because they will become the next target when the Syrian[s] leaves," he said. "It's not to say their role is finished. After all, they are a Lebanese party with many supporters. But, clearly, the room for maneuvering that they had before that allowed them to operate against Israel will be very narrow."

Professor Susser says that would definitely work in Israel's favor. However, some Israeli officials say Syria may be feeling the pressure, but they remain skeptical that Damascus will really pull out of Lebanon.