No Easy Severance for Mideast Twins

Lebanese-Syrian ties pose a challenge to U.S. plans


By DING YING

ANTI-U.S. DEMONSTRATION: Pro-Syria Lebanese demonstrators, carrying national flags, torch a U.S. flag outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut

Even as the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians started to look encouraging, tensions grew in neighboring Syria and Lebanon. A senior Lebanese army officer announced on March 13 that Syria had withdrawn 4,000 soldiers, nearly a third of its 14,000 troops, from Lebanon, while a Syrian cabinet minister revealed that the pullback would be finished before the Lebanese parliamentary elections in April. Two days later, Syrian intelligence officers reportedly began to vacate their headquarters in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

The ongoing withdrawal of Syrian troops comes under intense international political pressure. After former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who firmly opposed Syria’s military presence in Lebanon, was assassinated in a massive bomb attack in February, Syria was widely implicated in the killing. The United States threatened that if Syria did not pull out all of its troops in Lebanon, it would face U.S. sanctions. Even France, Syria’s traditional ally, withheld its support as also the Arab countries and Russia.

In a flurry of diplomatic activities a day after meeting Syrian President Bashar Assad, UN Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen declared on March 5 that President Assad had committed to withdraw all Syrian troops and intelligence personnel under a two-phase plan, in fulfillment of the UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calling on foreign troops to leave Lebanon.

“I am much encouraged by President Assad’s commitment to the full implementation of the Security Council Resolution 1559,” said Larsen. The envoy did not give any further details after his meeting with the Syrian head of state.

Syria has pledged to pull back its 14,000 troops to east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by the end of this month even before discussing with Lebanon on the timetable for a final pullout.

OPPOSITION SUPPORTER: A Lebanese man, his face painted with the colors of his national flag, joins others in a rally calling for end of Syria’s military presence in his country

“The first stage of the Syrian troop withdrawal to the Bekaa region will be finalized soon,’’ said Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. “A date will be set for a full and final Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon by both countries’ governments and military leaderships.’’

As anti-Syria demonstrations constantly burst out in large scale in Lebanon, Syria’s announcement of withdrawal could remove the pressure of pro-Syria Lebanese parties. Observers predict that anti-Syrian forces might come to power on the back of continuing instability in Lebanon.

The Lebanese people now face a political fight that they do not quite understand. There is a power vacuum that different political parties are trying to fill, making the country vulnerable to possible conflicts between ethnic groups and races. The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, restructured the political system in Lebanon by transferring power from the traditionally Maronite presidency to a cabinet divided equally between Muslims and Christians according to their populations. But with the Muslim population growing, this political arrangement is no longer satisfying.

Traditionally, the Lebanese political landscape has comprised the Maronite Christians, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Druze Muslims. The country’s political balance has hinged on the shared power by these four groups. But this fine balance also means party interests take precedence over national interests.

To counter the rising anti-Syria sentiment in the past month, the Hezbollah (Party of God) organized a pro-Syria rally of nearly 1 million people on March 8. Meanwhile, Syria-backed former Prime Minister Omar Karami, who resigned from the post early this month over the blame for failing to effectively investigate Hariri’s killing, was reappointed to lead a new government, intensifying the political divide.

HOME COMING: Syrians welcome an army vehicle returning home from Lebanon at the Syrian-Lebanese border on March 12

The anti-Syria forces consist of the Maronite Christians, the Druze Muslims and some Sunnis, who have better ties with the West, such as with the United States. The Shiites make up the majority of the pro-Syria camp and have close links to Iran. Lebanese President Lahoud, a Maronite Christian, and Prime Minister Karami, a Sunni, however, are firmly in support of Syria. This kind of internal conflict, in fact, represents all of the current Middle East political situation and the involvement of international forces.

The interests of the United States in this situation are clear. Its target is not Lebanon, but Syria, which Washington believes is impeding its Middle East strategy. Through constantly increasing pressure on Syria using its military presence in Lebanon as an excuse, the United States has made open its hopes to wear down the Assad government and also weaken Iran’s foreign support.

However, recent anti-America demonstrations in Lebanon dealt a heavy blow to the Bush administration. The demonstrations were participated in by not only the Shiites, but also the Sunnis and the Christians. The Lebanese are firm to maintain national independence and security and oppose foreign intervention.

Among Lebanon’s various political fractions, the Hezbollah that represents the over 1.2 million Shiite population of the country and its close ties with both Syria and Iran constitute the biggest challenge to U.S. attempts to cut Lebanese-Syria ties. To get rid of Syrian influence in Lebanon, the United States has to win over the Hezbollah but it has made little progress in this field.

Strong anti-U.S. sentiment among the Lebanese can be attributed to several factors. First, many people are aware that current conflicts are pushing the nation to the brink of disaster. Next, Lebanese anger over the Hariri assassination has been spent by the former cabinet’s resignation and Syria’s announcement of troop withdrawal. In fact, some Lebanese do not stand for a complete Syrian pullout out of fear of instability. Also, the opposition is not as strong as expected, comprising just 30 percent of the country’s population.

Moreover, after the Iraq war, the Middle East has been confronted with a clash between American and Muslim cultures. All these have added to anti-U.S. sentiment in Lebanon.

Using the Lebanon’s defense as a pretext, Syria now has found the opportunity to hit back at the United States. By supporting Lebanon’s anti-U.S. demonstration, it is showcasing its influence not only to the Lebanese opposition but also to the Bush administration.

     
 

Long Links

Ties between Syria and Lebanon date back to the Ottoman Empire (Turkey, 1299-1923). The people of Lebanon and Syria are bound by similar cultures, religious beliefs and living habits. When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, Syria was the first to step in and try to calm the situation through diplomatic negotiations. On October 22, 1989, after almost 15 years of political chaos, the Lebanese National Assembly met in Taif, Saudi Arabia, to endorse an accord for national reconciliation.

The Taif Accord maps out a security plan for the establishment of a joint Syrian-Lebanese mechanism for making future decisions about the positioning and functioning of Syrian troops. It also includes a Syria-Lebanese security agreement and calls for steps to facilitate a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory.

For Syria, Lebanon is more than an anti-Israel ally; it is also a window to the outside world. Currently, there are over 1 million Syrian laborers working in Lebanon. If Lebanese-Syrian ties broke up, the return of these workers was expected to produce great economic losses and pose a grave threat to Syria’s social stability.