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Mideast listens to antimine crusade

Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Syria are sending
observers to signing of an international banl.

Monday, November 24, 1997
By Paul Koring

Quneitra, Syria -- The Globe and Mail
BENEATH the penetrating gaze of sophisticated Israeli outposts atop the Golan Heights, the houses of Quneitra lie in ruins, 30 years after they were destroyed by Israeli combat engineers.

This is where the Canadian-led dream to rid the world of antipersonnel land mines runs up hard against the reality of an unfinished war, where the lingering evil of the mines is balanced by Syria's strategic need of them in the face of a whelming foe to whom they have already lost four wars.

Syria, like much of the Middle East, is infested with mines. So when Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy made his first visit to the region, in part to seek support for a ban on land mines, he knew he faced tough sledding.

What was surprising was that he reaped more than lip service and a lecture on unfinished business in a region still rent by conflict. Instead, there were polite "Nos" and a remarkable willingness to listen, perhaps in deference to the global groundswell that has pushed the crusade against land mines from pious hope to binding treaty in less than two years.

Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Syria agreed to send observer delegations to an Ottawa conference next month at which an international treaty banning antipersonnel land mines will be signed.
And all four countries, while explaining that they couldn't "for security" reasons renounce land mines, agreed to take limited action to reduce civilian casualties.

Egypt and Canada will launch a small project to remove mines in the Sinai desert, where, according to some estimates, more than 20 million mines remain. Israel also agreed to participate with Canada in a project to rid mines in a third country -- almost certainly outside the region -- to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel's founding next year. Canadian experts and equipment are also expected to be sent to Jordan, where removal of mines is under way on a limited scale.

But the biggest surprise was Syria's agreement to consider demarcating at least some of its mine fields in the partly demilitarized zone of separation that, since 1973, has remained both a tense front in a never-concluded war and a model of how United Nations peacekeeping can work.

Amid the rugged brown volcanic rock that would make the Golan seem desolate and forbidding even without its brutal history, Mr. Axworthy came face to face with Syria's stark strategic need for land mines.

The minister heard the familiar horror stories from Austrian army engineers who remove mines from UN access routes: of innocent shepherds blown to smithereens; of children killed by decades-old antitank mines whose triggers have become so sensitive with age that even a child's light step will set them off; and of countless unmarked mines still causing death long after they were laid.

But he also saw how and why land mines remain a vital military asset, especially for countries gripped with genuine fears of invasion by a vastly superior military foe.

Damascus, the Syrian capital, is barely 60 kilometres from Quneitra. That means an afternoon's drive for Israeli armour, now that Syria has lost the commanding heights of the Golan that represent the natural defensive line against invasion in either direction.

Given Israel's demonstrated mastery of the air and its unquestioned technological lead, Syria relies on the low-tech realities of superior numbers and massive mine fields to slow or stop any Israeli invasion.

The argument that Israel won't invade -- that the Golan has been quiet since 1973 -- carries little weight in Syria. "Remember that it was Israel that invaded Lebanon in 1982," a Syrian officer said.

Even UN officers in the Golan speaking on condition that they not be identified acknowledge that mine fields make eminent military sense for Syria.

"They have got to plan for an Israeli armoured thrust, they have got to try and force invading tanks into choke points between here and Damascus," said one, standing in the destroyed Quneitra hospital, which has seen armies fight their way back and forth through this town four times since 1967.

In short, the same justification that Washington uses to insist that it needs land mines in South Korea -- to stem any surprise onslaught from North Korea -- applies in even greater measure for Syria.

While few doubt that the world's sole remaining superpower would prevail even if the ill-equipped North Korean army launched a surprise attack, Washington's argument that its mine fields would slow any assault and thus reduce U.S. casualties echoes the Syrian argument.

On the flanks of the Golan, the serried rows of half-buried antitank mines can be seen. UN officers are convinced that far larger and newer mine fields have been sown on the routes to Damascus.

And protecting those antitank mines are tiny, hard-to-detect antipersonnel land mines that probably number in the millions. Without them, Israeli combat engineers could quickly clear paths for the tanks.

Mr. Axworthy kept reminding the region's leaders that some military experts believe antipersonnel mines can be replaced with less lethal means of defending antitank mines, but the claim remains open to debate. Antitank mines will not be outlawed in the treaty to be signed in Ottawa.

Even Washington, with the world's most sophisticated arsenal, wanted nine years lead time before it felt it could do without its vast fields of mines in Korea.

For Syria, faced with a foe well equipped by Washington and with no hope of developing or acquiring substitutes for antipersonnel mines, renouncing the mines would tip the military scales too far in Israel's favour.

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