Syrian forces first entered Lebanon in July 1976; nearly a quarter-century later, they are ensconced there as firmly as ever. Does this mean they will be there for the indefinite future? Or do recent events point to their possible expulsion and a revival of Lebanese independence? And are there steps that the U.S. government can take toward that end?
The Syrian Occupation
With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Lebanon has the unhappy distinction of being the world's only remaining satellite state. Its government boasts the trappings of sovereignty - a flag, an independence day, a constitution, membership in the United Nations - but little or none of its substance. In fact, all the country's major decisions are made in Damascus, Syria.
The origins of this situation go back to the beginning of the century now ending. In 1920, when the French government carved modern Lebanon out of Syria, this met with considerable opposition in Syria, where Lebanon was seen as several provinces of Syria. That opposition persisted through the next two generations. Only with the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1975, however, did the Syrian authorities, Hafiz al-Asad, find an opportunity to act on their intention to get Lebanon back. Their takeover of the country occurred step by step, climaxing in 1990 with the domination of some 90 percent of the country.
Though achieved with far greater subtlety and skill, Asad's takeover of Lebanon closely resembled Saddam Husayn's occupation of Kuwait. In both cases, the dictator of a powerful totalitarian state exploited an old irredentist claim to justify the subjugation of a small, free, and Western-oriented neighbor. The major difference is one of finesse: in contrast to Saddam's crude and brutal invasion, Asad prepared the way by sponsoring a range of Lebanese dissident groups, had himself invited in by bona fide Lebanese leaders, and then over a fifteen-year period gradually incorporated portions of the country.
Asad disposed of many levers of power in Lebanon. An estimated 40,000 Syrian troops and uncounted political and intelligence agents maintained a formidable presence throughout the country, plus hundreds of thousands of Syrians moved there.
Control of Lebanon brought Asad many benefits. It marked a significant step toward bringing all of "Greater Syria" under Damascus's direct control, one of his long-term aims. It permitted him to stamp out the press criticism and political intrigue that once came out of Beirut. Lebanon provided his officials with an annual income from drug trafficking estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe more. It provided employment for as many as a million Syrian workers and offered a protected market for Syrian products. It gave Asad control of a second voice in Arab councils and the peace process. It presented a way for him to tangle with Israel without endangering his regime; the two sides have tacitly agreed to reserve total war for the Golan Heights and engage in lesser skirmishes in Lebanon. More ominously, control of Lebanon also provided a convenient venue for housing terrorist proxies by keeping them under Syrian control but outside of direct Syrian responsibility.
Curiously, by the Syrian government's own lights, its occupation of Lebanon is illegal. Damascus has on three occasions concurred with decisions made by other bodies that Syrian troops should leave Lebanon. It first agreed to withdraw the troops in October 1976 as part of the Riyadh-Cairo accords. In September 1982, it signed the Fez Declaration that committed it to "start negotiations" with the Lebanese government about "an end to the mission of the Arab deterrent forces in Lebanon [i.e., the Syria troops]." Finally, in October 1989, Asad accepted an agreement hammered out by the Lebanese parliament (the Ta'if Accord); Christians supported a revision of the Lebanese government structure and in return he said that Syrian troops, within two years of some conditions being met, would be redeployed from their positions in Beirut to the Bekaa Valley. Those conditions were all fulfilled in September 1990; but September 1992 came and went without any change. Theodor Hanf, a leading German scholar of Lebanon, dubs this a "blatant violation" of the Ta'if Agreement.
Implications for Lebanon
Occupation has had many consequences for Lebanon. Until 1975, it was the most open of all the Arabic-speaking countries, boasting decentralized power, real democracy, rule of law, unimpeded movement, a Hong Kong-style free market, independent schools, and an unfettered press.
Under Syrian control, however, the central government in Beirut has gained in authority, rendering recent parliaments, according to Hanf, "the least representative in Lebanese history." Syrian operatives function almost entirely outside the rule of law (for example, they routinely make arrests without warrants) leading Human Rights Watch to conclude that "the record of violations in Syrian-controlled Lebanon has been worse than in Syria." Freedom of movement ended when Syrians decided who comes into the country and who goes out. Asad's regime has sought to impose Syrian-style standards on the school curricula, including the requirement that Arabic and Islam be taught. It brought the free-wheeling Lebanese economy more in line with that of statist Syria and created organic links between the two countries (for example, in the electricity grid and in roads), sometimes with an eye to their permanent connection (why else was Lebanon forced to convert its power stations from petroleum to liquefied natural gas, which happens to be imported from Syria?). Cheap Syrian goods are dumped in Lebanon. As for the press, Human Rights Watch states that it "has been forced to toe a Syrian-drawn line, leave Syrian-controlled Lebanon, or cease functioning."
