Like a large rock thrown into a still pool, the succession of ripples resulting from the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in a massive bomb-explosion on February 11 continue to emerge and spread by the day. What started as a wave of anger tinted with disbelief, astonishment and distress over the killing of Hariri has led to developments that have a potentially great impact on many regional players, including Syria, Lebanon and Hizbullah. The escalating crisis has triggered a sense of foreboding over the country's future, asLebanon's political factions continue to jockey among themselves for position.
The mass street protests against Syria's military presence in Lebanon that followed Hariri's assassination, called the "Cedar Uprising" (‘intifadat al-arz'), brought down the pro-Damascus government of ‘Umar Karami. The prime minister forestalled a debate over a no-confidence motion in parliament by announcing his government's resignation, lest it become "an obstacle to the good of the country." But Lebanese president Emile Lahoud on March 10 reappointed Karami, who had continued to head a caretaker government, as prime minister. Karami immediately called for a government of national unity and began consultations with parliamentary blocs to determine the makeup of his new government. But opposition leaders rejected Karami's reappointment and showed little interest in joining a government of national unity under his premiership.
Karami's reappointment came shortly on the heels of a massive rally on March 8, organized by Hizbullah, which attracted about a million marchers. Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah's secretary-general, called for the rally to express gratitude to Syria for its efforts in Lebanon, especially its support for the resistance, to show solidarity for the preservation of national unity and civil peace, to object to UN Security Council resolution 1559, and to denounce the assassination of Hariri. Hizbullah's massive rally provided a counterweight to weeks of anti-Syrian protests. In a speech he delivered at the rally, Nasrallah called for the formation of a government of national unity, and urged all parties to engage in national dialogue.
Determined not to be outdone, the opposition organised its own rally in downtown Beirut on March 14 to mark the one-month anniversary of the killing of Hariri. As was the case with the rally organised by the Hizbullah a week earlier, significant numbers of protesters were bussed in from across Lebanon in an attempt to regain the initiative after the reinstatement of Karami and losing part of the limelight after the Hizbullah-organised rally.
The upheaval gripping Lebanon in the aftermath of Hariri's assassination, rendering its political stability increasingly fragile, has delighted the Bush administration, which initiated an international campaign to pressurise Damascus on a number of fronts, especially to pull its forces out of Lebanon. In fact, mounting international and regional pressure (even Egypt andSaudi Arabia have pressed Asad on the issue) forced Syrian president Bashshar al-Asad to give in to demands to withdraw Syrian forces from Lebanon. Following a meeting with Asad on March 12, UN special envoy Terje Roed-Larsen disclosed that he had agreed to abide by the terms of resolution 1559, which was passed last September and calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon. Asad's pledge also included a commitment to withdraw intelligence operatives as well.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops is being carried out in two phases. Under the first phase, Syrian troops in the northern and central parts of the country will move eastwards to positions in the Beka'a Valley, with some crossing the border into Syria. According to an agreement between the Syrian and Lebanese presidents on March 7 the redeployment, completed on March 23, is to be followed by complete withdrawal at a later date to be stipulated jointly by both countries' leaders. Continuing ambiguity over the timing of the second phase of withdrawal raised another point of contention between the Syrian and Lebanese governments on one side and the Lebanese opposition, backed by the US, France and most members of the UN Security Council, who want all Syria's troops out of Lebanon before the parliamentary elections in May.
The prospect of a Lebanon without Syrian military presence brought fears of a power vacuum. Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 to put an end to the civil war, which had started in April 1975. Syria's intervention halted the advance of Palestinian and Lebanese leftist forces (composed mainly of Muslims) towards predominantly Christian areas, and brought about a short-lived peace. But the Syrian forces themselves soon became embroiled in the civil war, as the Christian militias turned against them. Under the 1989 Ta'if Accord, which ended the 15-year civil war, Syrian forces were supposed to withdraw eventually. While the Ta'if Accord called for an initial redeployment of Syrian troops to the Beka'a Valley, it left the duration of the Syrian military presence to the Lebanese and Syrian governments. The decision was never made. The Lebanese government saw in the continued presence of Syrian troops a contribution to internal stability and peace, as it would strengthen Lebanon in the face of Israeli aggression and guarantee that the country would not slide back toward civil war. AfterIsrael's retreat from most of southern Lebanon in May 2000, the number of Syrian military troops in Lebanon was cut from some 30,000 to 14,000.
The rival mass demonstrations that blocked the streets of downtown Beirut have drawn attention to the spiralling distrust between the various sectors of Lebanese society. Yet fears thatLebanon might be slipping back into the same abyss of civil strife that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990 seem to be premature, at least so far. Marchers at the various rallies have waved the red and white Lebanese flag rather than factional banners. Hizbullah, which is taking the lead in defending Syria in the face of mounting pressures, enjoys prestige and support in several Lebanese communities, because it is the organisation that spearheaded the resistance that led to Israel's ignominious retreat from Lebanon.
