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    Middle East
     Feb 19, 2005

Lebanon, through the past darkly
By K Gajendra Singh

The situation following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on February 14, almost spontaneous demonstrations and outcries, followed by quick US actions, such as the recall of its ambassador from Syria, which has been blamed for the killing by innuendo, implication and even directly by some US lawmakers, looks too familiar, coming as it does when Russia is readying to transfer low-range missiles to Damascus.

The "organized" spontaneity and the cacophony of opposition noises in Lebanon remind one of other recent "franchised" revolutions, the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine - which saw pro-US candidates take power - apart from the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. While the European Union openly sided with the US in the revolution in Ukraine, which will adversely affect its relations with Russia, this time France, a former colonial power in Syria and Lebanon, joined with Washington.

For Lebanon, whose ethnic and religious mix is a tinderbox waiting to be ignited again, as it was in the civil war from 1975 to 1990, its polity and economy had been stabilized and rebuilt over the past 15 years under Hariri, a billionaire, but incurred massive debt. A return to this situation would be horrendous for Lebanon, which added "Lebanonization" to the world's lexicon.

"If Syria was involved, the move would represent an act of uncharacteristically brazen recklessness on the part of a regime instinctively cautious in matters involving its own survival," said Time magazine. Having spent decades in the region, the author knows the Syrians to be sophisticated operators. By having a hand in the killing of Hariri, they would not like to commit "suicide" as they are already under daily pressure from the US and Israel for the approximately 17,000 troops they have stationed in Lebanon, and for links to militant groups.

President Bashar al-Assad condemned Hariri's killing as a "horrible terrorist act", but that did not dim the ire of Lebanese opposition groups and the Bush administration.

Syrian forces first arrived in Lebanan in 1976, eventually enforcing a fragile peace between rival Lebanese factions and armed Palestinian refugees, and running the country as Syria's backyard ever since. Most of its troops are now in the Bekaa valley. Lebanese elections are scheduled for May, and Hariri was under mounting pressure to take the lead in an opposition campaign to rally a vote for ousting the Syrian troops.

Attempts are being made to unite all anti-Syrian factions which fought in the devastating civil war. Christians, Druze and Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims were in Hariri's funeral procession, numbering over 100,000. US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who attended the funeral, said Hariri's death must give renewed impetus to achieving a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon, and "what that means is the complete and immediate withdrawal by Syria of all of its forces in Lebanon".

The US, with the backing of France, pushed through United Nations Security Council resolution 1559 in September, calling on Syria to withdraw its troops. Jacques Chirac, the French president, a personal friend of Hariri, flew to Beirut to offer his condolences. He praised Hariri for his fight for democracy and independence. The Lebanon government has resisted pressure for an international investigation into the murder, but has invited Swiss explosives experts to help.

Resolution 1559 has been strenuously resisted, not only by Syria, but also by pro-Damascus Lebanese authorities, particularly President Emile Lahoud. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Hariri's murder was "an attempt to stifle these efforts to build an independent, sovereign Lebanon, free of foreign domination". Eyes are now turned to the UN Security Council to see if a new resolution is passed, perhaps imposing more sanctions on Syria. Russia is angry with the US and will not cooperate, nor most likely would China.

Assad's extension of Lahoud's mandate last September - triggering the confrontation between Syria and the opposition - is seen as a sign of firmness in facing up to American and French pressures. Lebanese government officials and Syrian allies have accused the opposition of being in the pocket of the US and Israel.

It appears that Hariri was leaning toward formally joining the opposition, which he had hesitated to do. Apart from having the most prominent Lebanese Sunni, widening the opposition front's multi-sectarian base, it would also have brought in Hariri's ample purse to support opposition in the elections next spring. Hariri was the natural cornerstone of a post-Syrian-withdrawal shadow government.

The BBC re-telecast a Hard Talk interview conducted after September11, 2001 in which Hariri refused to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and instead declared Israel an enemy.

Syria has cultivated politicians from all ends of the sectarian divide, and controls Lebanon's own intelligence and security services. More than visions of an historic "Greater Syria", there are certainly economic benefits for Syria to maintain control over its economically dynamic neighbor, whose progress and integration into the world economy puts Syria's own decrepit economy to shame.

"But Lebanon's primary importance to Damascus is its value as a strategic trump card. The organizing principle of Syrian foreign policy over the past four decades has been to find ways of pressuring Israel to return the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the war of 1967. Syria's presence in Lebanon, and particularly its support for the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, became its key strategic bargaining chip with Israel, its Lebanese proxies have posed a constant security threat on Israel's northern border for the past quarter century. Losing Lebanon would strip a regime already dangerously isolated within the Arab world of the last of its leverage in dealing with Israel," said Time magazine.

The UN Security Council approved a statement urging the Lebanese government to "bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of this heinous terrorist act". Lebanon's interior minister suggested a suicide bomber aided by "international parties" may have been behind it.

Apart from rogue Syrian intelligence operatives, even factions among Lebanon's myriad religious groups have been accused. Lebanese authorities have described responsibility claims by previously unknown Islamic militants as not credible.

