- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

JERUSALEM Since Secretary of State Colin L. Powell visited Lebanon and Syria last week, Israelis who live along the Jewish state's border with those two countries have been hearing something they hadn't heard in nearly a month: silence.
The rockets and shells fired daily at Israel by Lebanon's Islamic militant Hezbollah a group that Israelis insist Syria controls have stopped falling, and the bomb shelters are being closed for now.
It was just last month that Hezbollah promised to help Palestinians battling soldiers in the West Bank by engaging Israel on a second front along the northern border.
But Mr. Powell's cajoling of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Monday helped end the skirmishes, officials and analysts said.
"I think Powell's pressure and Syria's own interests joined here to end the firing for the time being," said Moshe Maoz, a Syria specialist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
Hezbollah has been fighting Israel for 20 years, since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, engineered an invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
It took the guerrilla group 18 years to expel Israeli troops from southern Lebanon. The last Israeli contingent left Lebanon in May 2000. But Hezbollah has gone on fighting for a sliver of land 10 square miles it says Israel is still occupying.
The area, known as Shebaa Farms, is uninhabited and largely insignificant. But it has given Hezbollah and its Syrian benefactors a motive to continue assailing Israel.
Syria largely controls Lebanon, keeping thousands of troops in the neighboring country and maintaining vast influence over its leaders and security agencies.
While Syria has its own reasons to maintain a steady stream of pressure on Israel, the Hezbollah attacks of recent weeks drew unprecedented criticism from officials and analysts in Lebanon.
After decades of civil war and Israeli occupation of part of its country, Lebanon is trying hard to repair its economy by attracting foreign investors. Violence tends to scare them away.
The specter of an Israeli retaliation against not only Lebanon, but also Syria was one of the factors prompting Damascus to shut down Hezbollah. According to one Israeli official, Mr. Powell told Mr. Assad that Washington would not restrain Israel if the Hezbollah attacks persisted.
"Sharon does not have a sense of humor when it comes to Lebanon, and he was fed up with the shooting. So Powell delivered a stern message," Mr. Maoz said.
But minding Washington's own interests, Mr. Powell also stroked Syria, which is viewed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism, but also, paradoxically, as a potential partner in the international war on terrorism and on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The United States is perennially complaining to Mr. Assad about Syria's support for Hezbollah and several other Palestinian groups involved in violence.
But Syria also joined the United States and other allies in ousting Iraq from Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. And U.S. officials say Damascus gave Washington valuable intelligence after the September 11 attacks that helped law enforcers thwart other attacks.
"For these reasons, Washington has a dual approach towards Assad: tough but not too tough," an Israeli official said.
When Vice President Richard B. Cheney toured the Middle East in February to rally support for measures against Iraq, he left Syria off his agenda a fact that is thought to have incensed Mr. Assad.
Mr. Powell's one-day jaunt to Damascus last week was meant, in part, to make up for the snub, analysts said.
"I think it's important for Syria not to be counted by the United States as one of the countries on the axis of evil," Mr. Maoz said.

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