A power-broker-free Lebanon

Israel's premier vows to pull out troops in July. Some Lebanese think Syria should leave as well.

Gebran Tueni, publisher of the independent An-Nahar newspaper, sits behind a vast desk covered with green felt that looks like it would be a good place for a game of pool. From here, he took a risky shot last week.

If Israel is going to withdraw its troops from Lebanon in July, Mr. Tueni wrote in an editorial, perhaps Syria should do the same.

The column, penned as an open letter to Bashar al-Assad, son and heir apparent to ailing Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, called on Damascus to prepare to end its 35,000-strong troop presence here and its dominance of Lebanese affairs in the aftermath of this country's brutal 15-year civil war.

"The guy must know what the majority of Lebanese think about Syria," Tueni says of the younger Assad. "Somebody has to do the dirty work and tell the things that must be told."

In part a protest against Sunday's summit in Geneva between President Clinton and Mr. Assad - one of many meetings involving Lebanon's fate to which it was not invited - Tueni's article seems to have peeled back the lid from what most here have considered a closed container: criticism of Syria's de facto control of Lebanon since the end of the war in 1990.

And, coming at a time of mounting uncertainty about what will happen here if Prime Minister Ehud Barak keeps his promise to withdraw troops from Israel's self-declared "security zone" in south Lebanon by July - with or without a peace deal with Syria - the column has whipped up a tempest on the Beirut talk circuit.

Roughly a decade since the end of one of the 20th century's worst internecine conflicts, Lebanon feels itself on the eve of an unpredictable new chapter. With an end in sight to fighting in the south of the country between the Israeli army and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, or Party of God, as well as other guerrilla groups, some see peace and stability finally within reach. Others, however, are looking east, and questioning Lebanon's place if Syria continues to run the show.

"We want to rebuild a real country, not a mock country. No one should speak for Lebanon," Tueni says at the headquarters of the paper founded by his grandfather. "We are trying to raise the limit of what you can say in Lebanon.... We were censored in the past." Editors at An-Nahar and other prominent Lebanese newspapers were frequently the target of kidnappings and assassinations over the years of strife in Lebanon. These days, Beirut is notably quieter - even flourishing in some spots - a fact many here attribute to Syria's role in restoring order after the war.

But other critics, who seem to be growing more vocal by the day, say stability is worthless without autonomy. "There is no such thing as real political life here. It's a one-sided affair," says Dory Chamoun, president of the National Liberal Party, which has been marginalized under Syria's sway. "There's an age-old dream of Syria to annex us and make us part of 'Greater Syria,' and anyone who says otherwise is not speaking truthfully," says Mr. Chamoun, referring to the pre-World War II days when Syria and Lebanon were part of one territory under the French Mandate, and before that the Ottoman Empire.

Chamoun faults all the parties in the peace process for keeping Lebanon from the negotiating table. Israel, in his view, wants to remain the economic port of call in the Middle East. "Syria is jockeying itself into a position to say, 'We want peace, but we won't get out of Lebanon,' and the US doesn't care," he says. "As far as we're concerned, peace seems as dangerous as war."

Many groups stitched into Lebanon's complex ethnic and religious fabric are worried about what comes next, though others come to very different conclusions. Syria's absence, some feel, would leave behind a perilous power vacuum. "I think it's very necessary for the Syrians to be here for the time being, because we still need an outside force to keep us together," says Nabil Atiyah, a real estate developer. He's reading An-Nahar in downtown Beirut's new Starbucks, its green sign lit up like a beacon of recovery.

"Eventually, I hope they will leave," he adds. "They interfere in everything, small and big, and we don't like that."

The day after Tueni's article appeared, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud rebuked any move to open the discussion now, saying that was in Israel's interest, not Lebanon's. Pro-Syrian papers chimed in with a similar spin. American University of Beirut political scientist Adnan Iskandar says the timing of the article fed the local conspiracy-theory mill, since it occurred alongside a movement in Congress to call for implementation of the 1989 Taif agreement.

That accord stipulates a redeployment of Syrian forces in western Lebanon as a prelude to their retreat from the whole country. Prof. Iskandar says Lebanon is far from ready to fly solo. "I would be worried if the Syrians leave tomorrow," he says. "The situation is still very volatile.

"If the Israelis withdraw and Hizbollah continues fighting, what will happen?" he asks.

"Who can rein in Hizbollah? Who can rein in the Palestinians? The [Palestinian refugee] camps have not been solved, many groups are still armed, and Syria will still be needed to avoid any troubles."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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