Prague, 9 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The thin fabric of Lebanon's political life is being stretched to its limit over the question of Syria's role in the country.
Tensions rose on 8 March when the pro-Syrian Hizballah organization called for a massive show of support for Damascus. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Martyr's Square in central Beirut, waving the red, white, and green banners of Lebanon. Many protesters also carried placards denouncing Western demands for a swift withdrawal of Syrian forces.
The rally dwarfed the daily demonstrations that have been held in the city by Lebanese opposition political parties, who are calling for a Syrian withdrawal. Syria has had a strong military and intelligence presence in Lebanon for the last 30 years. Demands that its troops leave have multiplied, however, since last month's assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- who came to oppose the Syrian presence.
Many Lebanese blame Syria for Hariri's death, although the Syrian government has denied responsibility.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is cautioning against underestimating the potential for renewed ruptures in the Lebanese body politic. In remarks to journalists on 8 March, Annan noted that a long-standing United Nations resolution calls for the Syrians to leave, but suggested treading carefully.
"We need to be careful of the forces at work in Lebanese society as we move forward. But even the Hizballah, if I read the message on the placards they are using, they are talking about noninterference by outsiders or international [bodies], which is not entirely at odds with the Security Council resolution that there should be withdrawal of Syrian troops."
"We need to be careful of the forces at work in Lebanese society as we move forward," Annan said. "But even the Hizballah, if I read the message on the placards they are using, they are talking about noninterference by outsiders or international [bodies], which is not entirely at odds with the Security Council resolution that there should be withdrawal of Syrian troops."
Regional expert Turi Munthe, of the London-based Royal United Services Institute, says the size of the Hizballah rally shows that Lebanon remains much more "fractured" than most people had hoped. But Munthe says the Lebanese, who know the horrors of civil conflict, will not easily fall prey to violence again.
"There was absolutely no violence as far as I can see [Tuesday]," Munthe said. "[Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah has called for unity within Lebanon, and this is something that everybody has supported. The Lebanese have this memory of 16 years of civil war so firmly entrenched in their minds that they will do everything to avoid it."
Opposition protests last week brought about the fall of Lebanon's pro-Syrian government. President Emile Lahoud, who is also pro-Syrian, is due to meet parliamentarians on 9 March to discuss forming a new government to take the country through to elections in May.
Munthe says one positive aspect of the current crisis is that it is forcing the Lebanese to take a fresh look at their political situation.
"It puts Lebanon very much in the spotlight," Munthe said, "and what the opposition -- which will probably win this next election -- will have to do is to really think very, very hard about how the political structure is made up, how to pull Hezbollah into the political process, and how to work out how the balance of power is going to play between Sunni, Maronite [Christians] and Shiite. The onus is on Lebanon now. They are now [going to be] by themselves in their country."
Opposition parties have demanded a pledge from Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon before the parliamentary elections in May.
That corresponds with a demand by the United States, France, Germany, and others.
U.S. President George W. Bush referred to this timing in a speech 8 March in Washington. "All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair," Bush said. "The elections in Lebanon must be fully and carefully monitored by international observers. The Lebanese people have the right to determine their future, free from domination by a foreign power."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's President Lahoud met in Damascus on 27 February. The two leaders agreed on an immediate start to the first phase of a pullback of Syrian forces. They will redeploy in the eastern Bekaa Valley, along the Syrian border, but still on Lebanese soil.
After that, a joint Syrian-Lebanese military commission plans to meet to arrange a final pullout. But no date was set for the final move, and critics say the accord is therefore half-hearted and incomplete.
However, Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, says he expects Syrian troops will be out of Lebanon entirely by May. Moustapha was replying on U.S. television (CNN) to Bush's demand for an early removal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces.