Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Is Syria Occupying Lebanon?

I have received three comments from Tony criticizing me for being too pro-Syrian and for softballing Syria's occupation of Lebanon. First, I must address his comment about Syrian prisons. He writes, "Your views are often learned and insightful, but the comment on Syrian prisons being 5 star hotels is a travesty."

You are right, Tony. Syrian jails are known for their brutality. It was not I who made the 5-star analogy, but Riad al-Turk, the Syrian who has spent the most years in the Syrian prison system. He compared the prisons today to what they were under Hafiz. Al-Turk's point is that the prison system has improved under Bashar, not that torture or abuse have disappeared. He is the first to demand that emergency rule end and that basic laws concerning human rights be observed, i.e. allowing international agencies to regularly inspect prisons and talk to prisoners. My point in highlighting Turk's comment is to argue that Bashar is making changes. His critics, who say nothing can change in Syria without revolution, are wrong. American sponsored, regime-change in Syria is not the answer. As in China, change must come from within. That does not mean that other countries cannot play a role and pressure Syria, but Syria will have to break out of is backward economic system and dramatically increase per capita GNP before democracy will be viable. I believe Bashar has pointed the country in the right direction and offers Syria the best chance of reform at the present time.

Using the same logic, I criticize the Syrian Accountability Act. The US is silly to embargo Syria and end all constructive communication with Damascus until it withdraws its troops from Lebanon. The political origin of the Syrian Accountability Act points out how unrealistic it is. The main reason the SSA came to congress and passed so overwhelmingly is that it was pushed through by pro-Israeli lobby groups. The major Lebanese spokesman for the bill in Congress was General Aoun, who represented the Maronite community in Lebanon before he was expelled from the country by the Syrians (with US support) in 1991 at the time of the Gulf war. In essence, what the US congress is doing in this act is resurrecting the failed policy of Begin and Sharon when they first invaded Lebanon in 1982. Their strategy was to push Syria out of Lebanon and isolate it in the region in the belief that Israel would then be able to conclude peace agreements with Lebanon and Jordan. By returning Lebanon to its anti-bellum status quo - with strong Maronite leadership and a Christian dominated parliament and army, Israel hoped to finish off the PLO and impose an Israeli peace. This strategy failed miserably to the great detriment of the US. (The necons derive the wrong lesson from its failure. They insist that the rise of Bin Laden and Jihadism begins with the bombing of the US barracks in Beirut. Because President Reagan gave up on Lebanon and withdrew US troops in the face of Lebanese pressure, terrorists gained courage and decided they could drive the Crusaders and Zionists out of the whole Middle East. That is how we got 9-11, they argue.)

The real problem with Sharon's and Jumayel's plan is that it ignored the realities of Lebanon. The US should never have touched it. The Christian community was no longer the majority population, and the Muslim communities were demanding radical changes in the political system. As a result, the Shi'a also found their political voice. Lebanese Muslims could not be denied their say in politics then, anymore than they can be today. The only way to come to terms with the new demographics of Lebanon was by re-arranging the power-sharing formula of the National Pact, which the Christians refused to do. Of course they were frightened of being swamped by Arab nationalism. All Christians had to do was look at the lack of liberties in the Arab world to scare themselves silly about the prospect of Muslim-Arab rule. But the Likud-Jumayel plan was not the answer and couldn't work. It should never have been tried. The neocons, in pushing the SSA, have reverted to 1982 and are trying to revive Sharon's plan. I presume they would like Aoun to be the next president. This plan was a tragedy in 1982 and is a farce today. That is why the Lebanese, save for a few hotheads, have all spoken out against the Syrian Accountability Act. The US congress may still take its lead from Israel and Aoun, but the Lebanese don't. Who would gamble on such a combination after 1982? Been there, done that.