In Washington for meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed About Gheit said, "It is still premature to reach conclusions." Speaking at the Brookings Institution think-tank, Gheit said he hoped it would not touch off a cycle of killings and push Lebanon into civil war.

Russian missiles for Syria
On February 16, Moscow confirmed that it would sell a new air missile defense system to Syria, overlooking Israeli concerns and US objections. It said the system was only for close-range use, and would not upset the balance of military forces in the Middle East. The system would be mounted on vehicles and could not be stripped down for man-portable shoulder-launch use. "This type of system is not mobile, these are not man-portable anti-aircraft systems, and without special means of transport their use is impossible," a Russian official said. He also repeated Moscow's recent denials of any plans to sell longer-range tactical Iskander missiles to Syria, which could reach any target in Israel, including its nuclear reactor at Dimona.

"Negotiations are now taking place on delivery to Damascus of the Strelets close-range anti-air system," Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed senior defense ministry official as confirming.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said at a news conference on February 16 in Jerusalem that Israel had been informed by Russia that a sale of weapons to Syria would go ahead despite Israeli objections. "We worry about that and we don't think that that should have happened," he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that the sale would not upset the balance of power in the Middle East and that it involved equipment that could solely be used for defensive purposes. He said in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that "we won't bring to the region weapons that can be used by terrorists or that can be transferred to terrorists without controls".

US reaction to Hariri's death
Rice asked US allies to join in pressurizing Syria to end its presence in Lebanon and its support of terrorism. She told US Congress that if other countries "send Syria a message" that its conduct is unacceptable, "then perhaps the Syrians will start to worry more about their isolation ... politically and economically". Rice said that the message sent by recalling the US ambassador was "an important one, and we'll see how they respond". She added that other measures were possible, saying, "We continue to review what else we might do." She did acknowledge that it was not clear who was behind Hariri's killing, but the US administration argued that Syria's presence in Lebanon was responsible for such attacks.

Rice did admit that no other country imposed economic and trade sanctions against Damascus, which US Congress did two years ago. The US has threatened to impose more sanctions. But "there's no doubt that Syria is a big problem", she told members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee during 2006 budget discussions. Both the Republicans and the Democrats on the committee told Rice that the US should be forceful in its dealings with Damascus. "I urge you not to let Syria off the hook," said Senator George Allen.

Even the US House of Representatives joined in condemning Syria (as yet without any proof), paid tribute to Hariri, and called for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. (US troops are staying in Iraq for stability, it seems, not Syria's in Lebanon.)

Congressman Eliot Engel, who wrote the Syria Accountability Act Congress approved last year imposing sanctions on Damascus, has urged the Bush administration to ensure that it is fully implemented. That law calls on Syria, among other things, to halt support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, and stop development of any weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. "It is clear to me, although the evidence is being gathered, but I suspect that this assassination has some ties to Damascus, to the regime in Damascus," he noted. "The Syrians have allowed Lebanon to destabilize, and this is part and parcel of the result."

Iran-Syria united front
Iran and Syria, ceaselessly threatened by the Bush administration and the Israeli government, on February 16 formed a mutual self-defense pact to confront the "threats" facing them. This was announced after a meeting in Tehran between Iranian Vice President Mohammed Reza Aref and Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari. "At this sensitive point, the two countries require a united front due to numerous challenges," said Otari. Aref added: "We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats."

While US leaders make conflicting statements on Iran's nuclear program, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, speaking in London, predicted that Tehran would have the knowledge to produce a nuclear weapon within six months. He said that Iran was preparing nuclear weapons that would be able to target "London, Paris and Madrid" by the end of the decade. "We believe the Iranians will never abandon their dreams of nuclear weapons," Shalom said. "It is not Israel's problem any more, it is the world's problem." Israel reportedly has over 100 nuclear bombs.

When the armies of Islam erupted from the Arabian desert and carved an empire from the Atlantic to China in the 7th century, Lebanon, with its mountains, provided refuge for persecuted Christian and Muslim sects alike. After Ottomans annexed the caliphate and guardianship of Mecca and Medina in the 16th century, the region became a peaceful backwater until World War I. During the Ottoman era Lebanon evolved a social and political system of its own. Ottoman Aleppo or Tripoli governed the north, Damascus the center and Sidon the south. Coastal Lebanon and the Bekaa valley were usually ruled more directly by Istanbul, while Mount Lebanon enjoyed semi-autonomous status.

When Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, Britain, to protect its Indian possessions and the Suez Canal lifeline, encouraged Arabs under Hashemite ruler Sharif Hussein of Hijaj to revolt against the caliph in Istanbul (and deputed spy T E Lawrence to help out). The war's end did not bring freedom to the Arabs as promised; because, at the same time, by a secret Sykes-Picot agreement, the British and French arbitrarily divided the sultan's Arab domains and their warring populations of Shi'ites, Sunnis, Alawite Muslims, Druze and Christians. The French took most of greater Syria, dividing it into Syria and Christian-dominated Lebanon. The British kept Palestine, Iraq and the rest of Arabia.

