Lebanon's Dream Isn't Syria

Most Lebanese have avoided complaining about Syria's long and intrusive meddling in their country's affairs, not because they had nothing to complain about but because of the certainty that protest would invite harsh reprisal. That is changing.

Some courageous Lebanese, mainly Christian but including Druze and moderate Muslims, have become increasingly open in their opposition to Syrian domination. President Emile Lahoud, as always ready to do Syria's bidding, responded by jailing hundreds of activists, charging some with promoting disunity and harming relations with a friendly country. The crackdown has only brought increasing international attention to the Beirut government's lack of independence and prompted expressions of concern from, among others, Pope John Paul II.

This scrutiny may help protect the dissidents for now, but it's unlikely to ease Syria's grip on the country. For one thing, the elite of Syria's military and ruling Baath Party profit handsomely from illicit cross-border trade with Lebanon. Strategically, Damascus wants to maintain its 25,000 troops in Lebanon and its option of supporting Hezbollah militants to keep open a second front in its confrontation with Israel.

Syria's interests don't concern those Lebanese who still cling to the dream of achieving a pluralistic, peaceful and--to the extent that such a thing is possible in the Arab world--more democratic society.

Lebanon's long and brutal civil war destroyed what once was among the Middle East's most thriving economies, and Syria's subsequent domination has brought few benefits. High unemployment and dismal prospects encourage young Lebanese to emigrate, while huge international indebtedness and the uncertain political situation scare off sorely needed foreign investors.

The government has the power to punish those who want to see Lebanon for the Lebanese. But the discontent behind the anti-Syria protests seems destined to grow.

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