The Quest for Stability in the Middle East: Lebanon, Syria and U.S. Relations

Posted in Other | 21-Sep-04 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud
President Lahoud of Lebanon has been reelected for three more years. This decision was not made by the Lebanese people, as would have been normal, but from Syria.

This is not the first time that the Syrian Baath regime has violated the Lebanese constitution. Since 1989, Damascus has appointed the president of Lebanon. Before this, Lebanon was one of the very few democracies in the Middle East with a written constitution (since 1926). Today, being occupied by the Syrian regime, Lebanon has lost the major features of its democracy: Liberty and human rights. In 1989, the Syrian regime named Elias Hrawi as President of Lebanon and pressured Lebanese members of parliament to also declare him president. Almost all Lebanese newspapers reported that the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) announced that the Lebanese parliament had ‘elected’ Elias Hrawi as President 15 minutes before it actually occurred. Six years later, President Hrawi asked the Syrians to renew his term for an additional three years. Since the Syrian regime was pleased with Hrawi’s cooperation, the head of Syrian Intelligence in Lebanon, General Ghazi Kanaan, gave his approval. The Lebanese parliament took care of the formalities in one session; they amended the constitution and reinstated Hrawi as President. Three years later, Elias Hrawi went to Damascus to ask for a renewal of his term, but President Assad did not grant this due to deep discontent amongst the Lebanese. Syria decided to select a Lebanese military man, namely Emile Lahoud, as the future President of Lebanon. It is not news anymore that Syria appoints the president of Lebanon. It is certainly a very peculiar situation, though, for a country where politicians say they enjoy a democratic regime.

The Lebanese constitution may not have been amended in 1989 or now, if the Lebanese diaspora had the chance to vote. However, this is not the case. Many Lebanese citizens reside abroad, and they are only allowed to vote in municipal and parliamentary elections if they reside in Lebanon. There are more Lebanese who reside abroad than live in Lebanon. For example, the Lebanese population living in Lebanon is about 3 million, whereas the number of Lebanese living in Brazil is approximately 8 million.

Reagan's administration abandoned Lebanon in the 1980s, but President Bush has a different agenda. He seems to be aware of the fact that Lebanon, instead of Iraq, can be the starting point to spread stability in the region. Sept. 11th may very well be the result of wrong US policies in Lebanon. Terrorists weighed the consistency of American policy against them and found the weak link. All they have to do is send some US troops home in body bags and America will change its policy and retreat. The fundamentalist or liberation movements, as they are called in the region - followed this strategy in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and now in Iraq.

Beirut - capital of a Syrian colony ?
Beirut - capital of a Syrian colony ?
Lebanon's problems arise from the fact that over the last 20 years, its government - or better said certain elements within the government - have established political and military alliances with either Syria or Israel, leading to military confrontations between these opposing forces. Lebanon's civil war was largely a war fought by regional powers, sometimes directly and sometimes through their proxies on Lebanese soil: Christians vs. Palestinians at the beginning, then Christians vs. Muslims, Muslims vs. Muslims, Christians vs. Christians and Lebanese vs. Syrians. This continued for years to come and resulted not only in the destruction of the land and its infrastructure, but it also created a Lebanon with a weak and tribal political class, a non-existent civil society and many warlords affiliated to different foreign powers.

As a result, one aspect of the war became very clear: Lebanon cannot be a Syrian ally without causing alarm in Israel, and it cannot be an Israeli ally without causing alarm in Damascus. The only solution to achieve stability in Lebanon and security for its neighbors is to have an uncommitted Lebanon. In order for Lebanon’s neutrality to succeed, it must be recognized within the Middle East region and internationally. The first step would be a peace treaty between Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Also, each of these three countries may issue unilateral declarations regarding their obligations and commitments toward their neighbors' security. One issue that is important to both Syria and Israel is the future of the Golan Heights. However, the solution for Lebanon must go forward with or without a settlement for the Golan. The most convenient settlement at present might be to create a demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights, thus eliminating the fear of it being used as a military advantage by one side against the other.

If President Lahoud's term renewal provides Syria with a sense of security by having Lebanon as an ally, it nevertheless places Syria under great pressure with regard to UN Resolution 1559. The regional developments since 9/11, the Iraqi invasion, the signing into law of the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA) and the United Nations Security Council Resolution – all these events have empowered the US to send serious warnings to Syria. It should be taken into consideration that the US is no longer a country that is far away; its troops are practically on the Iraqi-Syrian border. This means that Syria, until further notice, is on the frontline with the United States.

