TCS Daily

Lebanon's Withdrawal Symptoms

By Michael Young - April 28, 2005 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- It was enlightening, though not surprising, that in the days leading up to the Syrian Army's pullout from Lebanon, which was completed on Tuesday, a peculiar activity took place. Syrian soldiers removed statues and other effigies of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad and his son Bassel, who was killed in a car crash, fearing the Lebanese would vandalize them and show what a sham the long-vaunted "brotherly relations" between Lebanon and Syria really were.

The Syrian withdrawal, which was imposed by a combination of international pressure and domestic Lebanese protests, ends a 29-year-old military presence. During that time, particularly after the war ended in 1990, Syria ran Lebanon like a protectorate, and was the final decision-maker on everything of consequence in the country, including who would be president, prime minister and Parliament speaker, who would be appointed where in the public administration, even who could be invited to political talk shows -- and much else both high and low.

At the same time, Syria extorted vast sums of money from the Lebanese economy, usually in collaboration with local politicians. According to a report written by a Lebanese businessman for a presentation before the French Senate in 2003, Syria may have extracted through illicit activities alone as much as $41 million from Lebanon between 1991 and 2001. While the figures cannot be confirmed, they square with many other estimates circulating in recent years.

What's next for Lebanon? Lebanon's Parliament will soon debate a law governing elections scheduled for the end of May, whose outcome will better define the balance of power in the country. Syria's allies are hoping the vote will be delayed, so they can avoid a likely defeat at the hands of a mobilized opposition. However, the mood in the country, as well as United Nations and Bush administration pressure, make postponement improbable. A major question now is what type of electoral districts will be agreed upon; that will decide which pro-Syrian forces can salvage a place in Parliament, and which cannot.

In this context, the fate of Hezbollah is of considerable significance. Resolution 1559, the UN decision imposing a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, also calls for the disarmament of militias, primarily Hezbollah. Most Lebanese religious groups, including more recently a new "third-force" of independent Shiite political and religious figures, are worried about Hezbollah's retaining its weapons; they fear that Lebanon will pay a high price for Israeli retaliation if Hezbollah fires at Israeli troops, and cannot accept that the party, through its arms, retains a threatening edge in domestic political bargaining.

For the moment Hezbollah's leadership refuses to disarm, and will probably in the coming months try to find ways of retaining its weapons, even if it keeps its options open by pursuing a dialogue with other political actors. However, international pressure will mount if the party dallies, as will domestic displeasure, forcing Hezbollah to make a tough choice: does it become a purely parochial political force and, therefore, lose its ideological momentum and justification? Or does it maintain a regional militant (and military) role, setting the Lebanese government against the UN and eroding its support inside Lebanon?

The genius of the Lebanese system is that, amid myriad contradictions, compromise tends to prevail. Ultimately, Hezbollah may have no choice but to toe the line of the rest of society. However, in parallel something will have to be done to rearrange the social contract in Lebanon, particularly with respect to the Shiite community, which is believed to be the largest single Lebanese sect. According to the 1980 agreement that put an end to the civil war, Christians and Muslims are represented evenly in Parliament, though Muslims are a demographic majority.

This is the essence of what is known as the consociational system, which was designed to reassure minorities, but also make the religious community the reference point in domestic relations. While critics say the system is archaic and downplays the individual, it also has made Lebanon democratic, since no one community, let alone political leader, can hope to overwhelm the others. Instead, progress comes through negotiations between communal representatives.

In the future, however, the Lebanese may have to revise their system to take demographic shifts into consideration. The trick will be to protect the sectarianism reassuring Christians, but also the small Druze community, while also offering more power to larger communities. This must be at the heart of any evolving Lebanese order, though there is a danger it will provoke sectarian tension. However, the Lebanese are universally wary of war, and their main test will be to prove to each other that after three decades of suffocating Syrian hegemony, they can independently manage their differences peacefully.

In the shorter term, most Lebanese will be closely watching the rise to power of Saadeddine Hariri, the thirty-something son of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, whose assassination on Feb. 14 sparked anti-Syrian protests. In recent weeks, the Saudis effectively crowned the inexperienced Saadeddine their man in Lebanon (he headed the Hariri business operations in the kingdom), and set up meetings between him and President Bush and French President Chirac. He will certainly be elected to the next Parliament, and is surely a future prime minister.

But he is also something else: He is a Saudi message to the Syrian regime that the idea of a "strong Sunni" in Lebanon has been revived, despite Hariri's assassination. This is partly directed against the minority Alawite regime in Syria, which has sidelined Syria's Sunnis for some four decades. The Sunnis will be closely watching what happens in Lebanon, even as the Lebanese finally resume defining their own destiny. They are now free to make their own mistakes.


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.


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