When Sharif Hussein's son Emir Feisel arrived to claim Damascus, Syria, the French chased him out. So the British installed him on the Iraqi throne. When the other son, Emir Abdullah, turned up in Amman, British prime minister Winston Churchill, dining in a Jerusalem hotel, reportedly drew on a napkin the borders of a new emirate of trans-Jordan, encompassing wasteland vaguely claimed by Syrians, Saudis and Iraqis.

By the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain had also promised a homeland for Jews in Palestine. European Jews began emigrating to Palestine, and the trickle became a flood with the rise of anti-Semitic policies in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe. After World War II, the state of Israel, carved out of British Palestine, was not recognized by the Arabs. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war allowed Israel to expand its area, while Jordan annexed the West Bank and Egypt took over Gaza. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the West bank and Gaza and Syria's Golan heights. Thus were laid the foundations for most of the problems of the region.

The contemporary state of Lebanon came into being in 1920 when France administered it as a League of Nations mandate. The Maronites, strongly pro-French by tradition, welcomed this, and during the next 20 years, while France held the mandate, the Maronites were favored. The expansion of prewar Lebanon into Greater Lebanon, however, changed the balance of the population. Although the Maronites were the largest single element, they no longer formed a majority. The population was more or less equally divided between Christians and Muslims, and a large section of it wanted neither to be ruled by France nor to be part of an independent Lebanon, but rather to join Syria or an Arab state.

Lebanon became a republic in 1926 and achieved independence in 1943. Its rugged, mountainous terrain served throughout history as an asylum for diverse religious and ethnic groups and for political dissidents. The majority of Lebanese now are Muslims, (with Shi'ites the most numerous) followed by Christians with Maronites the largest group, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics, Druze and Armenians, and even a very small minority of Jews. Lebanon is one of the most densely populated countries in the Mediterranean area and has one of the highest rates of literacy.

Lebanon is a republic with a parliamentary system of government. Its constitution, promulgated in 1926 during the French mandate, was modified by several subsequent amendments. According to the 1989 Taif agreement, parliamentary seats are apportioned equally between Christian and Muslim sects, thereby replacing an earlier ratio that had favored Christians. This sectarian distribution is also observed in appointments to public office and jobs.

The head of state is the president, who is elected by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly for a term of six years and is eligible for reelection only after the lapse of an additional six years. By an unwritten convention, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the National Assembly a Shi'ite. The cabinet members' portfolios are organized to reflect the sectarian balance and hold more executive power than the president. A cabinet usually falls because of internal dissension, societal strife or pressure exerted by foreign states. The control of the official central government is at best precarious; sectarian militias and foreign countries exert great influence.

Lebanon has to grapple with internal problems of social and economic organization, and also to struggle to define its position in relation to Israel, to its Arab neighbors and to the thousands of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon. The Lebanese pluralistic communal structure eventually collapsed under the pressures of this struggle. Communal rivalries over political power became so exacerbated by the complex issues that arose from the Palestinian question that a breakdown of the governmental system resulted from an extremely damaging civil war that began in 1975.

The civil war was a catastrophe for the Lebanese, whose country lay in ruins. There seemed to be no compromise acceptable to the Muslims, who numbered more than half the population, and to the Christians, who were determined to keep their control of key government institutions. Foreign intervention merely restrained open, full scale warfare. Economic destruction was massive, but this was overcome to a certain extent by increased remittances from Lebanese working abroad during the boom years in the oil-producing countries.

Then Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) , a law unto itself, which had been expelled from Jordan in the early 1970s. PLO chief Yasser Arafat had to leave Beirut, but thousands of helpless Palestinians, mostly women, children and old men, were butchered by Christian militias - Israel's allies.

A year after the Israeli withdrawal in 1982 from southern Lebanon, Hezbollah - Lebanon's main resistance force in the region - refused to consider that the country had regained its full sovereignty, since Israel still controlled the Sheba farms enclave and had not released all Lebanese prisoners of war, and Israeli warplanes patrolled Lebanese skies at will.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US, Lebanon tried to walk a tightrope. Lebanese officials were at pains to stress their condemnation of the attacks against civilians, while at the same time they emphasized the distinction between terrorism and the struggle for liberation. President George W Bush's statement for a Palestinian state was welcomed by Lebanese officials, who were under international pressure to naturalize about 330,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. They were uneasy about Washington targeting Hezbollah for attack as a terrorist organization.

In the 1980s, the West supported Iraq's long war against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Iran, and the US granted loans to Baghdad worth billions of dollars. For strategic reasons, Syria sided with Iran. But in the 1990-91 Gulf War, Syria, along with most of the Arab world and Turkey, joined Bush senior's coalition for various reasons: Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, money, cutting Saddam Hussein down to size, even though Iraq, at great human and monetary cost, had stopped Khomeini's Shi'ite revolution from expanding in the Arab world. Ironically, the Shi'ites of Iraq have now become a major force following the January elections in Iraq. In both US-led wars against Iraq, Israel, and unwittingly, Iran, have gained.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies. Email Gajendrak@hotmail.com

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