Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Despite Security and Economic Talks, Lebanon Still off Limits to Americans

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Despite Security and Economic Talks, Lebanon Still off Limits to Americans

Article excerpt

Despite Security and Economic Talks, Lebanon Still Off Limits to Americans

By Carole H. Dagher

Before leaving Washington, DC in March for his latest trip to Israel and its neighbors, Secretary of State Warren Christopher renewed the U.S. ban on travel by Americans to Lebanon for another six months. U.S. commercial carriers thus are prohibited from flying to Lebanon, and Lebanon's Middle East Airlines still is barred from landing in the U.S. Ironically, the secretary signed the measure only two weeks after a U.S.-Lebanese security commission had met in Washington to consider security measures currently in effect in and around the Beirut airport as a first step toward lifting the travel ban.

The administration of President Bill Clinton first proposed the U.S.-Lebanese security commission in June 1994 to deal with the restraints on U.S.-Lebanese relations posed by American fear of renewed hostage-taking and Lebanese insistence on lifting the travel ban. But its ambitious original agenda stirred opposition in Lebanon, particularly from the Shi'i Muslim Hezbollah, which feared that its own role as Lebanon's only remaining armed militia would be questioned. U.S. negotiators also had reservations, knowing that only the Syrian government could offer serious "guarantees" regarding Hezbollah's activities.

Knowing that the U.S. officials would inevitably raise the issue of bomb attacks against the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the U.S. Embassy in 1983 and 1984, the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Francis Meloy in 1976, and the taking of U.S. and other foreign hostages in the 1970s and 1980s, Syria also had reacted negatively to the commission proposal. Syria apparently worried that the commission might evolve into an independent Lebanese channel to the U.S., and thus affect the Lebanese track in the peace talks.

After intense contacts between Washington and Damascus through U.S. Ambassador to Syria Christopher Ross, however, the Syrians withdrew their opposition to the idea on condition that the commission would deal only with the technical aspects of Beirut airport's security. Hezbollah military resistance to Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon specifically was not to be discussed.

In the State Department, where the meetings took place, the U.S. delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary of State Robert Pelletreau and included State Department counter-terrorism officer Philip Wilcox and representatives of the departments of Transportation, Justice and Commerce, as well as the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the CIA, and the FBI. U.S. policy-makers clearly continued to see the talks with Lebanon from the angle of "terrorism." The Lebanese participants, headed by Lebanese Ambassador to the U.S. Riad Tabbarah, included officers from Lebanon's General Security and Internal Security Forces.

During the talks, Lebanese participants reached two conclusions: one was that U.S. information concerning the security situation in Lebanon was outdated and still profoundly influenced by the hostage syndrome of the mid-1980s. The second conclusion was that the different U.S. departments were not in agreement among themselves concerning the necessity of maintaining U.S. restrictions on Lebanon. Most concerned were State Department counter-terrorism and CIA officials, who were skeptical about the Lebanese government's ability to extend its authority to all parts of the national territory.

A Dialogue of the Deaf

Discussions came to resemble a dialogue of the deaf, with U.S. officials insisting on raising Hezbollah activities and the Lebanese ambassador reiterating his government's position that they constituted a "legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon."

"Ambassador Tabbarah simply dismissed our fears as unjustified," one State Department official who attended the meetings told the Washington Report.

U.S. representatives also expressed deep concern about the presence of Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut, in immediate proximity to the Beirut airport. …

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