The Lebanese civil war has not been completely resolved, but one thing seems reasonably certain - the Christian community will never again be able to dominate politics in Lebanon. Christians must come to terms with their Muslim countrymen, like it or not. Muslim Lebanese must also come to terms with Christians, Lebanese exceptionalism, and the special role of the Christians in forming Lebanon. Neither side has really done this yet. How does one resolve the great cultural gap between Hizballah teaching Imamism and Khomeinism in its schools and the Christians teaching that Lebanon is an Auberge des minorites, created and protected by Christians (I won't even mention Phoenicians)?

This brings us back to the Syrian role in Lebanon. Yes, Syria is "occupying" Lebanon, even if Lebanese elected officials won't say so. But isn't that just the problem? The Lebanese won't say openly and loudly that they are occupied. As far as I can tell, the only way the Lebanese will push out the Syrians is by agreeing among themselves that Syria must leave. Instead, Lebanese politicians go to Damascus to resolve their disputes; rather, then resolving them among themselves. The roll Syria is playing in the present elections , mediating between Hizballah and Amal, propping up Lahoud, and trying to keep the process from breaking down or becoming violent, while at the same time promoting Syrian interests, is a case in point.

The Lebanese could stop this and push out the Syrians if they could agree among themselves to do or agree on who should lead Lebanon and how. They can't do this. In this sense, the civil war still rumbles under the surface. The conflict over Lebanese national identity has not been resolved. In the meantime, most Lebanese leaders are content to wend their way to Damascus for answers. Perhaps there is no resolution to their differences today, and this explains why they don't call Syria an occupier, or if they do, it is under their breaths?

Would Lebanon have a Christian president without Syria? I think it is safe to say that it would not. Had Syria not entered the civil war on the side of the Christians, Muslim malitias and the PLO might well have destroyed the main pillars of Christian authority in the country. If one considers that today the Christians retain the presidency - even if it is less powerful than before 1975 - and have 50% of the seats in parliament, even though they are only 30% of the population, and retain their own system of Christian schools, TV chanels, newspapers and means of cultural reproduction - they have a pretty good deal - one they would not have today had Syria not brokered it for them at Ta'if. And one that could probably not be retained if Syria withdrew today. Would Hizballah allow the beautiful and charming Haifa' to broadcast her exercise routine on LBC if it had a choice? (Also, no country counts its emmigrants as legitimate voters. I cannot vote in England even though my forefathers came from that verdant Isle. If Anglo-Americans could vote in England, there would be no England.)

At the time of the 2000 Lebanese elections, Danny Reshef wrote,:

More than anything else, the election campaign in Lebanon reflects a strategic choice of the young Syrian President, Bashar el-Assad. He is taking consistent steps towards the liberalization of Syria. He has given top priority to the rehabilitation and economic development of his country and its integration into the international community.

It seems that the Syrian President understands that political repression and the extreme limitation of the freedom of expression signify a continuation of the isolation of Syria from the Western world of normal nations. It also means the continuation of economic stagnation and the preservation of the power of the security and military apparatus. This apparatus is still controlled to a large extent by aging, conservative officers of the Alawi minority in Syria. These officers are liable in the future to limit the freedom of action of Bashar el-Assad himself, as President.

It is absolutely clear that the President could have prevented the return of Amin Jumayel to Syria, in order to intimidate all the opponents of Syria in Lebanon and shut them up, just as his father did to some degree. Yet the price, in terms of political status, in the Arab world as well as in the Western world, would be too high for someone who is dreaming of a Syria that is open, developing, modern and progressive.

Danny's words are still true today. Syria's footprint in Lebanon could be much heavier than it is. No one expected Bashar would let Hariri become PM again in 2000, but he did. If the Lebanese really wanted the Syrians out and were willing to unite and fight for an independent Lebanon, there is a good chance Syria would leave. Bashar is busy rebuilding good relations with all Syria's neighbors and Europe. He would not squander Syria's return to the world community and its economic reintegration into the region in order to repress Lebanon in the case of a concerted revolt by the Lebanese. Were the Lebanese to stand united against Syria, the world would back them. Today, most everyone believes the Lebanese need a Za'im to balance their divided and bickering notables. Most countries fear Lebanon will slip back into civil war, should Syria leave. That is why they don't insist on it and why the US congress is a lone voice singing SALSA. The only thing to convince them otherwise will be to see the Lebanese unite and demand Syria's departure with one voice. Insha'allah, that will happen one day.


