Lebanon and Syria remain under threat of Israeli attack, unless diplomatic efforts succeed in resolving the crisis sparked off by the 7 October capture of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah fighters in the border area.

The soldiers were taken prisoner following an attack by a Hezbollah unit on an Israeli patrol in the disputed Shebaa farms area. Lebanon and Syria insist that this area, which is still occupied by Israel, is Lebanese territory, and as such should have been evacuated when Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May. Israel and the UN say the territory is part of Syria, and therefore would be included in negotiations between Israel and Syria about the occupied Golan Heights.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Beirut on 12 October for talks about the fate of the Israeli prisoners and about the security situation. Hezbollah has made clear it is willing to discuss the prisoner question with Annan. The Lebanese group is demanding the release of 19 of its members held by Israel, as well as the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Annan has also been pressing the Lebanese government to send more of its troops to the border area.

However, Beirut has opposed this on the grounds that such an action would legitimise Israel’s continued presence in the Shebaa farms area. This position clearly suits Hezbollah, as it gives it a legitimate reason to continue its military activities, and it also appears to be convenient for Syria, as it creates a focus of tension which Damascus can use as a justification for keeping its troops in Lebanon.

Prospects for a diplomatic solution do not look promising, given the official hostility of the Lebanese government to the UN position on the Shebaa farms. ‘Lebanon will not bow to pressures to find a security formula in the south that would reassure Israel at the expense of our national interest which is linked to completing the liberation of our territories and the release of our detainees, ‘President Lahoud was quoted as saying on 11 October.

The crisis is the first major political test for the new Syrian President Bashar Asad, who faces the daunting prospect of being sucked into a military clash with Israeli forces within months of taking office. The upsurge in tensions with Israel has also come at a time of rising Christian opposition to Syria’s continued presence in Lebanon, and growing pressure inside Syria itself for an opening up of the political system.