Since the ‘Cedar Uprising' started, a chorus of western officials and media have been hailing it as a demonstration of the sort of people's power that "ended communism" in Eastern Europe. Such analyses are simplistic and provide a very limited view of a much more complex situation. Despite the liberal sloganeering of Lebanese opposition figures, the anti-Syrian drive in Lebanon feeds on the particularistic, confessionally-based, nationalistic sentiments that predominate among the country's Christian minority. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt threw in his lot with the opposition after his increasing differences with Lahoud became irreconcilable. Little wonder, then, that the anti-Syrian protesters belong mostly to these two communities. The relatively little support the opposition derives from the Sunni community stems mainly from supporters of Hariri, who fell out with the Syrians last September in a rancorous dispute over a Syrian-orchestrated constitutional amendment that paved the way for the term of president Lahoud in office.
Despite their stance of self-righteousness, the democratic credentials of opposition leaders have shallow roots. Most of them belong to influential political clans, some of which are feudal families that have played a dominant role in the country's political life since before it attained independence in 1943. Many of them are actually the same old political bosses who have long dominated the sleaze, nepotism and corruption engulfing government institutions, establishing their political careers on networks of clientelism and patronage, and asphyxiating any possibility of a healthy political life. With such leaders in control, little wonder that the opposition has yet to offer a clear programme aimed at purging corruption from government institutions. The newly-found commitment to "freedom" and democracy that some opposition figures have been affirming publicly is suspect, especially in the case of former warlords and militia leaders who were responsible for some of the worst episodes of thuggery and bloodshed in the civil war. Some of them are motivated by lust for power. The fact that they had no qualms about serving in office under Syrian tutelage when they benefited from it prompts one to see their recent conversion into stalwarts of opposition to Syria's presence in the country as an opportunistic move to exploit local, regional and international developments.
Like all national particularistic tendencies, Lebanese national particularism, with its heavy Maronite-Christian component, is conceited, haughty, anti-Arabist and xenophobic. Lebanese Christians have never resigned themselves to life in the post-civil war era, when they have seen their political influence diminishing while that of Muslim elites rises. They long for the ‘Old Lebanon,' dominated by Christian elites and close to the West, and resent a Lebanon that is close to Syria. Lebanese national particularism has always been keen to impute a contrived non-Arab, Phoenician identity on Lebanon, as opposed to the country's real Arab character. In its drive to set Lebanon apart from its Arab-Islamic environment, Lebanese national particularism has demonised neighbouring Arab countries, reserving its most venomous rhetoric for Syrians and Palestinians. These xenophobic inclinations have reared their ugly head recently with statements to the effect that most participants in the Hizbullah-organised demonstrations were Syrians or Palestinians, not Lebanese. Worse still, attacks on Syrian workers inLebanon, many of whom do menial jobs, have been on the rise, with some 20 to 30 workers murdered by unknown assailants in the past few weeks.
Anti-Syrian sentiments among the Lebanese had been hardening even before Hariri's assassination. Ironically, this is partly Syria's own doing. The heavyhandedness of Syrian soldiers and intelligence operatives and Damascus' repeated attempts to pre-manage the results of parliamentary elections have caused a great deal of resentment. The networks of corruption that comprise some of the pillars of the Syrian regime have also wrought havoc on Lebanese-Syrian relations.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops seems only to have whetted Washington's appetite. Resolution 1559 also calls for all militias in Lebanon to be disbanded, which is seen largely as a reference to Hizbullah's military wing, the Islamic Resistance, which has long raised the ire of the Israelis. Bush has made no secret of his interest in disarming Hizbullah. Among various remarks he made as he met in the Oval Office with King Abdallah II of Jordan on March 15, Bush said: "We view Hizbollah as a terrorist organization, and I would hope that Hizbollah would prove that they're not by laying down arms and not threatening peace."
For now Syria appears to have bowed to international pressure by agreeing to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. But there is good reason for scepticism about whether America's pressure on Damascus will ease after Syrian troops have completed their withdrawal from Lebanon, even if Hizbullah disbands its armed wing. If the experience of the Palestine Liberation Organization in dealing with Washington is any indication, then it is safe to expect that once one American demand is fulfilled, other demands with be made. America's open-ended list of demands will continue to hang over the heads of Syrian and Hizbullah leaders like the proverbial sword of Damocles, unless they agree to a disadvantageous peace deal with Israel that forfeits the rights of Palestine's people.