Future of Lebanon
by Daniel Pipes
SEN. BROWNBACK (R-KS): The second panel will be Dr. Daniel Pipes, the editor of the Middle East Quarterly, out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and a second presentation will be Colonel Charbel Barakat of the South Lebanon Army, Lebanon. Dr. Pipes, welcome back to the committee. Delighted to have you here again on such a timely issue as the future of Lebanon, when we see the circumstances changing around us. Always appreciate your insights and your thoughts, and I appreciate your coming here to share those with the committee today.
MR. PIPES: Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to discuss Lebanon with you. My focus will be on the aspect of this subject that I know best; namely, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. I shall explain the reason for the occupation, the implications, the dramatic developments in the last month, and then have an overview of U.S. policy and give a couple policy recommendations - all in five minutes, I hope.
First, with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Lebanon has the unhappy distinction of being the only satellite state in the world today. The origins of the situation go back to 1920, when the French government carved out a "greater Lebanon" that met with considerable opposition in Syria. That opposition finally could manifest itself in 1975, when the war broke out in Lebanon, and the Syrians had between 1975 and 1990 an opportunity to take over that country, which they did do.
It somewhat resembles the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait that followed in 1990, but the Iraqi occupation was very fast, very brutal, very obvious; the Syrian occupation was slow, careful and subtle. The Syrian government disposes of many levers of power in Lebanon. It has troops, intelligence agents, and a significant number of Syrian nationals living in that country. Control of Lebanon brings the Syrian government many benefits. It has a much higher per capita income. There are economic opportunities. There's drug trafficking. The lively press that existed in Lebanon has been closed down. It is a place where the Syrian government can tangle with its adversary Israel without the stakes being too high. It is a place for terrorist proxies to work out of.
Curiously, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon is, by its own lights, illegal, for the Syrian government has on three occasions concurred with decisions that require it to leave Lebanon. And yet it is still there.
The implications of occupation for Lebanon have been dire. What had been the most open of the Arabic-speaking countries, boasting decentralized power, real democracy, rule of law, unimpeded movement and a Hong Kong-style free market, along with independent schools and an unfettered press, has turned into something like a minor version of the totalitarian state of Syria, with a more powerful central government, the increasing lack of the rule of law, of less and less freedom of movement, imposed school curricula, a declining economy, and the like.
The Lebanese population has responded with very negative attitudes towards the Syrian occupation. All our data suggests that across the board, all the communities of Lebanon, despite the many other differences, agree on the undesirability of continued Syrian occupation. However, because of the strong arm of the Syrian occupiers, they have, in general, not been able to express these views, although from time to time in the past there has been eruption of violence against the occupiers.
The timeliness of our discussion today is due to the two major changes that took place within the last few week; first, the Israeli pullback from southern Lebanon, and secondly, the death of President Hafez al-Assad on Saturday, just four days ago. But even before these actual developments took place, they had been in the making. As you noted earlier, the Israelis already announced a year ago they would be leaving, and the president of Syria's health has been declining for some time.
Accordingly, there has been a kind of movement in Lebanon that preceded the last few weeks. And perhaps the opening salvo of this was on the 23rd of March of this year when a prominent editorialist and journalist in Lebanon wrote an open letter to the son of the Syrian president, in which he said, "We don't want you here." And there have been some acts of violence against Syrians in Lebanon, there have been some protests, street protests, which led to labor unions and university students taking to the streets. Perhaps most remarkably, the Syrian troops abandoned some of the more obvious checkpoints and other deployments and moved back and became a little more subtle. Some of the leading religious figures of the country spoke out, both Christian and Muslim.
So it has been already, even before the last few days, a process in movement. I predict that there'll be a hot summer in Lebanon, and far more important than that, I anticipate the day when Lebanon will again be a free country without the Syrian yoke on it, and a sovereign government will rule.
The American responses have been interesting. The Clinton administration has never specifically - to the best of my knowledge - called for Syrian troops to withdraw from the country of Lebanon. They have, instead, contented themselves with a vague appeal for, "all foreign forces" to leave the country. This has been the case even recently.
Perhaps the most dramatic conversation was just a week ago, when Secretary Albright met with the Syrian foreign minister in Cairo, and according to press reports, she did not raise the issue of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. In public, she actually 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 to avoid mentioning the Syrian troops by name and, instead, resort to the tired old formulation that, quote, "all foreign forces must depart."
