News Roundup (22 Sept 2008)

Don’t soon expect a Syria-Lebanon border agreement
By Nicholas Blanford
The Daily Star, September 23, 2008

When Lebanon’s new president, Michel Sleiman, and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, held a landmark meeting in Damascus last month, one of the agreements reached between them was to delineate and demarcate the 320-kilometer border between their two countries. Although the announcement was widely welcomed, progress is likely to be slow as political realities in Lebanon weigh heavily on what should be a straightforward technical survey and joint agreement between Beirut and Damascus.

Complications are many and varied. The border remains disputed in numerous places, Syrian troops remain deployed on Lebanese soil in several spots, the border area is a transit route for weapons to Hizbullah as well as home to small military bases manned by pro-Syrian Palestinian groups, and it is an economic lifeline for residents of east Lebanon, long ignored by the state, who survive on commercial smuggling. Defining, demarcating and securing the Lebanon-Syria border, as called for by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, woul threaten this status quo.

Borders can only be agreed upon with the goodwill of both neighboring countries. It takes mutually agreed maps and documents registered at the UN for a border to become internationally recognized. If one party to the process hedges then the border remains an open issue. One only has to look at the painstaking ordeal in 2000 of defining the UN-delineated Blue line in South Lebanon, behind which Israeli forces that had just ended their occupation of the area were obliged to withdraw, to understand the potential complexities of marking Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The Blue Line was intended to “correspond” to Lebanon’s southern border with Israel and the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms area; it was not a legal border, just a temporary boundary. Even so, because of the hostility between Lebanon and Israel, both countries squabbled furiously over perceived transgressions of literally a meter or less. If Lebanon and Syria were to apply the same demanding conditions to their mutual border, the project of demarcation would never be completed…

Hizbullah ‘not gearing up for war’ – Israeli
The Daily Star, September 23, 2008

Iran is halfway to a nuclear bomb, and Hizbullah, Hamas and Syria are using the status quo to rearm, the head of the Israeli military intelligence research division said, according to Israeli media reports. “Iran is developing a command of uranium-enrichment technology and is galloping toward a nuclear bomb,” Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz told the Israeli cabinet on Sunday.

“The time when they will have crossed the nuclear point-of-no-return is fast approaching,” he said.

In addition to their nuclear efforts, the Iranians were increasing their influence in the region through cooperation with Syria and “Palestinian terrorist organizations,” Baidatz reportedly told the Israeli cabinet.

Tehran is also the main arms supplier to Hizbullah and a source of constant attacks on American troops in Iraq, the Israeli brigadier general added.

As for Damascus, Baidatz said that Syria “is funneling a great deal of weapons and ammunition to Lebanon, tightening its relations with Iran and fortifying its aerial and ground defenses, with Russia’s and Iran’s assistance.”

As for Hizbullah, Baidatz told the ministers that the group “is not gearing up for a conflict, but it will continue trying to target Israeli aircraft and using the calm on the northern border to rearm.”

On the Gaza Strip, Baidatz also said that Hamas and “other terrorist organizations” have taken advantage of the cease-fire to rearm and prepare for the next round of fighting.

Syria condemns terrorist attack in Pakistan, September 21, 2008

DAMASCUS- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad condemned on Sunday the terrorist attack in the Pakistani capital Islamabad that killed dozens of civilians on Saturday evening, the official SANA news agency reported.

President Assad made the condemnation in a telegram he sent to his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari, SANA said.

In the telegram, Assad expressed his deep grief and offered his condolences to Zardari, the friendly people of Pakistan and the families of the victims. He also wished the injured a speedy recovery.

A huge truck bomb exploded at the entrance to the Marriott Hotel in the center of Islamabad on Saturday evening, killing 53 people and injuring over 250 others. The death toll may rise as some people are still trapped inside the six-story hotel.

The blast came just hours after Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to firmly fight against terrorism and extremism while addressing a joint session of the parliament.

UN: Syria may have buried nuclear traces
Reuters, September 21, 2008

UN investigators believe Syria may have buried under concrete traces of what Washington suspects was a covert nuclear reactor at a site bombed by Israel a year ago, diplomats said on Sunday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency began probing Syria in April based on US Intelligence suggesting a remote desert complex targeted by Israel was a reactor almost completed with North Korean help and designed to make plutonium for atom bombs.

Satellite pictures indicated Syria swiftly bulldozed the area, removed debris and erected a new building in a possible cover-up, US nuclear analysts say.

Syria has denied hiding nuclear activity from the UN watchdog and said the bombed site at al-Kibar was an ordinary military building. It gave IAEA inspectors access in June.

Partial results of environmental swipe samples showed no traces of carbon or maraging steel, an especially strong alloy of the metal, that would have indicated a graphite reactor, diplomats familiar with the inquiry told Reuters.

The diplomats said Syria has rebuffed IAEA requests to revisit al-Kibar and examine three military sites seen as interlinked, citing grounds of national security.

Full test results from the June mission may not be available until November and may not prove conclusive either, they said.

US intelligence indicated the reactor had not begun to process material before Israel’s attack, so there would have been no radioactive material to detect.

“This doesn’t mean there was nothing there, just that the inspectors did not (or could not) search the right places,” said a senior Vienna diplomat versed in the matter.

“Syria laid a big slab of concrete over it (ground where the alleged reactor stood) after digging a hole. Ideally the IAEA should be able to examine the chunks of debris but the feeling is that the Syrians may have dumped all of it down the hole…

Lebanon reports Syrian troop build-up on border
AFP, September 22, 2008

BEIRUT (AFP) — The Lebanese army said on Monday that Syria has boosted troop numbers along the border but that Damascus has stressed the move is linked to a crackdown against smugglers.

“Nearly 10,000 Syrian special forces have been deployed in the Abbudiya region along the border between Lebanon and Syria,” an army spokesman told AFP.

“We asked Damascus for clarification and we were told that the measures were strictly internal and on Syrian territory, and that they were in no way directed against Lebanon,” he added.

The spokesman said the Syrian authorities have assured the Lebanese army that the build-up is aimed at cracking down on smuggling and other crime along the border.

The strengthened deployment is visible from the Lebanese side of the border.

Existing positions have been reinforced by military vehicles and tents have also been put up, an AFP correspondent in the area said.

Traffic is continuing to pass through the main border point, although the Syrian army is cracking down on illegal crossings, making it more difficult to go through, travellers told AFP.

The Lebanese newspaper Al-Mustaqbal, which is close to the anti-Syrian parliamentary majority, said the troops began deploying along the northern border at the weekend.

News of the build-up raised fears in Lebanon after statements made by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in early September expressing his “concern” at the recent interfaith violence in the northern city of Tripoli.

The Syrian head of state said he had asked his Lebanese counterpart Michel Sleiman to “urgently send more troops to the north”.

The anti-Syrian parliamentary group said this was “interference” in internal Lebanese affairs and could serve as a “pretext” for a return of Syrian troops to its tiny neighbour.

Following the assassination of billionaire former premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005, Damascus was forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon after three decades of military and political domination.

It nevertheless continues to wield influence through its allies in Beirut.

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