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MIDDLE EAST: Syria and Lebanon

Author: Esther Pan
February 18, 2005
This publication is now archived.

What is Syria's role in Lebanon?

It dominates Lebanon's foreign policy and has effectively occupied large sections of its smaller neighbor for nearly 30 years. There are currently some 15,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, and Hezbollah--a militant Shiite group supported by Syria and Iran--has long operated in southern Lebanon. The United States has repeatedly demanded that Syria withdraw its troops and refrain from interfering in Lebanese politics.

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Was Syria responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri?

There are many suspicions that it was, but no proof. On February 14, a massive car bomb in Beirut killed Hariri and more than a dozen others and wounded more than 100. Syrian officials deny involvement. In September 2004, the Baathist government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pressured Lebanon's parliament to amend the constitution and extend the presidential term of Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian widely seen as a Syrian puppet. Then-Prime Minister Hariri, a billionaire businessman who had led the post-civil war rebuilding of Lebanon, resigned in protest in October.

How long have Syrian troops been in Lebanon?

Since 1976. Full-scale civil war broke out in April 1975 between the Maronite Christian groups of the Lebanese Front and the Lebanese National Movement, which was made up of left-leaning Muslims who wanted a greater share of political power. Fighting was intense, and in June 1976 the Maronite-dominated government asked for support from Syria.

Syria had previously mounted several failed diplomatic efforts to stop the war. For then-Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad--the current president's father--the Lebanese conflict presented a range of possibilities, all of them unappealing: sectarian strife spilling over into Syria, which had its own Christian-Muslim tensions; an Israeli invasion of Lebanon; or the establishment of a radical, left-wing Muslim state, if the Lebanese National Movement won. Assad sent in troops to strengthen the Maronite government, which he calculated he could manipulate, many Mideast analysts say. Assad's move earned the wrath of the Muslim world, because he backed the Christian side. Still, small contingents of troops from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Sudan later joined the Syrian-dominated Arab Deterrent Force. The war lasted 15 years.

What caused the war?

Tensions among Lebanon's Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and the Druze Muslim sect. Those groups had long jockeyed for power and influence. Under the French occupation, which lasted from the end of World War I until independence in 1943, a "confessional" system evolved that reserved certain government posts for each religious group. Under this system, Christians had the upper hand in the national assembly--the Chamber of Deputies--that chooses the president. This arrangement bred resentment among Lebanese Muslims, especially as they grew to outnumber Christians.

In the early 1970s, the arrival of Yasir Arafat and thousands of his fellow Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militants exacerbated Christian-Muslim strains and swelled the Muslim ranks with thousands of experienced gunmen. Lebanese Muslim groups supported the PLO fighters, recently expelled from Jordan, while Maronite Christian groups worried that PLO raids against Israel would invite retaliation and destabilize Lebanon. Throughout the 1970s, the PLO increasingly used Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel. Israeli forces invaded in 1978 and 1982; after the second invasion, they remained and occupied a strip of southern Lebanon for nearly 20 years. Egypt, Iraq, and Libya supported Muslim factions in the civil war, while the United States and Israel backed Christian groups. During the long course of the conflict, Syria alternately supported the Christian amd Muslim sides.

What ended the war?

The October 1989 Taif Accords, an agreement brokered by Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, that gave Lebanese Muslims a greater share of political power in Lebanon and formalized "preferred relations" between Lebanon and Syria. Syria's internationally recognized role as "the guarantor of Lebanon's security" was also established in these accords, says Murhaf Jouejati, director of the Middle East Studies program at George Washington University.

What impact did the Taif Accords have on the Syria-Lebanon relationship?

Experts say the agreement gave Hafez al-Assad effective control over most of Lebanon in return for a promise to maintain internal stability. The Syrians were supposed to set a timetable for a withdrawal of their troops to the Bekaa Valley, a strategic security zone between Syria and Lebanon, by 1992 or another date negotiated with the Lebanese government. Lebanon has never asked Syria to leave. Syria maintains that its troops--whose numbers reached a high of 35,000-40,000 in 2000--are a stabilizing factor and claims it would withdraw them immediately if Lebanon asked.

What has happened in Lebanon since the war ended in 1990?

The country has been rebuilding. Hariri, who became prime minister in 1992, spearheaded an ambitious public-private partnership that rebuilt Beirut, which was known as "the Paris of the Middle East" before the civil war. The skyscrapers and luxury hotels in the city's downtown reflected an economic resurgence that steadily erased some of the evidence of the devastating war. The war also decimated Lebanon's security forces; it rebuilt them with Syrian help, Jouejati says, to its current troop strength of some 70,000. Politically, there has been "a slow mending of the fences--yet you could feel that there was no sense of a Lebanese national unity. Sectarianism remained the primary definer of identity," Jouejati says.

What is the U.S. position on Syria?

