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Lebanon: Crisis Tests U.S. 'Mideast Democracy' Policy

  • Jeffrey Donovan

On the face of it, the United States appeared to have gotten its wish at the United Nations yesterday. That's when the government of Syria told UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Damascus will withdraw all its forces from Lebanon before elections are held there in May. But analysts say the reality on the ground in Lebanon is not so simple. Even if Syria follows through on its pledge, Damascus will retain control and influence over key areas of Lebanese political life -- including the ability through its allies to destabilize or pacify its volatile neighbor at will. If the United States is sincere about seeking a peaceful and democratic Lebanon, that goal is unlikely to be achieved simply through a Syrian withdrawal.

Prague, 30 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bowing to international pressure, Syria yesterday said it would abide by UN Resolution 1559 and pull thousands of its soldiers and intelligence agents out of Lebanon.

Foreign Minister Syria Farouq al-Shara made the pledge in a letter to UN Secretary-General Annan. The letter reportedly said the pullout would take place before Lebanon's expected elections in May.

The move is likely to have been welcomed in Paris and Washington, which together have spearheaded the UN's demand for a pullout.

In Beirut this week, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield called a Syrian withdrawal a precondition for Lebanon's free and peaceful independence:

"We want to see [Resolution] 1559 implemented as well. We hope that in a different Lebanon with a government that represents the free will of its people, all the issues that confront the Lebanese people can be dealt with in peace and security," Satterfield said.

Syria has come under growing international pressure to comply with the UN resolution following the assassination in February of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Lebanon's opposition blames the killing on Syria -- which denies the charge -- and has turned out in mass street protests in recent weeks urging Damascus to get out.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say that even with a withdrawal by Syria -- the de facto power broker in Lebanon since the civil war there ended in 1990 -- Damascus will continue to hold sway over its neighbor.

Large parts of Lebanon's body politic remain allied with Syria, including pro-Palestinian Hizballah. That Iranian-funded militant group recently turned out hundreds of thousands of Lebanese onto Beirut's streets to rally in favor of Damascus.

Nizar Hamzeh, a politics professor at Beirut's American University, said, "Syria would retain influence, definitely, through its allies in Lebanon, allies labeled as the 'loyalist camp,' starting [with] Hizballah."

Analysts say Syria is able to exercise its will through groups such Hizballah. And some accuse Syria of helping to orchestrate a recent wave of bombings in Beirut with the aim of inciting fear among anti-Syrian forces.

But bombings in Lebanon are merely one possible lever of destabilization that Syria might wield in the region, according to Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Great Britain's Oxford University.

Like analyst Hamzeh, Shehadi believes Syria's pledge to withdraw its estimated 10,000 troops and security agents from Lebanon. He said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been keen on compromising with Washington since the invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq two years ago. "[Compromise] is something they've been trying to do ever since they realized Saddam's statue has really fallen and they're now surrounded by U.S. power," he said.

Leaving Lebanon, however, is just one part of a deal that Syria is offering Washington, according to Shehadi.

The rest of the deal, Shehadi said, involves maintaining stability in Lebanon, making peace overtures to Israel, securing Syria's border to prevent militants from going to Iraq and cooperating in the war on terrorism, and continuing a thaw in relations with neighboring Turkey, a major U.S. ally.

"The choice for the United States is whether to play along with that and say -- 'OK, Syria has delivered before and it has a lot to promise' -- or to continue with their policy, which is that of regime change in both Syria and Iran eventually and in the rest of the region," Shehadi said.

For now, Shehadi said he believes the Bush administration is not considering a military option with regard to Syria. However, he does see a potential for further U.S. sanctions and isolation of Damascus -- a move that he believes would only strengthen Assad's regime internally and possibly lead Syria to destabilize the region.

Accepting Syria's "offer" would help shore up short-term stability in Lebanon, which since Hariri's killing has seen a wave of bombings and a deterioration in the economy as businesses close and investors flee.

But Shehadi said accepting a deal with Syria could also leave intact the roots of instability -- and compromise the Bush administration's stated objective of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East.

"It's the question of whether the U.S. has the staying power to conduct a policy," he said. "I'm not making a judgment of whether the policy is good or bad. But when you come in and you upset the balance, and you do not have the staying power to get it right again, you can create more problems than you resolve."

Syrian UN Ambassador Fayssal Mekdad told Reuters yesterday that a joint Syrian-Lebanese coordinating committee will meet this week to set a timetable for his country's withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the specter of political instability looms in Lebanon.

The anti-Syrian opposition has refused to join a national unity government led by pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami.

Karami now appears set to step down, fueling doubts that parliamentary elections, with voting phased over a five-week period, can be completed on schedule by the end of May.