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Syria and Lebanon

Facing danger or resentment in many parts of the world, vacationing Arabs flocked to Lebanon to relax amid lush scenery and hospitable people. Booming real estate in Beirut and all-night partying in numberless cafes testified to a reborn Lebanon after long years of factional war.

Now with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a major rebuilder of Lebanon, that rebirth is in jeopardy and memories of war are reviving. Can Lebanon plunge once again into chaos?

At the heart of the matter is Syria, whose intervention helped end the fighting in 1990, but it has now outlived its welcome. Many Lebanese hold Syria responsible for Mr. Hariri's death, and while President Bush withholds judgment, he urges Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon.

Until more is known, Syria remains a prime suspect in the assassination, though Lebanese security forces are also focused on a Palestinian refugee who had threatened Mr. Hariri. Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, says whatever its actual role in the bombing, Syria cannot escape involvement.

Professor Gerges says, "If Syria maintains security and stability in the country, how come such a major security breach like the assassination of Hariri could have taken place? So regardless of whether Syria had a role in the assassination of Hariri or not, it seems to me the fact that such a major blast can take place in the heart of Beirut tells us that somehow Syrian security control of the country is extremely tenuous."

That is why Syria should withdraw altogether from Lebanon, says Professor Gerges. Its presence has become a liability. Lebanon is now strong enough to stand on its own as a sovereign nation.

"Lebanon has come a long way since the end of its civil war in 1990," notes professor Gerges. "While initially you might say that Lebanon needed Syria in the early 1990's to help put its house in order, I think Lebanon now has the military forces to maintain law and order. The Lebanese have matured a great deal in the last 14 years. I think the Lebanese have learned some lessons from the dark days of the civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990."

But the Syrians may be growing more assertive over Lebanon, not less, says John Voll, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington.

Professor Voll says, "One of my concerns with the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri is that it becomes clearer now that the Syrian role in Lebanon is shifting from essentially a police force, a stability force, into a more pro-active force that is trying to redefine what would be the power structure of Lebanese politics, and that I think becomes dangerous."

Professor Voll says Syria is reacting in part to the American occupation of Iraq, which has brought a major shift in the power relations of the region. Syria wonders where to go from here, adds Professor Voll. That explains its move toward closer ties with Iran. They will face the United States together.

If Syria is unrelenting, says Professor Voll, its supporters in Lebanon could come to blows with the opposition. In that case, it would not be a replay of the previous civil war.

Professor Voll contends, "If there were a reversion to a really high level of violence, the groups that would be fighting each other would represent a very different kind of configuration from what they were in the 1980's before the peace settlement. Nowadays you would have Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians that benefit from Syria's presence, and there are Sunni Shiites and Maronites that would like to get rid of Syria."

The Lebanese landscape is deeply polarized between those who support and those who oppose Syria, agrees Professor Gerges. All the more reason not to push Syria too far.

"Syria believes that Lebanon is a last refuge, says Professor Gerges. "It feels threatened. It feels targeted. It feels besieged, and this is why Syria is determined to stay in the country because it would like to use Lebanon as a deterrent force and a bargaining chip with Israel and the United States."

Now is the time for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, says Professor Gerges, but it should be accomplished by diplomacy without causing Damascus to cling more tightly to an unacceptable status quo.