Lebanese chafe under Syria's quiet occupation

More than a decade after Syria agreed to withdraw, its armed forces and political influence remain.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In a small boarding house in the west end of town, Waleed, a tourist from Damascus, returns in high spirits after a day of sightseeing. He got into two museums free of charge by just flashing his Syrian license.

"They always let me in because they like Syrians here," he says. "Lebanese and Syrians have a special relationship: We're like brothers."

But privately, many Lebanese speak of Syria's continued military presence here not as brotherly but as a relationship marked by Syrian dominance and geopolitical strategy. And while Damascus expressed hopes for better ties with Washington upon the arrival of the new US ambassador Monday, the occupation of Lebanon remains a sticking point.

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Lebanon's devastating civil war, in which Christians, Muslims, and Druze (a Muslim sect) slaughtered one another relentlessly, ended following the 1989 Taif Agreement, which gave Syria limited rule over the wrecked country. The agreement called for Syria to withdraw its troops and hand power back to a reconstructed Lebanese government after two years.

Yet today, 20,000 Syrian soldiers remain in Lebanon, and Syria's grip on Lebanese politics is stronger than ever. It is an invisible occupation, in which Lebanon's leaders must seek Damascus's approval of their policies, and Syrian plainclothes agents roam back streets, ears cocked for political dissent. Syria also supports the terrorist Islamic group Hezbollah and allows it run of the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Syria says its presence is legitimized by a bilateral arrangement with Beirut and is necessary to keep peace among Lebanon's religious factions. And to some Lebanese, Syria's stabilizing influence is a welcome contrast from the chaos of the 1980s.

But a poll by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, a Lebanese-American advocacy group, found 89 percent of Lebanese want Syria out. And its members are sharply critical of Syria's influence.

"The whole system here is rigged to elect [those whom Syria favors]," says Dory Chamoun, the leader of Lebanon's National Liberal Party. "Syria is ruining the only Arab democracy."

Lebanon's economy is also struggling. The government proudly touts Beirut's renovated downtown, but stepping beyond its handsome sandstone banks and luxury flats reveals wider neglect.

Syria has allowed 1 million Syrian workers into Lebanon (equal to a fourth of Lebanon's population) and flooded the country's market with cheap Syrian goods. Lebanon's average monthly income is $200, and 40 percent of its people are officially poor. Beirut's renovation, which Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri contracted to his own company, has pushed Lebanon's foreign debt to $33 billion.

Complaint can be dangerous. "I was arrested and beaten several times," recounts Marie-Claire, a Beirut student. "I was arrested for distributing fliers containing a speech [attacking the government]."

Syrian intelligence has spirited away thousands of political dissidents, of whom hundreds - possibly thousands - are still in Syrian jails.

A Lebanese human rights group, SOLIDE, has confirmed the names of 175 prisoners. But when Syria released 127 prisoners in 1998, "we had only four names of the released on our list. That gives you a good idea of the numbers," says SOLIDE president Ghazi Aad.

Syrian intelligence keeps an eye on the Lebanese press, regularly targeting troublesome journalists with blackmail, legal harassment, and sometimes violence.

"Yes, we're under pressure, but if you're clean nobody can blackmail you," says Gebran Tueni, editor of the leading Beirut political daily an-Nahar. Tueni has been twice shot, twice imprisoned, once kidnapped, and once driven into a three-year exile - he says because of his open criticism of Syria.

To some Lebanese, their country's overriding problem is persistent social division. "We have yet to deal with our real problem, which is that the Lebanese people have never accepted a national identity," Lebanese author Farid Salmon recently told the Toronto Star. "So the fear is that, without Syria, the fighting continues."

Anti-Syrian leaders say that uniting the Lebanese people is vital to making a stand against Syria. The Korned Chehwan Gathering, a cross-party group of opposition politicians, has sought to build alliances between Christian, Muslim, and Druze leaders, with some success.

Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who endorsed the Taif Agreement, has lately begun calling for full Syrian withdrawal. As leader of Lebanon's largest Christian community, he and his office are revered by both Christians and Muslims.

Hope for national identity may ultimately lie in young people. The generation of Lebanese coming of age today is the first with little memory of the war. "[Muslims and Christians] can co-exist," insists Imad, a Maronite student.

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