Negotiations about Lebanon’s southern borders are connected to developments in southern Syria

Russian and Israeli interests are in tune with the objective of rehabilitating the Syrian regime regionally and internationally.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Precarious peace. A UNIFIL vehicle  drives by in south Lebanon as Israeli troops stand guard near the fence separating Lebanon from Israel, on June 8. (AFP)
Precarious peace. A UNIFIL vehicle drives by in south Lebanon as Israeli troops stand guard near the fence separating Lebanon from Israel, on June 8. (AFP)

Lebanese parliament Speaker Nabih Berri revealed there has been US mediation to arrange border demarcation negotiations between Lebanon and Israel. The idea is not new. Both countries had a row in the media a few years ago as Lebanon prepared to extract oil from disputed blocks on the maritime frontier.

The novelty in the proposed talks this time is that Israel is willing to negotiate about all land and sea borders, including those related to Shebaa Farms. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, it kept control of Shebaa Farms under the pretext that the area’s ownership was undecided between Lebanon and Syria. If the territory is Syrian, it comes under the jurisdiction of UN Security Council Resolution 242; if it is Lebanese, then it is subject to UN Security Council Resolution 420.

Since the events in 2000, neither Lebanon nor Syria attempted to make a decision on the ownership of Shebaa Farms. Leaving the identity of the territory in limbo served strategic interests related to Hezbollah and its arsenal in southern Lebanon. Syria, like Iran, had no intention of complying with international decisions calling for removal of all “illegitimate arms” — understood to mean Hezbollah’s arms — from southern Lebanon as ordered by UN Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701.

Lebanese-Israeli borders starting with the Shebaa Farms are the topic of high-level contacts. Western diplomatic sources in Beirut said Israel made its readiness to discuss all border issues known to Lebanese authorities through various channels, including the United States and Russia.

Moscow is interested in extracting offshore natural gas in the area and is more than willing to sponsor border talks. Washington had been actively pursuing mediation efforts to bring Lebanon and Israel to the negotiation table.

Berri was not opposed to the principle of talks but insisted they should be conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. Obviously, the diplomatic efforts regarding Lebanon’s southern borders are connected to developments in southern Syria.

Israel does seem interested in having Russia sponsor its eventual agreements with Lebanon and Syria. Its ambition is to maintain the 1973 ceasefire agreement with Syria, which allowed it to control the Golan Heights all these years, while Russia is interested in having the Syrian Army take control of areas near the Golan Heights and prevent any Iranian presence there.

Russian and Israeli interests coincide here and are in tune with the objective of rehabilitating the Syrian regime regionally and internationally.

Of course, these potential arrangements are far from pleasing Iran. Hezbollah is apprehensive of losing control over the issue of the border with Israel. They both know that Hezbollah will be facing fateful choices soon.

We should not look at these developments on Israel’s northern border as deja vu. Lebanese political sources, along with Arab diplomatic ones, agree that the arrangements being made for southern Syria under Russian auspices would not be disconnected from any agreement on fixed borders between Lebanon and Israel.

Obviously, the goal of curtailing Iranian influence in Syria and in Lebanon is not foreign to this and Iran will certainly refuse to be this easily manhandled. We cannot, therefore, rest assured that Israel’s planned security arrangements for its northern border are guaranteed to be implemented.

The fact that the general framework for such arrangements will be the international and Russian-American plans for the region does not seem to impress Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.

Speaking on Jerusalem Day, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah insisted that nobody other than Syrian President Bashar Assad can make Hezbollah withdraw from Syria. Nasrallah’s declarations followed skirmishes between Hezbollah and Russian forces in the Qalamoun region near the Lebanese border. It is obvious the Russians are following the path of requiring the withdrawal of pro-Iranian militias from Syria.

Iran and Hezbollah no longer have much choice in Syria. It is either escalation or concessions. If they choose military confrontation with Israel, we know that it will not be limited to Syria and will certainly spill into Lebanon. Making security concessions to Israel is not much of a choice either because it would involve officially recognising Israel’s security “rights” along its northern border.

Berri has on many previous occasions transmitted to the rest of the world Iranian positions concerning Lebanon. In a June news conference — and in an unprecedented move — he insisted that Iran and Hezbollah will not withdraw from Syria before liberating it. Observers interpreted these words as reflecting Iran’s annoyance with the pressure placed on it regionally and internationally.

However, one can also say that Berri was communicating an Iranian message to Hezbollah naturally. The message is to insist on keeping any agreement on southern Syria separate from any agreement on southern Lebanon, even if that means leaving open the question of fixing the borders with Israel along with the offshore natural gas projections on which Berri has pinned tremendous economic hopes for Lebanon.

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