Syria's slipping grip on Lebanon

LEBANON, yet again, totters on the edge of chaos. The country's Christians and Muslims have staked out mutually exclusive positions concerning the election of a new president. They can't agree on where parliament should meet to vote, much less on a candidate. The Syrians, meanwhile, despite a huge military presence in Lebanon and years of political maneuvering there, find themselves powerless to impose a government on the feuding factions. Their presidential candidate of choice, Suleiman Franjieh, was scorned by the Maronite Christians. A second candidate, Mikhail Daher, like Mr. Franjieh a Christian, was likewise rejected as too close to the Syrians. Since 1943, Lebanon has had a Christian president, with other high offices divided among Muslims and Christians.

Syria's troubles are magnified by the intrigues of Iraq, freed from the Gulf war and eager to settle old scores with its chief Arab antagonist.

The Iraqis, reportedly, are funneling arms and money to Lebanese Muslim factions opposed to Syrian leader Hafez Assad - making it doubly difficult for Syria to function as kingmaker.

Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, whose term expired last Thursday, has tried to fill the political gap by appointing a successor regime headed by a Christian general, Michel Aoun. That would-be government, blasted by the Syrians as illegitimate, is opposed by another interim government led by Muslim acting Prime Minister Selim Hoss.

At the street level, Lebanese government manages to sputter along. Civil servants still get salaries, though they have competing bosses. Electricity and water are supplied. The judicial system, however, is paralyzed, and taxes go largely uncollected.

Any semblance of order in Lebanon is tenuous. Tensions among the country's dozen or more religious sects constantly simmer. Always close at hand are outsiders ready to take a hand in reshaping Lebanese society. The Syrians have been the most prominent of these, but Iranians, Israelis, and now the Iraqis do their share to feed and care for those factions and militias that serve their ends. The prominence of these militias tends to work against the gentler arts of political compromise.

The talk now is of Lebanon's imminent partition - the formal recognition of a condition that has existed de facto since the late '70s. But few Lebanese want that. The country's fragile economy could disintegrate completely under formal partition.

The crisis at hand can best be resolved by continued efforts to elect a president through constitutional means. The country has talented people who could find the elusive middle ground of Lebanese politics, if given a chance by competing warlords and power brokers like the Syrians.

Beyond that, the country has to work toward redrawing its social contract, taking into account the population changes since the present division of political power was devised in the 1940s. This would mean a loosened hold on power by some, particularly the now minority Christians.

Confrontation and violence, past and present, would obscure these reasonable steps. But clear-thinking men and women must still search for them.

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