South Lebanese Want International Protection, Syrians Out

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel's pledge to withdraw from south Lebanon by July has renewed calls for a simultaneous Syrian military pullout from the rest of the country.

But doubting that such a move will take place immediately, representatives of the mostly Christian residents of south Lebanon are seeking international security guarantees and backing for autonomy in south Lebanon.

Prof. Walid Phares, U.S.-based president of the World Lebanese Organization (WLO), said the resident wanted the right to "decide their fate by themselves."

Phares told the community had decided to stay and defend its own land, and was asking that the U.N. guarantee its safety in an autonomous zone.

After weekend talks between President Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad did not produce a resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks, prospects increased for an Israeli withdrawal from its "security zone," even though no agreement with the Syrian-backed Lebanese government has been reached.

Without such an agreement, residents of the zone and the Israel-allied South Lebanese Army (SLA) face the prospect of retaliatory attacks from terror organizations and reprisals from the Lebanese government, which views the SLA as traitors.

During the recent papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Christian Maronite Bishop Sayyah presented Pope John Paul II with a letter calling on the Holy See to intervene on behalf of the south Lebanese.

Some 1,000 members of the Maronite community crossed into Israel to celebrate a papal Mass in the Galilee.

According to Phares, residents of south Lebanon want U.N. forces already stationed in south Lebanon to form a buffer between them and Syrian forces and Hizballah guerillas so they will not be replacing one occupier, Israel, for another, Syria.

Phares said the WLO was also calling for a re-establishment of municipalities in the security zone and for the SLA to be transformed into a 2,500-man local police force.

Ultimately, he said, southern Lebanon would like to be reunited with Beirut, but that could only happen once the Syrians had left.

There seems to be some support for such a move within Lebanon. Gebran Tueini, the publisher of the pro-Syrian Beirut newspaper, Al-Nahar, surprised many last week when he published an editorial in the form of an open letter to Assad's son, Bashar, calling on him to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon before this summer's parliamentary elections.

Tueini argued that such a move would "satisfy" the Lebanese that Damascus had no intention of interfering in the polls and added that many Lebanese still regard Syria as "their enemy."

Syria has some 30,000 troops based in Lebanon and effectively controls the government and economy. Syrian troops entered the country in June 1976 and its presence there was legitimized later that year by the Arab League.

A 1982 U.N. resolution, number 520, called for the removal of "all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon" - including the Syrians.

Rep. Michael Forbes, (D-NY), sponsored a bill in Congress a year ago calling for Syria to withdrawal from Lebanon. His press secretary, Ernest Baynard, told the bill was currently stuck in a subcommittee.

The feeling, one source told, is that that Congress was "reticent" to jump into the middle of things at this point when Clinton is working so hard to come up with a Syrian-Israeli deal. They would rather "wait and see" what happens.

But with Israel's July deadline for a withdrawal just three months away and talks between Israel and Syria deadlocked, the residents of south Lebanon fear time may be running out.