Perhaps most significant for the long-range future, the Asad regime has opened the doors for Syrians to move to Lebanon, seek work there, settle there, and sometimes bring other family members to join them there. With time, this emigration may profoundly alter Lebanon's population by increasing the proportion of peasants and Muslims. Such changes have the additional virtue, from the Damascene point of view, of making the Christian population, and especially the Maronites who are the heart of independent Lebanon, feel less welcome in their own homeland. (Cardinal Nasrallah Butras Sfeir, the Maronite patriarch, has accused the Syrians of attempting precisely this.) Lebanese Christians already have a century's legacy of emigration; continued Syrianization of their country makes them prone to leave their ancestral home in ever-increasing numbers. Should they do so, Damascus will have cleared the major obstacle to its permanent colonization of Lebanon.
So subservient are Lebanese politicians to their suzerain in Damascus, they routinely visit the Syrian capital before making any major decision or even to resolve problems among themselves. On some occasions, the prime minister surrounded himself with most of his cabinet to travel the 70 miles to Damascus. Speaking candidly, former president Ilyas al-Hirawi once confessed his shame at this pattern of behavior: "We now disagree on the appointment of a doorman and go to Damascus to submit the problem to the brothers [there]." Prime Minister Salim al-Huss sees no end date to the Syria's occupation but states that it will last "as long as the government sees their presence necessary." As a former Lebanese diplomat puts it, "Everyone knows that Syria controls everything in Lebanon, totally." Or, as Uri Sagie, then head of Israeli military intelligence, explained, "Lebanon's dependence on Syria is absolute."
Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Lebanon's population - and not just the Christians among them - rejects the Syrian occupation. Survey research among Lebanese Sunnis in 1989-90 showed that a mere 3 percent of them favored union with Syria. Anecdotal evidence confirms this. As one Lebanese put it a few years ago, "Syria is at the top of the hate list in Lebanon today, much more so than Israel. Israel is perceived of only as a military threat while Syria threatens Lebanon's very existence."
Lebanese opinion might overwhelmingly reject the occupation but it could do or say little; discussion of this issue within the country is taboo, so "most outright opposition is confined to Lebanese abroad, unsigned Internet postings and quiet conversations." Here is an Associated Press report from mid-1997:
In private, Lebanese complain about Syria's hold on their country and their lack of real independence. … But few are publicly demanding that Syria immediately pull out its forces. Part of it is fear of offending their stronger neighbor, known as "sisterly Syria" in the Arabic tradition. "Big brotherly" Syria would be more accurate.Nonetheless, Lebanese opinion would spontaneously erupt on occasion. In the summer of 1997, the Syrian and Lebanese soccer all-star teams played a semi-final game in Lebanon. In the course of the game, fans got into fights after the Syrians resident in Lebanon chanted, "In spirit and blood we will redeem you Hafiz [al-Asad]." Lebanese fans responded by calling on the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. As tensions rose, the two sides began fighting until dispersed by the worried authorities. Students were arrested in Beirut in March 1999 for distributing leaflets that called for an end to the Syrian occupation. Leaders sometimes spoke their mind: "All this talk about Syria's presence in Lebanon being a safeguard against Israeli aggression is a lot of trash," asserted Dory Chamoun, leader of a small Maronite party. "We don't need Syria here to help us."
Such outspokenness notwithstanding, year after year the Syrian occupation of Lebanon persisted, almost without change. The situation was about as completely static as one can find in the contemporary world.
Suddenly, in the late spring of 2000, two major changes took place. Together, they challenge the occupation as nothing has at least since 1984.
First, the abrupt Israeli pullback from south Lebanon altered the political landscape. The Syrians have since 1978 deflected criticism of their own occupation by pointing to the need to counter the Israeli security belt in the south. No matter how flimsy this justification, it did serve them well. Lebanese politicians, for example, endlessly repeated the mantra that Syrian troops must stay so long as Israel's occupation continued. When that later occupation ended in the early morning of May 24, 2000, so did the catch-all rationale for the Syrian armed presence. United Nations Resolution 520, which calls for the "withdrawal of all non-Lebanese forces from Lebanon," these days refers only to Syrian forces.
