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Middle East: Syria's Leverage In Lebanon Tied To Elections

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (file photo) Syria was arguably the most powerful Arab nation in the Middle East in the 1970s and '80s, but its influence appears to be on the decline. Damascus has agreed to withdraw its 14,000 troops from neighboring Lebanon, as demanded by the United Nations Security Council, as well as by an increasingly vocal opposition. But a massive pro-Syrian Lebanese rally on 8 March urged the troops stay. Has Syria's standing in Lebanon won a reprieve?

Washington, 11 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Syria was surely the greatest Arab power during much of the second half of the 20th century, in part because of the wealth of arms and other military gear provided by the Soviet Union.

But much of that influence was a matter of perception. That's according to Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian native who studies the region at the Middle East Institute, a policy center in Washington.

Jouejati tells RFE/RL that Hafez al-Assad, Syria's president for 32 years until his death in 2000, was a master at projecting a powerful image for his country -- even after the Soviet breakup left it without a military sponsor.
"[Syrian troops are] going to leave completely. The question is, how do you save face, make it happen fairly quickly? Because this is already the middle of March. If a national unity government will help to make that happen, then it's a good thing."

But Jouejati says the son who succeeded him, Bashar al-Assad, comes up short. "His son, to be honest, is not like his father, Hafez Assad," Jouejati said. "He does not have the same brilliant strategic mind. Moreover, Hafez Assad was stronger inside Syria than Bashar al-Assad is."

The younger Assad had previously promised to withdraw Syrian troops from neighboring Lebanon. The troops were posted there 15 years ago to maintain stability at the end of Lebanon's civil war. Those promises were never kept, however, and Damascus continued to exert increasing political influence over Lebanon.

But the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last month brought renewed demands by the Lebanese opposition that Syria leave. Many Lebanese blame Syria for Hariri's death, although Syria has denied responsibility. Amid daily street demonstrations in Beirut by the opposition, Lebanese Prime Minister Omar Karami, an ally of Syria, resigned.

Jouejati says the demonstrators, inspired in part by Ukraine's Orange Revolution, knew their protests would get results because they sensed weakness in the Syria leadership -- and were emboldened by the international pressure being placed on Damascus.

"The perception in Lebanon has been gradually building that Syria is weak," Jouejati said. "With every Syrian redeployment, the Lebanese smelled weakness. Now, of course, there has been tremendous international pressure on Syria -- but most specifically U.S. pressure. The Lebanese street -- a few factions -- have smelled this weakness and have exploited it."

But there was a shift this week, due to Hezbollah, the radical Shi'a Muslim party. On 8 March, it sponsored its own demonstration, in which hundreds of thousands of people called on Syria to keep its forces in Lebanon. The next day, the Lebanese parliament voted to reinstate Karami as prime minister.

Has Syria's leverage in Lebanon been revived, at least to a small degree? Only on the surface, says Judith Kipper, director of the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, another think tank.

Kipper tells RFE/RL that Syria has a long way to go before its influence in Lebanon is restored. And that, she says, depends on the outcome of parliamentary elections, which will be held in two months.

Syria is made up of four major political factions: Christians, Sunni Muslims, Druze -- who oppose Syria's presence -- and pro-Syria Shi'a Muslims, who are represented primarily by Hezbollah. Although Hezbollah does n-o-t represent a majority in Lebanon, it is its largest single political party.

Given international pressure, Kipper says it is virtually certain that Syrian troops will leave Lebanon before parliamentary elections in May. Lebanon's Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Mrad told Reuters that several thousand Syrian soldiers are already leaving the country in the first stage of a two-phase pullout plan.

Now, Kipper says, it is up to the opposition Christians, Sunnis and Druze to work together -- and with Karami -- to ensure the withdrawal goes smoothly, "[Syrian troops are] going to leave completely," Kipper said. "The question is, how do you save face, make it happen fairly quickly? Because this is already the middle of March. If a national unity government will help to make that happen, then it's a good thing."

Kipper notes, however, that Syria also has agreed to withdraw its intelligence personnel from Lebanon -- something that will be far more difficult to verify. She says the Lebanese people again may have to resort to their political sense of smell to determine whether this is the case.

"If the Lebanese feel that the weight of the Syrian presence has been taken off their backs," Kipper said, "and there will be international observers [for the elections], new candidates, and the election is not going to be fixed by Syrian intelligence -- it's a huge step."

Under their constitution, the Lebanese must vote by May 31.

Prime Minister Karami called on 10 March for all parties to help form what he called a "national salvation" unity government. But several opposition leaders are rejecting the idea.