- The Washington Times - Monday, March 7, 2005

JERUSALEM — Israel is hoping that a Syrian pullout from Lebanon also will force the departure of Iranian Revolutionary Guard elements embedded with the Hezbollah militia north of Israel’s border.

“The U.N. has called for the departure from Syria of all foreign elements, and Syria is not the only foreign element there,” Ephraim Halevy, a former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, told Israel Radio yesterday, in an apparent reference to Iranian presence in Lebanon.

In contacts with the United States and France, which are at the forefront of the international pressure for a Syrian pullout, Israel has said a pullout will be incomplete without the departure of the Iranians if Lebanon is to reclaim its sovereignty.

Although the Iranian guardsmen in Lebanon number only a few dozen, they represent an Iranian strategic arm that Israel takes seriously. About 13,000 rockets supplied by Iran have been deployed in southern Lebanon by Hezbollah.

The guardsmen have trained Hezbollah militia members in using the rockets and have been involved in their deployment. The rockets, some of which can reach the city of Haifa in Israel, are seen by Tehran as a deterrent against Israeli long-range strikes at Iranian nuclear centers. But they also are available to Hezbollah.

A few months ago, an Iranian-made drone launched from Lebanon flew over northern Israel on a reconnaissance mission before crashing into the sea. Iranian sources suggested later that drones filled with explosives could be sent as well.

Israeli officials expressed hope over the weekend that a Syrian withdrawal would permit the Lebanese government to post its troops along the Israeli border, curtailing the exclusive presence of Hezbollah there.

The withdrawal, however, could have the opposite effect: Hezbollah’s disciplined forces could move into the vacuum left by the Syrian departure and the militia could become an even more powerful element in the Lebanese mosaic, where it has come to play an increasingly important political role.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said yesterday that despite the ambiguities of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s speech Saturday, in which he spoke of a Syrian redeployment in Lebanon, the complete withdrawal of Syria “within months” was certain because of the international pressure.

“Syria is very weak and Assad is very isolated,” he said.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that if Syria withdraws fully from Lebanon, it would pave the way for direct peace talks between Israel and Lebanon.

“Israel has neither territorial nor water issues with Lebanon,” he said. “There is no real problem standing between us.”

When Israel withdrew from Lebanon five years ago, it pulled back to a line recognized by the United Nations as the international border between the two countries.

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