Second, Asad's declining health was apparent for months and ended with his death on June 10. His gradual fade from the scene heartened those in Lebanon wanting to escape Syrian control. They saw his passing as the start of a struggle for power in Damascus that would reduce Syrian force projection, thereby giving the Lebanese more room to maneuver. They sensed that, absent his sure and ruthless hand, that control would likely be much reduced, and possibly even ended. Asad's death gave heart to all those in Lebanon who wish to see their country out from under the Damascene thumb.
These two changes encouraged Lebanese patriots to speak out and demonstrate against the Syrian occupation. The opening salvo was on March 23, 2000, when Jibran Tuéni, chairman of the board and managing director of An-Nahar newspaper, wrote "An Open Letter to Dr. Bashshar Asad" in which he frankly informed the heir-apparent in Syria that "many Lebanese are neither at ease with the Syrian policy in Lebanon, nor the Syrian 'presence' in Lebanon" and then boldly declared, "We are not a Syrian province." This unheard-of candor was quickly followed by a series of acts of resistance. In April, unknown assailants three times in three weeks threw sticks of dynamite at a compound housing 1,500 Syrian workers in southern Lebanon, an attack later claimed by a group calling itself Citizens for a Free and Independent Lebanon.
In mid-April, small groups of protesters associated with former prime minister Michel Aoun boldly marched in front of the Justice Ministry one day and in front of the national museum and university the next, chanting anti-Syrian slogans such as "Syria get out of here." On the third day, about one thousand demonstrators gathered at the Lebanese University and shouted out "The Israeli army out, the Syrian army out and Lebanon first." Labor unions then followed with more demonstrations. Within ten days of these events, Syrian troops became less visible, redeploying from a dozen high-profile checkpoints - though of course government spokesmen denied any connection to the demonstrations. This appears to be the first-ever retreat by Syrian forces within Lebanon.
Various religious figures spoke their minds. Patriarch Sfeir, stated that if Lebanon "wants to control its future ... and for the Lebanese to regain their liberty, the Syrian troops must leave." More surprisingly, Archbishop Elias Audi of the usually docile Eastern Greek Orthodox Church spoke up on behalf of the student protestors to his congregation in a Palm Sunday sermon. Human rights groups in Lebanon got on the case. Even the Muhammad Mahdi Shams ad-Din, chairman of Lebanon's Supreme Islamic Shi`i Council, complained publicly that Lebanon has "no judicial branch in the full meaning of the word, enjoying full independence, immune from all other branches, and exercising autonomy."
Again pushing the outer limits of the possible, just two days before Hafiz al-Asad's death, Jibran Tuéni wrote a scathing and sarcastic attack in his newspaper repudiating the logic the Syrian foreign minister used "to defend the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon."
Looking forward, one can anticipate the day when Lebanon will free itself of the Syrian yoke and again be a sovereign country.
Thanks to the Syrian dictator's cleverness, nearly the entire world acquiesced in his seizure of Lebanon - including the U.S. executive branch. The White House and State Department during the Clinton years have never specifically called for Syria to withdraw, contenting themselves with a vague appeal on "all foreign forces" to leave the country.
Though perfectly aware of it (as implied by the oft-repeated statement that the U.S. government "remains dedicated to the goal of a fully sovereign and independent Lebanon, free of all foreign forces and able once more to take its rightful place among the nations of the world"), they prefer not to confront it. Their reasoning is simple: seeing Lebanon almost exclusively in the context of Arab-Israeli negotiations, where it represents just an irritant, they do their best to pay it no attention. As a State Department official frankly explained to me some years ago, "we constantly urge complete implementation of the Ta'if Accord [i.e., a withdrawal of Syrian troops] but it's not a bilateral priority. We've not condemned this [non-implementation] very loudly because it needs to be resolved in the context of a comprehensive peace settlement."
Worse, at times the Clinton Administration has endorsed the Syrian occupation: a report in December 1999 indicated that it "appealed to prominent Lebanese politicians and opinion-makers to allow Syrian troops to remain in Lebanon" after Israel pulls its troops out from the south. Likewise, a Beirut daily reported that "U.S. ambassador David Satterfield diplomatically 'warned' these personalities not to count on an Israeli request for a Syrian withdrawal."
