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Lebanon: Backed By UN Vote, Anti-Syrian Voices Grow Louder In Lebanon

  • Jeffrey Donovan

For almost 30 years, Syrian troops have been in Lebanon, with Damascus the de facto power broker in the neighboring country since its devastating civil war came to an end in 1990. But now, change may be in the air. This month, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that called on Syria to withdraw its 35,000 troops from Lebanon and allow the country to go ahead with scheduled presidential polls. While Syria ignored the election demand, last week it pulled out a handful of troops in a move seen as an attempt to appease the authors of the UN resolution -- the United States and France. Meanwhile, emboldened by international support, anti-Syrian voices in Lebanon are growing louder, presaging what some see as an eventual pullout. Yet concerns remain that a withdrawal by Damascus could send the fragmented country back into chaos.

Prague, 30 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Civil wars are brutal. Lebanon's 15-year conflict was no exception.

Some 100,000 people died, many of them civilians. And Beirut, a capital once known as the "Paris of the Middle East," was devastated as Christian and Muslim factions battled in the streets.

But for the past 14 years, peace has reigned, despite the continued religious and sectarian divisions. For some, that stability can be chalked up to neighboring Syria. Thousands of its soldiers entered Lebanon in 1976 after the start of the war -- and haven't left since.

Murhaf Jouejati is a Syrian-born analyst with the Middle East Institute in Washington: "The Syrian role in Lebanon has been even acknowledged by American statesmen as having been that of a stabilizer. Truly, Syria had stabilized and ended the Lebanese civil war. What would happen if the Syrians were to withdraw now?"

What would happen, indeed?

That is the question on many minds -- in Beirut and abroad -- after the Security Council passed a resolution on 2 September urging Damascus to withdraw its forces. Syria had pledged to do just that in an agreement with Lebanon all the way back in 1990.

The resolution also called on Syria to let scheduled presidential elections go ahead in Lebanon. But Beirut's Syrian-controlled parliament later voted to amend the constitution to allow pro-Damascus President Emile Lahoud to remain in office.
Analysts agree that Syria may be reconsidering its long-term presence in Lebanon partly as a result of being weaker internationally now than under former President Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000.

Backed by the fresh international pressure on Damascus, and angered over the vote in parliament, anti-Syrian voices are growing louder in Lebanon.

But Rami Khouri, editor of Beiruit's "Daily Star" newspaper, said divisions still run deep: "[There have been two types of] reaction here to the international, let's say, tension or intervention through the Security Council resolution. One group of people says this is unwarranted interference and it shouldn't happen, that the UN shouldn't get involved in an internal issue. And then you have other people who are very pleased and they're delighted that the world is putting pressure on the Syrians to change their policy in Lebanon. And there's two very different and very opposed perceptions of this."

But Farid Khazan said he believes the trend in Lebanon favors a Syrian pullout, a solution that is favored by Lebanese Christians. Khazan, a political scientist with Beirut's American University, said his country's economic and political situation is so bad that all its various factions now agree on the need for change.

"The war has ended 14, 15 years ago, and it is time not only for the [Syrian troop] redeployment to take place, but for Syrian-Lebanese relations to be set on a completely different platform," Khazan said. "Because what we have now is a total imbalance in this relationship, to the detriment of Lebanon."

Analyst Jouejati, however, said Lebanon is not ready to survive without Syria's support.

He said many in Lebanon dream of returning to the days when Beirut was a freewheeling resort capital. But Jouejati said that is unlikely to happen in a nation still riven by religious and sectarian divides and caught in the Arab-Israeli conflict, with some 300,000 Palestinian refugees present on its soil.

"My fear is that the state in Lebanon, although it has been strengthened very much in the past 15 years, is still too weak to be able to absorb conflicting demands from a fragmented society," Jouejati said.

Khazan, author of a book about the causes of the civil war ("The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon: 1967-1976"), could not disagree more: "The reasons that led to war in 1975, both internal and external, are not there anymore. And, in fact, the war broke out in 1975 because the Arab-Israeli conflict was being fought in Lebanon itself. Today, it's a completely different situation. First of all, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not being fought in Lebanon any more; it's now in Palestine. And number two, there aren't any Lebanese groups in Lebanon that are mobilizing for war, as was the case prior to 1975."

To be sure, analysts agree that Syria may be reconsidering its long-term presence in Lebanon partly as a result of being weaker internationally now than under former President Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000.

Jouejati said this fact was underscored last weekend when a Palestinian militant was killed in a Damascus bombing that many believe was carried out by Israel: "I agree that Syria is weaker than it once was. There is not only the demise of the Soviet Union, and this is the former patron of Syria, but also the late Hafez al-Assad had really made of Syria an entity that is bigger than life. And so Syria has been weakened in the past four years, and it has been weakened by these different international pressures. Maybe this assassination of this militant is a reflection of this weakness, because I think this would not have happened in the days of Hafez al-Assad."

For now, Syria appears to be paying lip service to the UN resolution.

Last week, Lebanese officials said Syria pulled out some 300 troops as part of a plan to withdraw some 3,000 soldiers from Lebanon. But critics say Syria has made similar vows in the past, but has never followed through.