Why Lebanon Follows the Road to Damascus

Carved from Syria after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon lives under Syria's thumb today to help keep the peace

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FIRST-TIME arrivals at Beirut's airport would be forgiven for thinking they had landed in Damascus, Syria.

The dominant images in the arrivals hall are large, full-color posters of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his sons.

The posters are repeated throughout greater Beirut, particularly at the five main checkpoints into the city that are manned by Syrian soldiers.

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These symbols are a reminder of the degree to which Syria has tightened its largely paternal grip on its smaller neighbor, which was excised from Syrian territory after World War I.

Since 1976, the Syrian Army has repeatedly intervened in Lebanon to restore peace between its various warring factions. In 1990, a large contingent of Syrian troops entered Lebanon to help end a civil war. And today, about 40,000 Syrian troops are still stationed in Lebanon.

The presence of hundreds - perhaps thousands - of Syrian intelligence operatives is less visible, but no less pervasive, throughout Lebanon.

When trouble breaks out - as it did on July 19 with a nationwide workers' strike - the local contingent of Syrian troops is always on hand to direct the restructured Lebanese Army.

''The Syrian presence is a very natural fact for the Lebanese...,'' says Hassan Sabra, publisher of the independent weekly news magazine As-Shiraa.

''It does not indicate a new political bias. The Lebanese have a tendency to look outside for help. They have a tendency of adopting foreign ideologies as their own symbols.''

Syrian withdrawal?

Although many Lebanese cling to a naive notion that a Middle East peace settlement - and particularly an accord between Israel and Syria - will remove the need for Syria's pervasive presence in Lebanon, the symbols also remind them that Syria intends to stay in Lebanon.

The creeping reality of a long-term Syrian presence is bolstered by recent maneuvers around the Israel-Syria peace talks. Both Israel and United States brokers have softened their insistence on a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and tacitly acknowledge that Syria has a crucial role to play in securing the peace in the region after an accord.

The shift in the US position came with the onset of talks between Syria and Israel and about the time that Rafik al-Hariri was appointed prime minister in 1992. Mr. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, was appointed by Elias Hrawi, a Maronite Christian, after extensive consultations with top Syrian officials.

Officially, the US supports the ''sovereignty and independence'' of Lebanon, but it now acknowledges a positive Syrian role in Lebanon.

One of the first to acknowledge an ongoing role for Syrians in Lebanon is Prime Minister Hariri - a protege of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

Ironically, Hariri is regarded as the one man in Lebanon who could stand up to the Syrians and ensure that their role remains a benevolent one.

In an interview with the Monitor in his downtown Beirut palace, Hariri was embarrassed when asked about the posters of Assad, but he gave a spirited defense of the Syrian presence.

''Syria does not wield negative influence at all on the economic side,'' he insisted, pointing out that Syrian workers were performing a vital role in the reconstruction of Beirut.

On the security side, he said, it would be the revitalized Lebanese Army that would be sent to the south of the country to ensure peace there once Israeli forces withdraw from a 40-mile-long security zone along the border between Israel and Lebanon.

Israel maintains a presence in Lebanon along its southern border with Israel. It invaded Lebanon in 1978 to prevent Palestinians from launching further attacks.

''But we will need the Syrians to ensure security in the rest of the country'' because the Army isn't large enough to keep the peace in the whole of Lebanon, Hariri said.

The Lebanese population is largely ambivalent about the Syrian presence. Most Muslims stress the positive side of their presence, while Maronite Christians, who have been at the receiving end of Syrian surveillance, are less enthusiastic about voicing their criticism openly.

Most Christians boycotted the 1992 Lebanese elections because they don't feel the parliament has sufficient power to represent their interests and the major decisions are in the hands of a Muslim-dominated council of ministers.

But there are indications that more will participate in the next elections because Hariri has managed to win significant support among the Christian elite.

Many Lebanese acknowledge that Syrian troops have on several occasions restored the peace and that their continued presence helps to maintain a precarious balance among Lebanon's factionalized sects.

''Lebanon has proved that it cannot govern itself effectively, so you need some kind of transition,'' says Adnan Iskandar, professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut. ''The role of Syria will still be needed to see through the transition after the peace,'' Professor Iskandar says.

.''Syria has been appointed by the international community - the US and Europe - to oversee the emergence of Lebanon from civil war into a phase of peace and reconstructing the Lebanese state.''

About 3 million Lebanese in the region's most densely populated country are further stretched by the presence of about 1 million Syrians who perform mainly menial tasks, which the Lebanese - a nation of irrepressible entrepreneurs - are reluctant to take on.

Less discernible - but with a more direct impact on the Lebanese economy - is the Syrian foothold in the ambitious reconstruction of Beirut, which benefits Syrians in Damascus.

''There is hardly a project in Lebanon where there is not some hidden Syrian partner,'' says a prominent Beirut academic who asked not to be named.

''They have added to the cost of doing anything in Lebanon,'' he says. ''But they now have a vested interest in maintaining the economic activity in Lebanon, because if spending is reduced it would mean Syrians would be denied their benefits.''

Syrians' stake

But the Syrians' economic stake in Lebanon has a more forward-looking component.

''Lebanon could play a similar role in relation to Syria as Hong Kong is playing in relation to mainland China,'' says Nasser Saidi, vice governor of Lebanon's central bank.

''Syria is moving away from a centralized command economy, and the system is opening up,'' Mr. Saidi says. ''Lebanon can play an important role in the transition of the Syrian economy....''

In the realm of politics, Syria's hand over Lebanon is even more decisive.

''No one becomes prime minister here without the agreement of Syria,'' says Iskandar. And if there is a crisis, officials make the four-hour journey to Damascus to resolve the problem.

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