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