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Lebanon's worries

Print edition : Apr 08, 2005 T+T-

Syria begins a phased pull-out from Lebanon amid fears that the power vacuum this will create and the U.S. activism in the country may lead to another civil war.

ATUL ANEJA in Bahrain

THE tumultuous events that followed the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was blamed on Syria, have culminated in a decision by Damascus to pull out all its forces from Lebanon. Syrian troops have been stationed in Lebanon for the past 29 years.

On March 12, in the historic Syrian city of Aleppo, senior United Nations official Terje Roed-Larsen announced that Damascus had agreed to pull out all its troops and intelligence services from Lebanon. In his statement, Roed-Larsen said that "the first stage will see the relocation of all military forces and intelligence apparatus to the Bekaa Valley by the end of March". He elaborated that a significant number of Syrian forces, including intelligence services, would withdraw from Lebanon during this stage. Roed-Larsen said that the second stage would see Syria withdrawing its military personnel, assets and intelligence apparatus completely. He, however, did not reveal the cut-off date for the Stage Two pull-out.

Syria posted its troops in Lebanon in 1976 to end the Lebanese civil war. From a high of 30,000 in the mid-1980s, when Israel had occupied southern Lebanon, the troop deployment currently stands at around 14,000.

Within hours after the U.N. official's statement, an undisclosed number of the 6,000 troops deployed in the Bekaa Valley crossed into Syria in a convoy. As about 60 vehicles, which included several covered trucks, buses and jeeps, passed through the Jdaidet Yabous border, crowds that had assembled in the Syrian border town welcomed the convoy with flowers.

Roed-Larsen said he was satisfied that Syria was complying with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which seeks a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and also the disarming of the pro-Syrian militant group, Hezbollah. However, it appears highly unlikely that the widely popular Hezbollah can be forced to give up its weapons.

Unlike the Israeli troops that were forced to beat a hasty retreat from southern Lebanon in 2000 by the Hezbollah, the Syrian troop withdrawal has had an orderly start. Despite a sinister effort by its foes, Syria has not been politically disgraced in Lebanon. On the contrary, a massive pro-Syrian rally sponsored by Hezbollah and attended by at least half a million people was held at Beirut's Riad Al-Solh square on March 8. Arab satellite stations, including the Hezbollah's own Al Manar television, beamed live pictures of the sea of humanity that had assembled. The rallyists had Lebanese flags in hand and held aloft pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as those of his father, the late Hafez al-Assad. Some of the placards read: "Syria & Lebanon - brothers forever", "America is the source of terrorism", "All our disasters are from America", and "No to American-Zionist intervention, yes to Lebanese-Syrian brotherhood". Two giant cranes held banners saying "Thanks to Syria" and "No to foreign interference".

Hezbollah's bespectacled head, Hassan Nasrallah, electrified the rally with a powerful indictment of American and Israeli intentions in Lebanon. At one stage, Nasrallah directly addressed the Bush administration's charge that the Lebanese government was a puppet of Syria. Pointing to the crowd in the square, he said: "I ask our partners in the country or those looking at us from abroad: Are these hundreds of thousands of people puppets? Is this crowd agents for the Syrians and intelligence agencies?" Citing the 1984 car bombing in Beirut, which killed 241 U.S. Marines and led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon, he said the Lebanese people were not scared of the Americans. "We have defeated them in the past and if they come again, we will defeat them again," he said.

The participants of the rally, mostly Shias, the largest community in Lebanon, outnumbered many times over the anti-Syrian protesters who had congregated after Hariri's killing at Beirut's Martyrs' Square, less than 300 metres away from the Riad Al-Solh square. While the majority of the participants of the Hezbollah rally were poor, the Martyrs' Square rally was attended by a number of well-heeled Lebanese, who blamed Syria for assassinating Hariri. Most of them belonged to the Christian, Sunni or Druze communities, the three other major segments of Lebanon's composite population. Many in the Western media, citing the temporary resignation of pro-Syrian Prime Minister Omar Karami, said flag-waving crowds had brought about a "Cedar revolution" on the lines of the "Orange revolution" in Ukraine.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) said on March 3 that the "Cedar revolution" was being referred to as a "mini-Ukraine". However, describing the scene on Martyrs' Square, the report bought out the incongruities of the situation. "Some people here are jokingly calling the phenomenon `the Gucci revolution' - not because they are dismissive of the demonstrations, but because so many of those waving the Lebanese flag on the street are really unlikely protesters. There are girls in tight skirts and high heels, carrying expensive leather bags, as well as men in business suits or trendy tennis shoes. And in one unforgettable scene an elderly lady, her hair all done up, was demonstrating alongside her Sri Lankan domestic help, telling her to wave the flag and teaching her the Arabic words of the slogans..."

