Danger in Pushing Syria Out of Lebanon

Martha Kessler, a senior Middle East analyst with the CIA until her retirement in 2000, is the author of "Syria: A Fragile Mosaic of Power" (Government Printing Office, 1988).

Early in September, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for the departure of all foreign troops from Lebanon. The resolution -- intended to intimidate Syria, which wields de facto control of the Lebanese government -- was sponsored by the United States and France, a surprising couple that cooperated for different but compatible reasons.

France would like to reestablish a sphere of influence in Lebanon, as Paris had in the post-colonial ancien regimes in Lebanon. The United States wants a more pliant Lebanon, a weaker Syria, a breakup of the triangular relationship among Lebanon, Syria and Iran, a safer neighborhood for Israel and greater U.S. influence in the region.

But the resolution failed. Its immediate goal was to stop Syria and its allies in the Lebanese parliament from passing a three-year term extension for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who is firmly aligned with Damascus. Instead, the extension was granted, and the occupation of Syria continues. Now the United States is talking of escalating the stakes by freezing the personal assets of uncooperative Lebanese and Syrian officials until all foreign soldiers are withdrawn. That talk is widely thought to have prompted the resignation last week of billionaire Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who has extensive financial holdings in the U.S.


This muscular diplomatic effort to push Syria out of Lebanon may seem acceptable, even lofty, particularly given the dressing up of the entire project in “greater democracy” attire. The problem is that it could have consequences not unlike those we are experiencing in Iraq. The Arab world is a complicated, ancient culture, and any project to reshape all or parts of it, no matter how ideal the goal, is dangerous and open-ended. What’s more, Syria and Lebanon have an intertwined history, geography and socio-religious fabric; destabilizing one could, in theory, destabilize the other.

For nearly three decades, Syria has been a powerful force in Lebanon. It initially moved troops into the country in the mid-1970s during the civil war, a war fueled by religious sectarianism, radical fundamentalism and agitation by a massive Palestinian refugee population. President Hafez Assad, who had been in office only four years when Lebanon exploded, reluctantly sent troops across the border to try to recalibrate the fragile political balance between Christians and Muslims. It took Syria about 14 years to reestablish a modicum of peace in Lebanon. Today, Hafez Assad is dead, and his son, Bashar, is president, and there are still thousands of Syrian troops in place.

As our war rages on in Iraq, it is important to remember that before Baghdad, it was Beirut that was synonymous with brutality and terror. At different stages in that bloody, 15-year conflict, every major group -- Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Druze and Palestinians -- fielded multiple militias warring in battles where sides shifted regularly and civilians were always targets. The Lebanese population was traumatized by urban warfare. Western educators and clergy were gunned down, two Lebanese presidents were assassinated, U.S. diplomats were executed, and Americans and Europeans were held hostage for years. The truck bomb, which has proved so deadly in Iraq, was born and perfected in Lebanon. Its victims included the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Embassy Annex and the U.S. Marine and French barracks, among others. The tactics developed and perfected in Lebanon are all over the Iraq battlefield today.

Lebanon’s tragedy finally ended in 1989 with the Taif Accord, brokered by Syria and Saudi Arabia. The process of rebuilding and healing is far from finished.

Today, Syria (officially invited into the country as part of the Taif Accord) still has preeminent influence in Lebanon. It is a fair charge that the Syrians have often used their prolonged presence in Lebanon for their own interests -- mainly to fortify themselves in the struggle with Israel (including their effort to retrieve the Golan Heights from Israeli control). Syrian troops today are down from a peak of about 35,000 to half that number.

But no one can be sure how the Shiites, Sunni Muslims, Christians or other Lebanese groups would react if Syria were to leave Lebanon altogether. The factors that destabilized Lebanon in the 1970s are still present and in some respects more combustible:


* The Islamic resurgence is now a worldwide phenomenon. Israeli and Western interventions in Lebanon in the 1970s, Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and U.S. confrontations with Iraq in the 1990s and into the present have stimulated the growth of those components. Lebanon, like Iraq now, once attracted extremists and certainly could again.

* Palestinians in Lebanon, who tipped the religious balance in favor of Muslims during the war, have since the 1970s come to despair of an equitable peace and see no hope of departure from Lebanese refugee camps. Ariel Sharon, who led the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and played a role in massacres at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, is a flint for firing up Palestinian agitation.

* Lebanon’s democratic trappings, which masked “warlordism” before its civil war, have been adjusted, but the shared values and spirit of compromise necessary for building durable democratic institutions are still decidedly absent. Religious, regional and economic fault lines are still there -- their depth impossible to gauge with confidence. The warlords are still there too.

Frankly, Lebanese leaders are more likely to accept a Syrian patron than a return of the French era or the advent of Pax Americana. As is true of virtually every other small state in the area, a strong patron is still required. The people of Lebanon, like many others in the region, view Washington’s motives very cynically. And in the wake of nearly two decades of strife, the stability they have established even with Syrian overseers is preferable to a vague promise of future democracy.

The time may come when Lebanon and others in the Middle East do not see such a stark choice between security and democracy -- or more aptly, between security and political reform and liberal pluralism. The spectacle of Iraq almost certainly gives pause to the notion of overnight transformation delivered by foreigners. Solving the region’s chronic problems -- a disinherited Palestinian people, enmity between Arabs and Israelis, and economic development -- is a safer approach and would move the entire region forward.