Lords Over Lebanon

Syria’s still in charge, but the U.S. presence in Iraq could change that.

Although it went unreported in the international media, during last weekend’s visit to Beirut by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, 250 protesters took to the streets demanding the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Riot police intervened and several demonstrators were imprisoned or taken to the hospital. Judging from Powell’s mollifying statements on Syria, they can probably expect little help from Washington.

Nevertheless, the façade of Syrian power in Lebanon is slowly changing, even if the underlying reality is not. A few years ago anti-Syrian protests would have been inconceivable. Walk the streets of Beirut today and you won’t feel the same weight of Syrian domination you would have in the past. In an effort to prove his army is not an occupation force, Syrian President Bashar Assad has gradually pulled troops out of areas in and around Beirut and in the north. Gone are the more egregious signs of Syria’s military presence—portraits of the late President Hafez Assad, intelligence agents questioning passengers at Beirut airport, and soldiers occupying expensive properties—so that one might almost forget that Lebanon very much remains a Syrian province.

Syrian forces entered Lebanon in 1976, at the height of its civil war, a move later endorsed by the Arab League. When Lebanon’s war ended in 1990, Syria was the paramount authority in the country. Its military presence is today, mantralike, defended by the Beirut government as “necessary, legal, and temporary.” I recall that during an interview with Daily Star editors in which I participated,Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri fumbled the order of the adjectives until a minister came to his assistance. Still, if asked to leave Lebanon, the Syrians would refuse. The country is too important for them: Hundreds of thousands of Syrian laborers who would be unemployed in Syria find work here and send money home. Lebanon is Syria’s ticket to regional relevance, allowing the regime to play footsy with Israel through Hezbollah. And it’s a source of revenue and patronage for Syria’s political and military elite, which is involved in both licit and illicit business transactions that Lebanon’s postwar reconstruction process made more lucrative.

With American forces now in Iraq, however, Syria will have to change the way it does business in Lebanon. Hezbollah is a Bush administration target, which means the Syrians may have to suspend, at least for a time, the party’s sporadic attacks against Israeli forces in the disputed Shebaa Farms in south Lebanon, which Lebanon and Syria claim is occupied Lebanese land. The United Nations and the Israelis, who pulled out of south Lebanon in May 2000, say the farms are not Lebanese, insisting, therefore, that Hezbollah must halt its strikes—a view the United States shares.

Less clear is whether the U.S. administration will push the Syrians out of Lebanon. After years of inattention, officials in Washington now openly call Syria’s presence an “occupation.” Last March, Powell told a House subcommittee, “I don’t think we have reached the point whereby Lebanon is governed by the Lebanese people without the existence of a Syrian occupation army.” It was the first time an administration official had used the “O” word. However, Powell pointedly avoided using it again on his latest trip, since he needs Syria to control Hezbollah and seeks its support for the Palestinian-Israeli “road map.” This doubtless means Lebanon will again be sacrificed at the altar of improved American-Syrian relations. Still, Syria’s enemies in Washington know it is vulnerable on Lebanon, and that the occupation charge makes it nervous.

Damascus is acutely sensitive to U.S. congressional legislation known as the Syria Accountability Act, which threatens sanctions against Syria unless, among other things, it “halt[s] … support for terrorism, end[s] its occupation of Lebanon, [and] stop[s] its development of weapons of mass destruction.” While the administration doesn’t want to implement the act right now, it does agree with its spirit. In an interview I conducted last year with Bouthaina Shaaban of the Syrian foreign ministry, the depth of her hostility to the legislation was palpable: “If the U.S. continues such policies,” she said, “in 10 years time it will have no one to talk to in the region.”

Whether the Syrian presence is technically an occupation or not, it is perpetuated by a combination of incentives and intimidation. Syria rewards its local allies by offering them influence, since it controls Lebanon’s political institutions—shaping governments, influencing parliament, and even selecting Lebanese presidents. Syria also has more robust means of enforcing compliance, even though it usually avoids using force directly or operates through Lebanon’s security services. Syria has 15,000-20,000 soldiers in Lebanon. It also controls a network of intelligence agents supervised by Rustom Ghazaleh, an officer who heads the Syrian Security and Reconnaissance unit.

Ghazaleh took over from Syria’s long-standing viceroy in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, when the latter was recalled to Damascus last October. Kanaan, like the Assads, is an Alawite (from the minority religious group ruling Syria, which is an offshoot of Shiism) and had served in Lebanon since the mid-1980s. In 1987, he showed his teeth when ordering his men to shoot 23 Hezbollah militiamen, after the party tried to assassinate him when he mediated a dispute between it and a rival militia (his relations with Hezbollah have since improved). After peace returned to Lebanon, Kanaan played a complex balancing game with local politicians, alternately breaking and reviving careers but always ensuring his supremacy in the political system. Political conversations in Beirut often centered on Kanaan’s manipulations.

Ghazaleh, Kanaan’s former senior deputy, is a Sunni, reflecting Bashar Assad’s desire to show that his regime is more ecumenical than his father’s, where Alawites held most key security posts. Ghazaleh also has a purported academic bent, earning a doctorate in history from the Lebanese University. He’s hardly effete, however: Like Kanaan, he knows the ways of power, running Lebanon mainly by telephone from Anjar, near the Syrian-Lebanese border, or receiving local politicians at his office or residence, where they might wait for hours before being received.

The Syrians know this situation can’t last forever. Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon removed a key justification for their military presence. Moreover, the Lebanese are growing restless. The only problem is that Damascus thrives on inertia. The Iraq war brought America to Syria’s doorstep. Washington will not fight a war on Lebanon’s behalf, but somehow the Syrians are far less reassured than they used to be.