The U.S. government has long said Damascus is a state sponsor of terrorism and has banned foreign aid, American investment, and the sale of military equipment or dual-use items to Syria.

What has the United Nations' attitude been toward Syria?

The United Nations has a long history of urging foreign troops, including Israeli, Syrian, and Palestinian fighters, out of Lebanon. In 1978, U.N. Resolutions 425-427 called for Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon; in 1982, after the second Israeli invasion, the Security Council passed a raft of resolutions, including 508, 509, and 515-521, deploring the violence of that year and asking all parties to cease fighting and withdraw their troops. Since Israel pulled out in 2000, attention has focused again on Syrian troops. U.N. Resolution 1559, passed in September 2004, is the latest Security Council action on foreign presence in Lebanon.

What does Resolution 1559 say?

Resolution 1559, sponsored by the United States and France and supported by Lebanese reformers like Hariri, calls for "foreign forces" to leave Lebanon and end their interference in Lebanese affairs. It does not refer to Syria by name.

It also calls for the disarmament of militias. All militias were supposed to be disarmed after the civil war, but the Lebanese exempted Hezbollah, which they call a national Lebanese resistance movement aimed at fighting Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. In January, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed a special envoy for the implementation of Resolution 1559. Terje Roed-Larsen, formerly U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, began meeting with Lebanese and Syrian officials in early February.

What impact will Hariri's assassination have on the Syria-Lebanon relationship?

Experts say the killing has focused both national and international attention on the Syrian occupation and revealed deep anti-Syrian feeling in Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of mourners at Hariri's Beirut funeral February 15 called for Syria to leave Lebanon. Angry mobs attacked Baath Party headquarters in Beirut and Syrian workers and trucks in other cities, including Tripoli and Hariri's hometown of Sidon. "The majority opinion in Lebanon is that Syrian troops should leave," says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. Expelling all the Syrians from Lebanon won't be easy: in addition to the soldiers, there are more than 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon, a country of roughly 4 million people, and thousands of undercover Syrian intelligence agents, experts say. "The Syrians are deeply integrated into the fabric of Lebanese society," Murphy says.

Was Hariri's death the main cause of anti-Syrian agitation?

No; experts say anti-Syrian sentiment had been slowly building. "In the last year or so, as the economic resurgence continued, Lebanese voices were getting louder about the need to redefine the relationship with Syria--namely, to modify or end completely the Syrian occupation," says Hussein Ibish, the Lebanese-born vice chair of the Progressive Muslim Union and former Washington, DC, correspondent of the Beirut-based Daily Star. Syria's interference with the Lebanese Constitution last fall angered many Lebanese. The constitution states that a presidential term is six years, and candidates are required to wait six years before running again. But in September, Syria forced through a change that extends current President Emile Lahoud's term by three years. "It was a very crude and totally gratuitous display of power by the Syrian regime," Ibish says.

What role did Hariri play in the opposition?

Before last fall, Ibish says, the opposition had been mostly limited to supporters of Michel Aoun--a Christian general who declared himself president of a divided Lebanon in the late 1980s and was later deposed--and other disparate groups. As anger over Syria's interference with the constitution spread, though, experts say the opposition coalesced into a more vocal, organized movement. It attracted the support of high-profile Lebanese like Walid Jumblatt, a longtime leader of the country's Druze community, as well as Maronite Christian leaders. Hariri, who provided financial support to the opposition and had hinted at a return to politics, would have made a formidable opposition candidate: a charismatic, experienced, wealthy, urban Sunni who appealed to all of Lebanon's distinct communities, experts say. "This is why people are not hesitating to blame the Syrians" for Hariri's death, Ibish says. "They're the obvious beneficiaries." He says Lebanese anger over these two events--the Constitutional interference and Hariri's killing--could mark a tipping point that might cause "a dramatic change in the relationship between Syria and Lebanon."

What are the chances of another civil war if Syria pulls out?

This is a concern, experts say. Some see parallels with Iraq, where most Iraqis want the United States forces to leave--but not immediately, for fear of the instability that would result. "Some people say the Syrian iron fist is keeping all these groups together, and if you remove the fist they'll be at each other's throats again," Jouejati says. "I get the sense that the rehabilitation of Lebanon has been mostly physical--infrastructure and such--but the social structures have not been rehabilitated." Other experts agree that the country's deep ethnic and religious divisions still exist. "In Lebanon, people have been traumatized by [the experience of the] civil war," Ibish says. "The only thing that ended that war was Syrian control, and people don't forget that."

What's next on the political agenda?

Lebanon will hold parliamentary elections in May, which experts say will test the strength of the pro-Syrian and opposition factions. Lebanese officials announced after Hariri's death that the elections would take place as scheduled. Jouejati and other experts say this election will likely show strong gains by opposition leaders energized by recent events.

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