The Syrian authorities, not surprisingly, responded to this weak advisory by saying they have every right to be there, they were invited in by the Lebanese government, and they don't need the blessing of the United States.
In contrast with this record of collusion that the administration has compounded, the Congress has been forthright and repeated in its condemnation - '93, '95, '97 - over and over again, the Congress has been one of the few major voices to condemn the Syrian occupation. It has also been heartening to see that of late, other organizations have spoken up - human rights groups, major media in the United States. And I might add that my own organization just last week published a study group report calling for the end of the Syrian occupation. And I'm pleased to note that Chairman Helms was a signatory to that report. It's available, and I can make it available to anyone in this room after the hearing.
The U.S. government faces a fundamental choice vis-a-vis Lebanon: whether to accept or to contest the Syrian domination there. Operationally, that means either working with the constituted government or ignoring it. I think there is, in the end, no choice; we must stand in solidarity with the oppressed against the oppressors, as have done so many times around the world.
Beyond the symbol of that act, it's also very important, practically speaking, that people would take action against the Syrians are much emboldened when they feel they have the United States government's support.
Finally, I urge you, the Congress, to do all that you can to condemn and repulse the Syrian occupiers. Towards this end, you can take several steps. First, you can use your bully pulpit and simply say, "All Syrian forces must leave Lebanon." Secondly, you can pressure the executive branch to show some spine, as you have done in the past. Third, you can close the national interest loopholes that permit the executive branch to waive various congressional - various legal regulations, which it has done frequently. Fourth, you can take initiatives, such as funding of Radio Free Lebanon. And finally, I would urge you, so long as the Syrian occupation continues, not to fund the government of Lebanon, including its armed forces, because that money is fungible, and that money, in the end, is supporting the Syrian occupation. You should only appropriate funds to credible private organizations and institutions.
Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. BROWNBACK: Thank you very much, Dr. Pipes. As usual, good, quick, clear analysis and clear policy recommendations are always very helpful to have.
. . .
SEN. BROWNBACK: Dr. Pipes, let me start with some questions for you, if we could. What's your assessment of the future of Hezbollah at this point in time? Do you think they'll recreate themselves into a political party? Do you think will they continue down a terrorist mode? What's kind of your view of what's Hezbollah moving towards and to do?
MR. PIPES: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Hezbollah aspires to rule in Lebanon, and there are various ways to achieve that. One is through violence; another is through the political process. What began as a fairly marginal operation that required the use of violence has grown over the past two decades to the point that it can rely less on violence and more on the political process. It has moved into to the political arena. It has had some considerable success. They've shown flexibility.
For example, just in the last few days, since the occupation of South Lebanon, they have not engaged in out-and-out ethnic cleansing, but they've done something much more subtle, which is to ruin the infrastructure so that the people of South Lebanon have to leave. There's a flexibility and a cleverness in their approach which has served them well.
They are the victors now over the Israeli forces. They claim it, and I agree with them. They won; Israel lost. Their prestige has soared in the last month. And I believe that they are a powerful force that is probably going to become a greater force. And as that happens, their interests and those of the Syrian overlords will clash, and so there could be room at that point for others to maneuver. But until now, the Syrians and the Hezbollah movement have worked reasonably well together.
SEN. BROWNBACK: So, do you anticipate a clash between those two in the near term?
MR. PIPES: I do, yes, Mr. Chairman. I think that - I don't know about near term, but as the Hezbollah increases in force and in ambition, its interests could well put it on a collision course with the Syrian occupying forces.
SEN. BROWNBACK: What do we know about Bashar Assad? What's his potential for turning Syria into a more democratic, modern state?
MR. PIPES: Well, before answering your question directly, it's worth noting that the developments in Syria are very unusual. What we have is a revolutionary regime merged with a monarchy. That doesn't happen often. The only precedent I can see is North Korea. Romania was heading down that track; it didn't happen. And North Korea actually is very interesting the last few days. We do see flexibility resulting from this peculiar marriage of revolution and monarchy.
There is a fundamental illegitimacy to the process. A revolutionary regime is not supposed to use monarchical means. But you don't know who you are going to get with the son, and it opens up - it's much more flexible. Had it been another revolutionary leader who took over, things would have stayed much more on the same track. Now that we have someone from a different generation, a very different outlook, different experience, I think the chances of real change are much greater.
