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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebanon Absent but Vital to Any Deal

DAMASCUS, Syria -- When Israel and Syria sat down for talks in Washington on Wednesday, the most notable absentee was Lebanon, the last active battleground in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A settlement in Lebanon, where Israeli forces battle regularly with Lebanese guerrillas, is seen as vital to any permanent peace. But Syria, not Lebanon, has the final say on Lebanon's policies. That factor has not only kept Lebanese officials out of the talks for now, but also could play a big role in determining how the negotiations unfold, experts say.

"In a very real sense, the Syrians will have two seats at the table, whether or not the Lebanese are there," said a Damascus-based diplomat. "And while Syrians and Lebanese see eye-to-eye on most things, when they don't, you can guess who will end up the loser."

Syria and Lebanon have vowed to work together, and Lebanese officials are expected to accept a U.S. invitation to join in parallel talks with Israel as early as next week, when a second round of discussions is expected to begin.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa has said that his country believes that progress on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts should be "simultaneous." Each of the two countries has promised not to make peace without the other and not to compromise on their basic demands. Syrian President Hafez Assad was reported to have telephoned his Lebanese counterpart,Emile Lahoud, to coordinate their positions. That kind of consultation surprised no one in Lebanon, where Lahoud and his fellow leaders are recognized as owing their jobs to Syria, and where its interests are overseen by Bashar Assad, the president's son and presumed heir.

Even so, Lebanon's exclusion from the first round of talks has caused some grumbling in Beirut. While Lebanese officials are careful not to criticize Syria, which maintains 30,000 troops in Lebanon, some have worried in private that Lebanon could be handed a deal that does not fully reflect their country's interests. At least in some quarters, what is of particular concern is the prospect of a peace accord that might rid Lebanon of one foreign army f the 2,000 Israelis involved in its south f while further entrenching another.

Syrian forces came to Lebanon in 1976, at the invitation of the government. Syria also imposed the 1991 peace, which ended Lebanon's 16-year-long civil war. But the Syrian troops have never departed.

As a price for a withdrawal from Lebanon, Israel is expected to demand security guarantees for its northern border, previously the target of attacks from Lebanon-based guerrillas. A Syrian guarantee, backed by Syrian troops, could be seen as more credible than one from Lebanon since the Lebanese have limited military capacity and have never tried to rein in the guerrillas.

Israel has been critical of what some officials have portrayed as Syria's occupation of Lebanon. But in the current talks, some diplomats predict, Israel, Syria and the United States might all line up on the same side of the matter f choosing to acquiesce in a continued Syrian presence, even though it frustrates many ordinary Lebanese, particularly among the Christian minority.