At 6/01/2004 07:09:00 PM, Blogger William said...

Great commentary. I was wondering if you think Syria has legitimate national interests in Lebanon (beyond preventing a neighbor from falling into chaos as you point out)? Even overlooking that fact that Lebanon was carved out of the idea of Syria by Westerners, I've read that Syria considers the Bekaa Valley critical to it's nation defense. There are basically two routes from Israel to Damascus; the direct one is through the Golan Heights, which of course Israel is firmly in control of; however, the second route is the Bekaa Valley, which basically shoots straight up from the Israeli border to west of Damascus. Thus, with the high ground on one route already lost to them, the Syrians consider the Bekaa Valley critical to preventing their defenses from being outflanked.

I don't know if this analysis has any truth to it. Does Syria have a serious interest in ensuring a compliant or at least friendly Lebanon? And as a corallary, would a solution in the Golan Heights increase Syria's willingness to depart from Lebanon?

At 6/01/2004 09:52:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6/01/2004 09:57:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

Here is the link for Michael Young's piece.


At 6/02/2004 06:07:00 AM, Blogger AbuUthman said...


There has been a country called Syria for centuries, before the Ottoman Rule, the Ummayad Rule was from Syria, Damascus. To the Arabs it is known as Ash-Sham or Ardul Sham.

Lebanon was just another example of the British and the French leaving behind them badly carved out countries in the Middle East that have caused so many problems during the 20th century.

The US fails to realise the problems it can cause with its continous interference. Syria had a lot more of a presence in Lebanon after the civil war ended yet they pulled them back mainly into the Bekaa valley. Since the end of the war I have been to Lebanon 3 times, and the opinion of the people is not against Syria and its presence in Lebanon, the majority of the people would prefer the Syrian workers that cross the border everyday and take the wealth back with them to Syria not to enter for the jobless amongst the Lebanese are much. Yet the Arab nationalists and the supporters of Hizbullah which are not a small number would not want to see Syria leave to soon, because it will create a fear of been vulnerable and at the mercy of Israel.

And what right has the US to speak against occupation?

At 12/22/2004 07:23:00 PM, Blogger Louis-Noel Harfouche said...

Abu Uthman (or whaterver her name is) is quite adept, it seems, at resemanticizing geographical nomenclatures and assigning political significance to them. Correction, Abu! There was never a legitimate political entity called syria, or Sham, or Ardul Sham (as you call it) or even Bilad al-Sham (which I think is the closest to the "arabic" semiology for the area.) There was NEVER a well delineated, coherent, political entity called Syria, or Bilad al-Sham for that matter, before Lebanese Christians invented the appelation (or rather borrowed it form European geographers, eg: Elisée Reclus and others)... Rather, there has always been an abstract ambiguous indistinct reference to a "geographical" area (very much akin to modern references to "the Alps", "the Balkans", "the Urals", "the Mediterranean", etc... none of which constitute a coherent political or even a cultural or linguistic entity, let alone a national one.) What's more, the appelation "Syria" is a Greek one (YES, deal with it, Abu), the farthest one can come to anything resembling Araby, and an eponym at that, referring to the speakers of Syrian (or Syriac, or Assyrian... a European habit of referring to people according to the languages they spoke.) And so, Syria, to your chagrin, Abu, refers to the speakers of Syriac; absolutely nothing to do with your nomads of Araby. To add insult to injury, the etymology of Syria is an upstart compared to that of Lebanon... Check out the works of Ernest Renan and Henri Lammens on Syria and Lebanon and the "ancieneté" de leurs noms. Lammens has demnonstrated that that textural references to a "Syria" antedated thoser referring to Lebanon by about 2000 (count them, Abu, two thousand, three zeros) years. Eat your heart out!!!

At 8/17/2007 01:26:00 AM, Blogger Maldives Islands said...

Sources: Web Directory


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home