Syrian policy has so far been reduced to a wait-and-see approach that seeks to weather the storm by making small goodwill gestures while hoping for better times. As long as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues, Syria refuses to relinquish what it sees as its trump cards: Support for Hezbollah and the radical Palestinian groups. Syria will not fundamentally alter its policies unless it recovers the Golan, and the US will not engage in friendly relations with Syria until Damascus fundamentally alters its policies.

Damascus - safe haven for terrorist leaders ?
Damascus - safe haven for terrorist leaders ?
On the other hand, Syria has neither the interest to challenge the international legitimacy of the United Nations nor the capability to defy a superpower such as the United States from residing at its borders. This is why the foreign ministers of the Arab League decided in Cairo to endorse the UN call for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. This decision comes as a novelty from the Arab states.

Under these conditions, Damascus could only take the path of dialogue. Syria should focus its lobby on re-opening dialogue with the US, France and the United Nations. For this dialogue to succeed, Syria must take some decisive steps and leave behind its usual slogans. American-Syrian relations depend upon how flexible and pragmatic President Assad is, and they also depend upon whether or not the US will restrict its policy to warning messages or put even more pressure on Syria. What Syria can do to reduce US hostility towards it is follow the example of Libya's President Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria’s case, this means a full and immediate withdrawal from Lebanon, establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon, ending its support of Palestinian terrorist groups and working to disarm Hezbollah.

However, warning messages might not be sufficient for affecting the way Damascus deals with foreign policy. Syria, like other Middle Eastern countries, needs more of a hands-on approach policy, i.e. stronger external pressures (e.g., potential military strikes, threats of regime change). Such an approach might be able to convince the existing regime to engage in an accelerated demilitarization and democratization process without having to change the regime and rebuild state institutions from zero. Nevertheless, such an approach does not guarantee success and there is no easy solution to change the governance model in Arab countries.

The fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq, Iran’s steps to address concerns about its nuclear program and Libya’s surprise decision to forsake its WMD efforts and seek normal relations with Washington undeniably have heightened pressure on Syria. Yet, unless the Israeli- Syrian conflict is solved, the progress these developments might represent will still be incomplete. A different approach is possible that would address core American, Syrian and Israeli needs: The U.S needs Syria’s cooperation to stabilize Iraq; Syria wants to recover its territories lost in 1967; and for Israel, it would be a success to normalize its relations with a key Arab country and at the same time would reduce the terrorist threats coming from Syria and Lebanon. Given mutual suspicion, the process would have to begin with small confidence-building steps, like the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

If Syrian troops were driven out of Lebanon and Hezbollah disarmed as a result of US and international intervention - this would limit Syria's ability to apply pressure on the Lebanese people and politicians and would erode its influence, even if the regime in Syria were not changed. Nevertheless, it is likely that Damascus will continue to provide political support to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but it may be less likely to stimulate Hezbollah’s military action in Southern Lebanon. Iran, the major patron of Hezbollah, is also unlikely to abandon the organization but will probably advise caution in order to avoid antagonizing the United States. Iran accommodates some al Qaida's leaders within its territory and will face greater internal pressure to expel them in order to respect American demands. Also, Saudi Arabia may now seriously curtail its support of radical Islamic terrorists.

Hezbollah - an important player in the region financed by Iran.
Hezbollah - an important player in the region financed by Iran.
Hezbollah can be Israel's excuse to target Lebanon as a whole, not only the Shebaa Farms. Sheikh Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said that his party is against the UN resolution because he realizes that if it were followed, Hezbollah would have to give up its weapons, since it is the only remaining armed civil war era militia.

In the light of these events, Hezbollah has to choose its path for the future: Either keep its militia, thus undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty, or take its struggle into the political arena. Hezbollah is respected by Arabs for confronting and defeating Israel. It is the symbol of Arab/Muslim power. Therefore, Hezbollah is more than a terrorist organization. It has a political platform, seats in the Lebanese parliament and most importantly, it has developed many social programs throughout the years. Hezbollah provides poor Lebanese youth - both Muslims and Christians - access to education and employment. This is why they enjoy such popularity among the Lebanese, not to mention the support they receive in Iran and Syria. If Hezbollah were attacked, we would witness a second civil war in Lebanon. There are few Arab states that do not support (more or less) the US in its quest to find al Qaida members. However, the US will not get the same help with Hezbollah.

In order to avoid a long term, bloody battle like the one in Iraq, the United States together with the international community should exert even more diplomatic pressure on Syria to fully withdraw its troops and intelligence apparatus from Lebanon, to sign a peace treaty with Israel or at least to sign an agreement regarding the Golan Heights and encourage Syria to become a partner in the war against terrorism. In Syria’s case, force should be used only as a last resort.