Bashar Assad is, as was noted earlier, 34 years old. He was, until six years ago, a student in London studying eye surgery. Apparently, he decided he was not going to go into the family business. But with the death of his older brother, in January of 1994, he was recruited into the business. And he has been a fast study in the past six years. He has had a military training. He has had political training. He has apparently, from what one can tell, done a rather good job. He has taken a number of several audacious steps. He is thrust into the maelstrom of Syrian political life; it's not for the faint-hearted. He is a rookie; we don't know his capabilities. His uncle has, in the last couple days, challenged him. We don't know his uncle's strengths at this point.
But I am hopeful that, within the context of Syrian political life, which has been totalitarian and brutalized, impoverished; that within this context, the fresh face, fresh approach of Bashar Assad could lead to good things. I might also point out it could lead to dangers. If he fails to control the government, if the rivalries among the grandees of the old regime explode, there could be violence within Syria and even outside it. So it's a dangerous time, but I am overall optimistic that things could go well.
SEN. BROWNBACK: Because we didn't have much chance that they were going to go well under the father and that he had ruled with such an iron hand for so long a period of time - I mean, you are basically betting on that the son is just of a different generation and the mind-set might be something more open-minded towards growing Syria economically and less of the militaristic rule?
MR. PIPES: Right. Under the father, one found a situation of stasis, ossification, of the sort that's extreme. I mean, rarely in human affairs does one see a country that simply had stopped in the way that Syria has in the last decade. And that was due to the father's very narrow assessment of what his concerns were, which were to stay in power and to pass on the power, as in fact he has quite well done so far in the last few days. Everything was seen through the prism of regime maintenance, staying in power. Nothing else mattered.
SEN. BROWNBACK: Passing the estate on to the next generation?
MR. PIPES: Yes. Now that that seems to be happening, the next generation is not quite so worried about the same narrow scope - this is pure speculation for we only have wisps and rumors of information about him - and may be more willing to take chances that would lessen the grip on the country that his father had maintained.
SEN. BROWNBACK: What should the administration - you listed a number of things that you thought were items that the Congress should take on. How would you rate what the administration has done to date, given the twin aspects of the pullout in south Lebanon by the Israelis and the change in Syria towards Lebanon?
MR. PIPES: American policy for some years has been to place the peace process above all else. Everything else is sacrificed for that. And anything that's perceived as impinging on that process, obstructing that process, is to be pushed away. I think that's a mistake. I think resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is obviously a very important and desirable goal, but it is not the only goal. And we must keep an eye on such other problems as the totalitarian rule in Syria, as the Syrian threat, until a year and a half ago against Turkey, the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. These are legitimate and important problems as well that should be not shunted aside because they don't help the peace process.
And I think we have had a very special attitude towards the Syrian government because of its negotiations with Israel. I mean, it is of a kind with its peers in Iraq and Libya and North Korea and Cuba. It's a rogue regime, and even U.S. government documentation agrees with that. But our secretaries of state, even our president, have gone to Syria on occasions. They never would go to Tripoli or Teheran or Baghdad, but they go to Damascus because there's this attempt to bring Damascus into the process and encourage it to engage in diplomacy with Israel. I think that's a mistake. I don't think totalitarian governments respond to cajoling and encouragement. I think they respond to worries, threats.
And we saw that with Turkey. The Turks for 10 years cajoled the Syrians. They had a very serious problem with the Syrian-sponsored terrorism. And from 1987 till 1998, they cajoled. They said, "Please, pretty please, pay attention to our problem and stop making trouble for us." And it didn't work. And finally, in 1998, they threatened the Syrians and said, "If you don't stop this, you'll be in big trouble." And you know what? Within two weeks, the threat was closed down. I think that's the way one deals with a regime like this.
One does not send the secretary of state to the funeral of a totalitarian thug. We didn't send him to Kim Il Sung's funeral. I don't think we should have sent her to President Assad's funeral. This is not appropriate for us. We should take a much tougher stand. We should indicate to them that we don't like what they're doing, and we will make it clear, as we do with other totalitarian states, that this is unacceptable.
Now, all that said, the situation has changed in the last few days. There's potential for more maneuvering and more subtlety today, because we have a new regime. But I worry about this mind-set which places total priority on Arab-Israeli negotiations.
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