Country is it Anyway?
The World Today. Volume 61 Number 4 April 2005
Two decades ago Beirut featured on
every news bulletin. The plight of hostages in particular absorbed western
statesmen. Then a huge suicide bomb changed the policy of a superpower. Now
another bomb has put the country centre stage again, focusing attention on
problems abandoned in the early eighties.
In the aftermath of the
assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, Lebanon is again at the
centre of attention. The international community is backing the UN Security
Council resolution calling for Syria to withdraw from the country it has
controlled for over twenty years. This has also brought France and the
United States together despite all their differences over Iraq.
The last time this coalition
happened over Lebanon was in 1983 when both countries were part of a
multinational force there following the Israeli invasion. The object then,
as now, was to get Syria out and restore Lebanese sovereignty. Why should it
work now if it has not worked before? The long history of western
intervention in Lebanon suggests that it can create more problems than it
The 1983 multinational force aimed
to remove the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and strengthen the
Lebanese army and state. It would then have signed a separate peace treaty
with Israel, known as the May 17 agreement.
It would have been the second Arab
country to do so after Egypt. There was a hitch when the then Lebanese
President Amine Gemayel refused to sign after President Hafez al-Asad of
Syria indicated that he and his allies in the country would oppose it.
This whole agenda collapsed after a
suicide bomber drove a truck into the US marine barracks near Beirut airport
killing 220 soldiers leading to the ‘redeployment’ of the US forces,
followed by French troops who were hit at the same time.
The lesson from that episode was
that Lebanon could not be separated from Syria; it was too hot to handle.
The US had overplayed its hand and burnt its fingers. For Lebanon, this also
meant the failure and loss of western protection, more or less a constant
feature since independence.
The vacuum created by the collapse
of this agenda could then only be filled by Syria, first through the 1989
Taif agreement that ended the Lebanese war and gave it ‘special relations’
with Lebanon. This was brokered by Rafic Hariri, a courtier of King Fahd of
Saudi Arabia and close friend of the then Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac.
Syria was ultimately given a free
hand in 1990 as recompense for joining the Gulf war coalition to oust Saddam
Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait. President Hafez al Asad was the main,
if not only, net beneficiary from the Gulf War.
From then on, Lebanon was under
Syrian domination and lost its strategic relevance – the Lebanese and Syrian
tracks were inseparable. This was all with the blessing of the US President
George Bush senior’s administration, and in line with the dictum of the
former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger: ‘Give Lebanon to Syria and there
will be peace in the Middle East’.
Many of the problems that the US
abandoned in Lebanon in 1983, came back to haunt it twenty years later.
Lebanon was a microcosm of all the conflicts in the area. It was the testing
and gestation ground. The continuing occupation of south Lebanon by Israel
radicalised the Shi’a population and produced Hizbollah, or the Party of
God, the US and Israel are now so keen to get rid of. Hizbollah’s successful
operations in south Lebanon eventually drove Israel to withdraw and end its
22 year occupation in May 2000, thus also making it the only party to ever
defeat the Arabs’ powerful enemy. This probably inspired the uprising or
Intifada of that year in Palestine which sunk the peace process.
The weakening of the PLO ultimately
led to the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, again two radical Islamic
parties that had stepped in to fill the vacuum. They are now seen as the
main hurdle in the peace process.
The marine barracks attack, the
first suicide operation in modern times, was successful in changing the
policy of the most powerful country in the world and the course of history.
It was a precursor to the attacks on the twin towers in New York in
September 2001 which also had a radical effect on US policy.
After the US backed out in 1983,
Lebanon became the battleground between Iran and the US through the hostage
crisis where the US was forced to make deals later known as the Iran-Contra
Syria and the PLO were also battling
it out in Lebanon through the war of the camps which ended with Syria
controlling ten radical groups opposed to the Oslo peace process and
conducting a continuous battle within the refugee camps.
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiis
also emerged then in Lebanon with both Saudi Arabia and Iran holding some
strings. Other issues such as the debate between secularism and
fundamentalism, nationalism and pan Arabism and pan Islamism were being
fought out on the streets of Beirut. The outcomes of these battles were to
influence the future of the region as a whole.
Most of the twenty-year-old
unresolved issues came back to haunt US policy makers. UN Security Council
resolution 1559, which the US is adamant in applying now, includes this
unfinished business: decommissioning Hizbollah, disarming the Palestinian
camps and ensuring the withdrawal of
Syrian troops and influence.
The departure of the multinational
forces in 1983 also marked the collapse of a whole approach to Lebanese
security. The three dimensions of this doctrine were a balance between
western protection and a pact with the dominant regional power, balanced by
other Arab states. This formula allowed the country to remain on the
sidelines of the main conflicts of the region. Beirut became its playground
as well as its trade and financial centre.
Western protection was established
soon after independence and withdrawn with the multinational forces in 1983.
It was only re-established last September with US-French collaboration over
Security Council resolution 1559. This is supported by the main Arab
regional powers like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, the balancing act
In the meantime, Hariri, who
shuttled between Damascus, Paris and Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, was the man
behind the scenes fire-fighting a lot of these problems and working on a
regional agenda. By providing a link between Syria and Saudi Arabia, he
brokered the Taif agreement. At the same time, he was planning the
restoration of Beirut as a cosmopolitan regional centre.
