Lebanese turmoil

Print edition : March 25, 2005

A demonstration in downtown Beirut demanding the resignation of the government and the withdrawal of Syrian troops. - JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP

Street protests in Lebanon force the Omar Karami government to bow out of office, and Syria is under pressure to withdraw its troops from the country before the general elections scheduled for May.

THE resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami and his Cabinet in the face of massive street protests on February 28 has complicated the political scene in Lebanon. In scenes reminiscent of recent exhibitions of "people's power" in East European cities, people thronged the streets of the capital, Beirut, demanding the resignation of the elected government and the withdrawal of Syrian peace-keepers from the country. Young people put up tents in the city centre preparing for an Ukrainian-style "Orange" Revolution. The Western media have already called the Lebanese protest the "Cedars" Revolution. The cedar tree is the national symbol of Lebanon and figures prominently on its national flag. The protesters are now demanding the resignation of President Emile Lahud, who has three more years in office.

The President accepted the resignations but asked the Prime Minister and his Cabinet to continue until a caretaker Prime Minster and Cabinet were appointed.

After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February and the political upsurge that followed, the Syrian government had reiterated its pledge to speed up the withdrawal of its troops. Syrian President Bashar al Assad said in late February that Syria would withdraw its troops as soon as peace and stability were re-established in Lebanon. Assad admitted that keeping Syrian troops in Lebanon came at a high economic and political price for Syria. "But what is in play is very important: Lebanon's stability and that of our borders," Assad told the Italian daily La Repubblica.

General elections are due in Lebanon in May. Many observers are perplexed at the insistence of the Lebanese Opposition for the immediate dismissal of the government, which is at the fag end of its term. A United Nations investigation team is already in the country to begin an independent investigation into the killing of Hariri, as demanded by the Opposition parties and many Western countries. The Opposition, consisting of disparate political parties, is now threatening to continue its agitation until all Syrian troops are withdrawn. The United States' State Department's point man in West Asia, David Satterfield, has once again called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon before the elections.

In his interview to the Italian newspaper, President Assad said that the troops could technically be withdrawn before the end of the year. However, he suggested that a full withdrawal could happen only when Syria obtained "serious guarantees" for a durable peace in the region. Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights and surrounding Syrian territory. The last time Israel occupied Lebanon, it used its proxy Lebanese militias to target Syria and Lebanese forces.

Prime Minister Omar Karami, who resigned in the wake of the unrest.-JAMAL SAIDI /REUTERS

Syrian forces initially entered Lebanon at the instigation of Henry Kissinger, the U.S. National Security Adviser at the time. He had promised to use America's influence to get Israel to vacate the Golan Heights. Dramatic suicide attacks and unremitting guerilla warfare had forced the U.S. and French forces to flee from Lebanon in the mid-1970s. A precipitate Syrian withdrawal could once again trigger chaos of an unprecedented scale in the small country. Reports appearing in the Arab media talk about a run on Lebanese banks, with $3.5 billion already withdrawn by the end of February. The fragile Lebanese economy is said to be under threat after the events of late February.

Most of the Syrian troops are in the Bekaa Valley. Syria is not completely isolated in Lebanon as is being made out in the Western media. The Shias today constitute more than 40 per cent of the 3.5 million-strong population of the country. The Hezbollah party, which has a sizable presence in the Lebanese Parliament, and its potent militia are with Damascus in the present power struggle. Many in the Arab world know that the drama being enacted in Lebanon is aimed at undermining Syria and its secular Baathist government. Officials in the Bush administration have described Syria as a "low-hanging fruit" ready for the picking. Israel too has a keen interest in destabilising the Baathist government in Damascus.

The Syrian President said in the last week of February that America's threats against his country were similar to the language it used against Iraq before the invasion in 2003. "The language of the White House leads one to predict a campaign like that which preceded the conflict against Saddam," Assad told La Repubblica. Assad also emphasised that Syria "is essential" to the peace process in West Asia as well as in the fight against terrorism. The Syrian government has extended considerable help to Washington in its fight against Islamic militants after the events of September 11, 2001. Syria was also part of the grand coalition cobbled up by Washington to fight Iraq in the first Gulf War. If reports appearing in sections of the Western media are to be believed, Damascus had a role to play in the capture and handing over of one of Saddam Hussein's half-brothers to the American forces in the last week of February.

Syrian President Bashar at Assad.-KHALED AL-HARIRI/ REUTERS

Despite the efforts of Damascus to be flexible on Lebanon, the West is continuing to exert pressure. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice virtually gave an ultimatum to the Syrian government to withdraw post-haste from Lebanon. Her position was backed by French Foreign Minister Michel Bearnier. The two officials were attending a conference on West Asia convened by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the first week of March. The U.S. and France, the joint sponsors of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 which called for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, issued a joint statement in London demanding the immediate withdrawal of the estimated 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon. The statement said that the Lebanese should have the "opportunity to hold fair and free parliamentary elections". Washington and Paris have also demanded that Syria withdraw its intelligence services from Lebanon. The blame for the Palestinian suicide attack on an Israeli target in the last week of February was immediately put at the door of the Syrian government. The initial charge of the Israeli and American governments was that the Hezbollah, based in Lebanon under Syrian tutelage, was responsible for the act. When the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad took credit for the attack, Tel Aviv and Washington immediately changed tack and said that it was the exiled faction of the Islamic Jihad, based in Damascus, that was responsible for the attack.

The pressure on Assad seems to be working. In an interview to the Time magazine, which appeared on the stands in the first week of March, Assad said that the withdrawal of Syrian troops would take place "very soon and maybe in the next few months". He, however, emphasised that the withdrawal "depended on technical, rather than political considerations".

The Syrian government's view, as articulated by Foreign Minster Faruq al Shara recently, is that Resolution 1559 has no credibility in Lebanon. "Resolution 1559 does not have a Lebanese consensus. The overwhelming majority reject Resolution 1559, despite respecting this international law. But there is complete consensus about the Taif agreement in Lebanon," al Shara told the media in Cairo during an official visit in the last week of February. The Syrian Foreign Minister, however, was quick to add that there were no big differences between the U.N. resolution and the Taif agreement. The Lebanese Opposition too is stressing that Syria adhere to the 1989 Taif accord, which formally ended the Lebanese civil war.

The Taif agreement had called for the redeployment of Syrian troops in eastern Lebanon followed by an agreement on full withdrawal. The Lebanese Opposition leader, Walid Jumblatt, once a staunch ally of Syria but now in the forefront of the anti-Syrian agitation, said that the Opposition was willing to start negotiations with Syria on the implementation of the Taif agreement. "Lebanon cannot but have good and friendly relations with Syria. The only thing we are complaining about is the wrong policies and domination of Syrian Intelligence elements in Lebanon," said Jumblatt.

Keen observers of the Lebanese scene are of the view that it may be easy for the West to get Syria out of Lebanon but its goal of disarming the Hezbollah will prove extremely difficult. The Hezbollah cadre and militia have a charismatic and courageous leader in Hasan Nasrullah. The credit for Israel's military defeat in southern Lebanon and its withdrawal from most of Lebanon's occupied territories is given to his leadership. The Hezbollah has supported the Taif accord but at the same time has also been supportive of Syria's strategic interests in the region. Syria, on its part, did not try to disarm the Hezbollah militia.

Hasan Nasrullah is said to be the strongest political personality in Lebanon today and he has not yet spoken forcefully on the ongoing controversy. If he chooses to, he can bring bigger crowds into the streets than those involved in the current "Cedars" revolution.

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