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Diplomacy To The Fore As Military Stakes Rise

An Israeli tank on the border with Lebanon (epa) PRAGUE, July 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Syria has warned that it may enter the conflict in Lebanon if Israel forces enter Lebanon and approach the Syrian border.

The statement, made by Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal in an interview for the Spanish newspaper "ABC," will heighten fears that Israel's massive air strikes throughout Lebanon and limited ground operations on the border will develop into a regional conflict.

It also heightens the urgency of diplomatic efforts to broker a peace. Foreign ministers from three European states – Britain, France, and Germany -- are currently in the region. German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier met Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz in Jerusalem on July 23, while French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and a British Foreign Office minister, Kim Howells, met Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Their emphasis is on securing an immediate end to the fighting, "a cease-fire that," in the words of Douste-Blazy, "reflects Israel's legitimate right to live safely and a cease-fire that will preserve this Lebanese state, whose survival is in the interests of Israel."

"Syria doesn't need dialogue to know what they need to do."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also due to arrive in the region later on July 23. The U.S. emphasis, though, is on a lasting peace and on ending the threat posed to Israel by the militant movement Hizballah rather than on an immediate cessation of hostilities.

U.S. President George W. Bush made clear in his weekly radio address on July 22 that he holds Hizballah responsible for the violence, and a day earlier Rice said a cease-fire would be a "false promise that simply returns us to the status quo allowing terrorists to launch attacks at the time and terms of their choosing and to threaten people, Arab and Israeli, throughout the region."

Rice declared that the international community should be "more effective and more ambitious than that," saying that "we must work urgently to create the conditions for stability and lasting peace."

How ambitious U.S. diplomacy will be remains to be seen, but Bush made clear that he believes both Syria and Iran are crucial factors in the region's instability.

"Secretary Rice will make it clear that resolving the crisis demands confronting the terrorist group that launched the attacks and the nations that support it," Bush said on July 21. "For many years, Syria has been a primary sponsor of Hizballah and it has helped provide Hizballah with shipments of Iranian made weapons. Iran's regime has also repeatedly defied the international community with its ambition for nuclear weapons and aid to terrorist groups. Their actions threaten the entire Middle East and stand in the way of resolving the current crisis."

Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faisal al-Meqdad, said on July 23 that Damascus is open to a dialogue with Washington. That possibility was immediately dismissed by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. "Syria doesn't need dialogue to know what they need to do," he said.

Syria denies bankrolling Hizballah, but says the group has Damascus's moral support and sympathy.

The Situation On The Ground

Israeli forces remain poised ready to launch a large offensive into Lebanon. Military hardware and thousands of troops have been massed on the border since late on July 21, waiting for the order to enter Lebanon.

That order has yet to come. Instead, Israel's current goal, Defense Minister Peretz says, is to create "as broad a space for diplomatic movement as possible."

In the meantime, the Israeli military continues to mount "limited incursions" against alleged Hizballah strongholds just over the border and massive air strikes throughout the country.

Overnight, the targets included an alleged Hizballah stronghold in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, sites in the Bekaa Valley, and a religious compound and mosque in the southern port of Sidon.

Israel would support the deployment of an international force along the Lebanese border "because of the weakness of the Lebanese army."

To date, Sidon has been relatively unscathed and it has received one of the largest inflows of refugees, with estimates suggesting that the city's population has swollen by over 40,000. The strike on the mosque, which was next to a makeshift refugee camp, has prompted criticism that Israel is endangering civilians already forced from their homes.

The UN's coordinator of emergency relief, Jan Egeland, expressed shock at the devastation in Beirut, one of the key targets, calling the attacks a violation of humanitarian law. Surveying apartment blocks toppled or severely damaged in the conflict, Egeland said on July 23 that the humanitarian situation in Lebanon is "catastrophic," with 500,000 people displaced by the Israeli attacks. He said at least $100 million is needed urgently to help avert a humanitarian disaster in Lebanon.

So far, Israel's campaign in Lebanon has claimed 355 Lebanese lives, the vast majority of them civilians. Hizballah has killed 34 Israelis.

The number of Israeli civilian casualties of the conflict rose by two early on July 23, when at least 12 rockets hit the northern city of Haifa. Further strikes on Haifa were reported in the afternoon. Initial reports say several people were wounded.

The Space For Diplomatic Movement

A view of the destruction caused in a suburb in southern Beirut by Israeli air strikes (epa)

In all, more than 40 rockets fired by Hizballah hit towns across northern Israel on July 22, suggesting that Israeli forces have some way to go to incapacitate Hizballah.

That may ultimately not be possible. Israeli forces occupied Lebanon for 18 years, withdrawing in 2000 without putting an end to Hizballah attacks.

Hizballah's military strength is one of the key explanations given for Israel's concerted campaign -- already in its twelfth day -- but it is also a factor that may encourage a negotiated end to the fighting.

Defense Minister Peretz indicated on July 23 that diplomacy is an important element in Israeli thinking, saying that "we definitely see a combination of the existing military activity...alongside broad international diplomatic efforts accomplishing the job."

Peretz said on July 23 that Israel is willing to accept the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, saying the force should be led by NATO. The Israeli newspaper "Haaretz" quoted Peretz as telling German Foreign Minister Steinmeier that Israel would support such a force "because of the weakness of the Lebanese army."

For its part, Hizballah has indicated that it is prepared to act to allay the original reason for the conflict, by returning two Israeli soldiers that it seized in a cross-border raid on July 12. In exchange, it is demanding the release of thousands of Arab prisoners held by Israel. Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Sallukh said on July 23 that the two soldiers are "in good health." Sallukh, who is close to Hizballah, called on the United Nations or any other third party to help start negotiations for a prisoner exchange.