He had another team working on
reforming the Syrian economy and preparing for liberalisation in view of the
imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. A further group was pushing liberal
Islamic ideas opposed to fundamentalism at a time when the Jihadis were
being promoted in Afghanistan, and Iran was exporting its revolution to
He later became prime minister of
Lebanon and represented a regional, mainly Saudi, balancing force to Syrian
domination. His collaboration with the Syrian regime was punctuated by
The Paris conference of November
2002, which he convened, saw the restoration of the traditional Lebanese
security arrangements on a benign economic front. It brought together, under
the patronage of Chirac, now President of France, international and regional
powers that put up a large subsidy to help Lebanon pull out of an economic
crisis that could have had security implications.
After the more recent confrontation
with Syria in the middle of last year over the extension of the mandate of
President Emile Lahoud, Hariri was believed to have been instrumental,
through his friendship with Chirac, in instigating resolution 1559.
The assassination of Hariri ignited
a wave of protest in Lebanon against Syria and its dominating security
services. This brought down the government of Prime Minister Omar Karami who
resigned in response to both the Ukraine style popular protest movement and
the opposition’s harsh criticism.
We are back at square one. France,
the US, together with Saudi Arabia and other regional powers, under the
authority of the Security Council resolution, are exerting pressure on Syria
to leave Lebanon and restore democracy.
President Bashar al-Asad of Syria
has spent the past two years trying to mend fences with Washington. After
the fall of Baghdad, he found himself cornered on all sides by pro-US
neighbours: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. With the assassination of
Hariri, he also lost his closest allies, France and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon,
his only card left, is being snatched away too.
Asad has offered Washington
concessions on all the issues of common interest. There has been
co-operation over Iraq, where he can better control the border and provide
intelligence using Syria’s extensive contacts with the Iraqi opposition that
was based in Damascus before the war.
He is also offering collaboration in
the ‘war’ on terror where he has proved useful in the past few years. Then
there is the willingness for an unconditional resumption of peace talks with
Israel, in contradiction to his father’s line.
Asad has visited Turkey and signed a
treaty resolving the conflict over the border province of Antioch.
Subsequently Ankara mediated for him both with Israel and the US. He has
shown willingness, if not eagerness and enthusiasm, for economic and
political reform, by among other things, releasing political prisoners and
allowing private media and banks, as well as abolishing Ba’ath party
military education in schools.
REGIME CHANGE AGAIN
But it was becoming more and more
obvious that the hardliners in Washington were not interested in making a
deal with Syria to allow the regime to survive. This is in the belief that,
like the former eastern European Soviet satellites, the Syrian regime is
unreformable. Asad was under siege on all fronts, the message was the same
from both the Arabs and the west. Bush’s statements amounted to a demand for
a humiliating unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon that could potentially
endanger Asad’s domestic situation.
There was also no guarantee that
even that was going to be enough; it seemed that the Bush administration was
going for the kill and would be satisfied with nothing less than the demise
of the Ba’ath party and regime in Damascus. Asad was in the same position as
Sadam Hussein was prior to the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
PRESSING THE RIGHT BUTTONS
With this in mind Asad made a speech
on March 5 indicating Syria’s eagerness to resume talks with the US and make
a deal. At the same time, he defiantly sent a message both to his allies in
Lebanon and to Washington, reminding them of what he described as a
forthcoming ‘May 17’ situation that needs to be confronted. This was a
reference to the unsuccessful 1983 attempt to create a separate peace deal
between Lebanon and Israel that provoked a u-turn in US policy towards
He also referred to the dangers of
separating the Lebanese and Syrian tracks of peace negotiations and of the
final settlement of the issue of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. All of
this is powerful rhetoric designed to raise concerns in Lebanon. Hizbollah
was warned that its neck was also on the line as resolution 1559 demanded
the group’s disarmament and dissolution.
All the right buttons were pressed,
triggering a split in the Lebanese opposition and a huge demonstration
against foreign intervention by Hizbollah and other forces loyal to Syria.
Since Asad’s speech, armed groups have been on the streets of Beirut in
scenes reminiscent of the civil war days. Asad was showing that he can
create problems only he can solve and that his control over Lebanon was as
useful as the offers he was making regionally.
The west again faces a dilemma.
Intervention in Lebanon has obvious dangers. Abandoning it a second time is
no less problematic and may backfire later. Does it do a deal with Syria
that involves leaving it in control of Lebanon in return for concessions on
all the other fronts? Or should it push its declared policy to the logical
conclusion with all the risks involved? The events of the two decades ago
vividly illustrate the potential pain and pitfalls. The battle for Beirut
Lebanon is again on the fault lines
of a new, emerging world order; the decisions over it will determine the
direction of US policy in the region. Prince Klemens von Metternich, much
compared to Kissinger, was a powerful Austrian statesman who helped shape
modern Europe and restored his country as a leading nineteenth century
Before sending his ambassador to
Constantinople at the height of the debacles of the Eastern Question, a
period of intense European intervention in the Ottoman Empire, he told him
to: ‘Tell the Sultan, if there is war in Lebanon there will be war in the
Levant; and tell the Sultan if there is peace in Lebanon there will be peace
in the Levant’. This advice should be foremost in the minds of US policy