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Prof. Eyal Zisser: ’Syrian Pledges To Withdraw In Lebanon Are Aimed At Buying Time And Riding Out International Storm’

‘Too Early To Say If Lebanese Protest Demonstrations Will Develop Into Lebanese Intifada Against Syria’s Domination’

‘Russia Sale Of Sophisticated SA-18 Missiles To Syria As Well As Russia Nuclear Aid To Iran, Indicates Moscow Wants To Get Back Into Middle East Game’

Assad - Hariri

Just how sincere are the latest declarations by Syrian officials to withdraw their troops in Lebanon to the Be’ka Valley? Why has Syria, after collaborating with guerilla attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, now further defied America by forming an alliance with Iran and in effect joining the ‘Axis of Evil’ of President George W. Bush? After supplying nuclear aid to Iran, Russia is now selling sophisticated weapons to Syria - is this simply to make a fast ruble or does President Vladamir Putin have something else in mind?

Professor Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University, is a leading Israeli expert on Syria - he analyzes these questions and others in this interview with David Essing:

David Essing: Prof. Eyal Zisser, do you believe Syrian officials when they say they are going to pull back in Lebanon, pull back to the Be’ka Valley, for example?

Prof. Zisser: I do believe them when they say they want to stay in Lebanon and that they are not going to comply with resolution 1559. I do believe them when they say there will be another deployment but these redeployments, it happens once every few months and these redeployments have no real meaning because in the bottom line Syria still enjoys full control over Lebanon.

David Essing: So do you think the Syrians are simply trying to buy time and ride out the storm?

Prof. Zisser: Yes, no doubt about it. They are now under heavy pressure to withdraw fully from Lebanon and in order to avoid such a move they want to buy time by telling, well, you know, we start with some redeployments, eventually it will lead to the withdrawal from all of Lebanon, but clearly right now these are cosmetic moves aimed at actually maintaining the Syrian control over Lebanon, and not changing anything in the situation there.

David Essing: In light of the very serious protest demonstrations by the Lebanese following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, are we in effect seeing a Lebanese intifada against the Syrian domination over Lebanon?

Prof. Zisser: We see Lebanese resentment there but Lebanese opposition is very weak, it’s full of people who used to work for the Syrians for many years and now for their personal interest they join the opposition, so I wouldn't count on this opposition, but clearly there is widespread resentment in Lebanon, it's aimed at the Syrians and the Syrian presence in Lebanon and of course it gives legitimacy to the international pressure on Syria to pull out its forces from Lebanon.

David Essing: But just how important is the Syrian control of Lebanon, that the Syrians are willing to buck the international community, the Arab world, and a significant portion of the Lebanese population?

Prof. Zisser: It's very important, first for strategic, security and military reasons and second for economic reasons, hundreds of thousands of Syrians are working in Lebanon, but I think there is also the psychological dimension, this was the only achievement of the Ba’ath regime had in the sphere of foreign policy during the last thirty years and many Syrians came to think of Lebanon as part of the area that should be under Syrian hegemony or control and to pull out from Lebanon will be a major setback for the Syrian regime vis a vis its own population.

David Essing: Why do you think there has been this change in the Arab world demanding that Syria will get out of Lebanon now after the Arab world seemed to acquiesce in the Syrian domination for so many years?

Prof. Zisser: Well, it's a result of the western pressure. There is no Arab world, there are no Arab communities, there are some Arab states and they don't want to leave the scene to the Americans And they want also to mediate maybe, so I don’t think that there is a real Arab move and the Arab world is not playing any part at all in this game right now. They let France and the US move ahead to adopt a very though position, and now they are following it but not more than that. It's clearly because of the American pressure. If there was no American pressure on Syria, I guess we wouldn't have seen these Arab voices calling Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.

David Essing: Well, in light of this pressure Syria turns to Iran, it is voluntarily joining the ‘axis of evil’, in the view of US President George Bush. Isn’t the late President Hafez Assad literally turning in his grave to see this kind of reckless move by the Syrians today?

Prof. Zisser: Yes, I think that the Syrians simply do not read the Americans, do not read the international community, and they are making mistakes one by the other and they are to pay for these mistakes, no doubt about it. Maybe they think they are still in the 80's when there was the Soviet union, when the Americans still suffered from the Vietnam trauma, but it's a new reality, it's a new world and they simply don’t understand it.

David Essing: Is it Syrian President Bashar Assad who's calling the shots in Damascus today, or is it the old guard which is taking the decisions?

Prof. Zisser: No, I think it's Bashar el Assad, the old guard most of them left already, retired, this is his own policy, these are his moves. Either decisions he took or either decisions he hesitated to take, but the result is the same, Syria failed to deal with the current international situation and reality.

David Essing: And the Syrians are still supporting the terrorists in Iraq who are attacking American soldiers there?

Prof. Eyal Zisser

Professor Eyal Zisser is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies and the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History, both at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Zisser wrote extensively on the history and the modern politics of Syria and Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Prof. Zisser: Well, I wouldn’t say support, we should be very careful about it. I think they don’t encourage them or send them, but clearly they ignore the activities and this lack of any real steps against terrorism either in Iraq or in Israel, this is the problem. Not that they encourage but they fail to do anything, they don’t have the will to do anything about it.

David Essing: Finally, that sale of sophisticated Russian ground to air missiles to the Syrians, the SA-18, which I understand can be converted into dangerous shoulder fired missiles, do you think this is an attempt by the Russians to get back into the Middle East game?

Prof. Zisser: Yes, no doubt about it, I mean those who explain it by only economic considerations, the Russians wanted the money, but I think there is much more here, clearly Russia wants to play a major role, I don’t know if only in the Middle East but also in other parts of the world, and clearly this is a message to the Americans - if the west, the US, play a role in Kiev or in Estonia, we will play a role in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

David Essing: And that applies to Iran as well, where the Russians have been supplying nuclear aid, and building the Busher reactor?

Prof. Zisser: Yes, this seems to be the answer.

David Essing

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