Accessibility links

Breaking News

Middle East: Lebanon's Future Depends On Syria -- And Washington's Intentions

Rafik Hariri was killed in this bomb blast on 14 February in Beirut. (file photo) The events in Lebanon this week have highlighted the volatility of the situation in the Middle East. The 14 February assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and architect of its post-civil war reconstruction, also demonstrated the complexity of both relations within the region and America's policy toward the region. The scenario is reminiscent of the 1980s, with Lebanon once again looking like a battlefield locked between its larger neighbors and global powers like the United States.

Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "Syria, get out!" was the main message of many of the estimated 150,000 people who took part in yesterday's funeral procession in Beirut for former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

The Lebanese opposition blames Damascus and Lebanon's pro-Syrian government for the bomb that killed Hariri and 13 others on 14 February.

But it many ways, it was a strange charge to hear in Beirut.

After all, Syria, with America's blessing, is credited with bringing stability to Lebanon after its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, with 150,000 dead.

Only in recent months has Syria's role in Lebanon become an issue of international contention. That's because -- as elsewhere in the region -- things are changing in Lebanon.

Nadim Shehadi, director of Lebanese studies at Oxford University in England, tells RFE/RL the immediate impact of Hariri's assassination is that it has united a large, peaceful and multiconfessional swathe of Lebanese society.

"The funeral has been more like the biggest demonstration that Lebanon has ever seen on Beirut's streets," Shehadi says. "First of all, it's overwhelming numbers. Second, it's multiconfessional -- Christians, Muslims, Druze. It was nonsectarian. It was a huge show of support to the Hariri family, but also like a silent, peaceful demonstration against the [pro-Syrian] President [Emile Lahoud] and against the Syrian presence in Lebanon." [For a full-length transcript of RFE/RL's interview with Shehadi, click here.]

The outpouring was joined by calls from the United States for Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, in accordance with UN Resolution 1559 passed in September.

Syria has condemned Hariri's assassination and denied responsibility. It has also said Hariri's killing should not be used to score political points against Damascus.

But international momentum -- not to mention the mood on the streets of Beirut -- has swung in favor of Syria withdrawing from Lebanon.

It began in September, when Washington and Paris joined to push Resolution 1559 through the Security Council. Shehadi says many believe Hariri persuaded French President Jacques Chirac, a close friend, to join forces with the Americans on the resolution when it became clear Syria would move to get Lebanon's constitution amended to extend Lahoud's term in office.

By doing so, Hariri apparently incurred the wrath of Syria, which the billionaire builder had for years sought to accommodate.

In Beirut yesterday, Chirac called the 60-year-old Hariri "a great democrat, a statesman, a man of peace."

Shehadi says Lebanon's political scene is now divided between Lahoud's camp and the opposition, now orphaned by Hariri's death. Shehadi says each group has a very different concept of what Lebanon's security needs should be.

The government camp believes the country must have Syrian protection. Hariri's vision, visible on Beirut's rebuilt luxury waterfront, is that Lebanon can revive itself as a prosperous resort and trading center -- and be protected by Western powers, as France and the United States did before the civil war.

But Shehadi points out that, no matter which side wins, Lebanon still looks like a pawn in a much larger game.

"Lebanon could just be used as a pressure point on Syria, and still be irrelevant," he says. "So the Lebanese have to weigh how much they can bank on an American intervention -- whether this sort of intervention is really meant to reestablish protection that would allow Lebanon some maneuverability, or whether it's just a pressure point on Syria, in which case the Lebanese would be unwise to behave as though they are beneficiaries of this move."

However, the opposition appears already to have placed its bet that the United States and the international community will ensure that UN resolution 1559 is implemented.

Shehadi believes the opposition now stands to do well in May's general elections. But the key test, he says, will come down to Washington and Syria. Will they make a deal? Or will relations grow more confrontational?

Damascus has already provoked anger in Washington, which accuses Syria of allowing Iraqi insurgents and Palestinian militants, including the Iranian-backed Hizballah, to operate on Syrian and Lebanese soil. Syria's autocratic Ba'ath regime is also seen as an obstacle by a Bush administration intent on spreading democracy in the Middle East.

Syria is also a strategic ally of Iran, whose nuclear program appears now to be America's chief regional concern apart from Iraq.