Peace activist and writer Uri Avnery points out that except for "demonstrations opposite the government building, a sea of waving flags, colourful shawls, and, most importantly, beautiful girls in the front row, there exists not the slightest similarity" between the developments in Ukraine and Lebanon. He adds: "In Lebanon, all the diverse communities are in action. Each for its own interest, each plotting to outfox the others, perhaps to attack them at a given opportunity. Some of the leaders are connected with Syria, some with Israel, all are trying to use the Americans for their ends. The jolly pictures of young demonstrators, so prominent in the media, have no meaning if one does not know the community which stands behind them."

COMMENTING on the American activism in the Lebanon-Syria situation, many analysts are of the view that the U.S., under the influence of neo-conservatives and Israel, is seeking to marginalise all possible strongholds of resistance that can hinder the enforcement of its imperial agenda in the oil-rich West Asian region. Syria, which is ruled by the Allawites, who are Shias and close to Iran, and the Hezbollah, which is backed by both Damascus and Teheran, are obvious threats to its drive to dominate the region and its resources. Robert Jansen, who teaches at the University of Texas, told Frontline that the U.S. role in Lebanon and Syria was "all part of one campaign to shape the politics of the region. There are military and diplomatic phases of that campaign."

In order to weaken the nations holding out, the U.S. has sought the support of their neighbours and has even encouraged some its "friends" in the Arab world to play the "Sunni card". King Abdullah II of Jordan, which has a majority Sunni population, has already raised the alarm that a "Shia crescent" is rising in Arabia, following the assertion of the Shias in Iraq. Other prominent Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken the cue and have reportedly played their part in seeking the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon after the assassination of Hariri, a Sunni. In a commentary, the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi said that Syria's Arab allies, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, had abandoned it, "sufficing with echoing the American demands and directing advice from a distance".

In seeking the departure of the Syrian forces, which had played a key role in ending the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the U.S. might have opened the door for another round of internal conflict. The Syrian withdrawal is likely to result in a power vacuum, which none of the Lebanese communities is in a position to fill. The Hezbollah, with the support of the Shias, who have been marginalised so far, will undoubtedly emerge as the most powerful political force in Lebanon.

Sami Obeyed, a Syrian political commentator, told Frontline that the pro-Syrian rally organised by Hezbollah was also an announcement by the group that the Lebanese Shias could no longer be sidelined inside the country. He said: "At the rally, Nasrallah was telling the world that Lebanon was no longer a Christian country. It was a country with a Shia majority. This majority is armed, comes out in hundreds of thousands, and is grateful and bound to Syria. It was a reminder to the world that the Shias existed and could not be disarmed or dismissed." Despite its strength, it is unlikely that the Hezbollah can nullify the impact of the proposed Syrian withdrawal on its own.

LEBANON'S Maronite Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities also have, throughout their long history, inherited a culture of hostility that encourages internal conflict, often with external support. Lebanon's geography is partly to blame for the country's violent history. A small nation with high mountain ranges and isolated valleys, Lebanon has over the centuries attracted minorities fleeing persecution in their homelands. The struggle for survival brought all the four ethno-religious groups into conflict. Not surprisingly, Lebanon's history is full of horrific tales of mutual massacres, often enacted with outside help.

Thirty years ago, the four communities started a bloody civil war and they slaughtered each other in their thousands. The Christian Maronites, who had been the favourites of the former colonial power, France, wanted to establish control over the country with the help of Israel when they discovered that they were being demographically outnumbered by the other communities. They were, however, defeated by a Sunni-Druze combination, with the Shias remaining on the sidelines. The Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, led by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), also joined the battle against the Israeli-backed Christians. But the prospects of a rout made the Christians invite the Syrians for help in 1976.

The Syrian and Palestinian presence, however, became a reason for Israel to invade Lebanon six years later. The Israelis positioned Basheer Jumail, a Christian strongman, at the helm of affairs in Lebanon. But 18 years later, Israel had to retreat under fire from the Shias, who had, during this phase emerged as a powerful force under the Amal militia and Hezbollah.

Without the Syrians holding the balance in the future, chances are that Lebanon will, thanks to American follies, once again return to the days of the civil war. Justin Raimondo, in an article posted on the website antiwar.com, points out: "Drunk on the heady wine of its alleged `success' in Iraq, the U.S. is careening wildly through the Middle East, charting a collision course with forces it does not understand and cannot control. And Syria is far from the only target: this war-maddened administration is intent on `transforming' the entire region."