The turmoil of spring 2000 finds the Clinton administration responding meekly. After the Israeli troop withdrawal, Martin Indyk, our ambassador to Israel, blandly called the Israeli troop withdrawal "a golden opportunity for the government of Lebanon to extend its authority down here to the border." During a meeting in Cairo with Syria's foreign minister, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did not raise the issue of Syria's occupation of Lebanon; in public, she praised it: "Syria has played a constructive role as far as Lebanon is concerned. We hope that they will continue to do so." The best she could do was avoid mentioning the Syrian troops by name and instead resort to the tired old formulation that "all foreign forces should depart."
Syria's authorities, not surprisingly, responded to this weak advisory by insisting on their right to stay put. Faruq ash-Shar`, the Syrian foreign minister, explained: "with all due respect, it is not in the interest of Ms. Albright to raise this issue. We are in Lebanon at the request of the Lebanese government and people and not with the blessing of the United States."
In contrast to the administration's record of collusion with the Syrian occupation, even encouragement of it, Congress has forthrightly and repeatedly condemned it: it voted unanimously in July 1993 to consider "the Government of Syria in violation of the Taif agreement." In June 1995, a second, similar resolution (Sec. 2712) passed the House. In June 1997, Rep. Eliot Engel's Amendment to H.R. 1986 concerning "Sanctions against Syria," passed (by a vote of 410 to 15).
It is also encouraging to see that of late other voices have spoken up on behalf of the repressed Lebanese. Human rights groups have condemned the Syrian presence, as have major media. For example, the Boston Globe noted in an editorial that "the freedom of Lebanon will require not only Israel's retreat from southern Lebanon but also a subsequent withdrawal of the 40,000 troops of Syria's occupation force." The Los Angeles Times concurred: "One foreign army of occupation has left Lebanon. Now it's time for the second to do the same." The Middle East Forum (co-publisher of this journal) published a study group report in May 2000 calling for an end to the Syrian occupation.
The U.S. government faces a fundamental choice vis-à-vis Lebanon: accept or contest Syrian domination there. Operationally, this translates into either working with or ignoring the puppet government of Lebanon.
Work with the government: Recognize Emile Lahud as a real president and Salim al-Huss as a real prime minister, accept the 1998 municipal elections as legitimate, and acquiesce to rules established by the Syrian regime. Such a policy has the advantage of winning favor in Damascus and just possibly encouraging it to sign a peace treaty with Israel. But it disheartens natural allies of the United States in Lebanon and abroad; and it signals the world that while a blatant invasion such as Saddam's into Kuwait is not acceptable, a subtle one such as Asad's into Lebanon is tolerable.
Ignore the government: The alternative is to denounce the Syrian occupation and ignore the governmental pseudo-structure in Beirut. This has the advantage of sticking with our friends and our principles; and of having bet on the winning side when the Lebanese do regain control of their country. It raises the danger of the U.S. government throwing its weight behind a force that today is on the losing side.
To my mind, there is really no choice: our government must stand in solidarity with the oppressed and against the oppressors. Just as we supported Estonians and Czechs through their decades of Soviet domination, even when the prospect of their independence seemed impossibly remote, so we must stand by the Lebanese people in their hour of need. Nor is this only a matter of principle: Baltic leaders all agree on the importance of the U.S. government refusing to accept the Soviet occupation of their countries. Lebanese patriots one day will similarly thank us for standing with their people even as they faced the seemingly invincible might of the Syrian sword.
There is also a practical reason for taking this step: as Gary Gambill (of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin) notes, American support is vital if the Lebanese are to challenge their Syrian overlords. "Whenever it appears that U.S. appeasement of Syria is waning, Lebanese civil society rises to the occasion to challenge Syrian hegemony. On the other hand, when the U.S. shows lack of resolve vis-à-vis Syria, the Lebanese refrain from open expressions of dissent." We are not just bystanders but, willy-nilly, we are actors in an important drama: public disapproval of the Syrian occupation will inspire Lebanese impatience and thereby help end it.
Accordingly, the Executive Branch must take serious steps to condemn and repulse the Syrian occupiers through a combination of diplomacy and economic pressure. If the Lebanese themselves are ready to throw of the Syrian yoke, such steps should help them before long meet with success.