Syria flexes muscle in Lebanon

Lebanon's parliament is set Friday to rubber-stamp a Syrian-ordained decision to grant its close ally President Emile Lahoud an additional three years in office.

But the move, which has sparked a storm of protest here as well as international disapproval, now faces a formidable challenge from the United Nations Security Council, which was expected Thursday to preempt the Lebanese parliament by approving a resolution effectively giving Syria 30 days to leave Lebanon.

The UN intervention and mounting domestic opposition is rapidly turning the debate over the presidential extension into the most serious crisis in Lebanese-Syrian relations since the end of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.

"This is the greatest miscalculation Syria has made in recent years," says Farid Khazen, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "The Syrians thought they could get away with imposing their man on Lebanon, but they failed to realize that the world has changed."

Mr. Lahoud's six-year term was supposed to end in November in accordance with the Lebanese Constitution. But Syria made it known last week that it wanted its ally to remain.

The unusually blatant nature of the decision outraged the mainly Christian opposition and has stunned even Syria's Lebanese allies. It also had the rare effect of uniting the United States and France on a Middle East issue, with the two countries cosponsoring the draft UN Security Council resolution.

Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington and a member of the Qornet Shehwan opposition group, says that if Lahoud is granted his extension, "the relationship between Lebanon and Syria will turn from the facade coalition that it is now into sheer occupation," he says.

The draft Security Council resolution includes demands that Syria withdraw its estimated 15,000 troops from Lebanon and that all militias to be dismantled, a reference to Lebanon's Hizbullah organization. If the demands are not met within 30 days, "additional measures" could be taken to enforce the resolution, raising the possibility of economic and financial sanctions again Syria and Lebanon.

Damascus already faces strong pressure from the US for its support of Palestinian and Lebanese organizations designated in Washington as terrorist groups, as well as its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its opposition to the US role in Iraq.

But Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator, says that Syria's backing for Lahoud shows it prefers the status quo.

"It's a simple rule with the Syrians. They are not comfortable with change, especially when they feel under pressure," Mr. Young says.

But domestic opposition to Lahoud's presidential extension is gaining momentum. The influential Maronite church issued a withering indictment on Wednesday of Syria's interference in Lebanese affairs, saying Damascus treats Lebanon as if it were a "Syrian province."

"Syria gives orders, appoints leaders, organizes parliamentary and other elections, brings in whoever it wants and drops whoever it wants, and interferes in all aspects of life: in the administration, the judiciary, the economy and particularly politics, through its representatives here and their aides," the statement said.

The crisis has left Syria's allies struggling to justify publicly why the president should be granted a further term in office.

"It is our choice that the president remain because the situation in the region is unstable and change at this time is not beneficial," says Qassem Qanso, a minister of state, the head of the Lebanese branch of the Baath Party, and one of Syria's closest allies.

But amending the Lebanese constitution to grant Lahoud an extra three years in office requires two-thirds of parliament to vote in favor of the measure.

The key to the vote resides with Lebanon's redoubtable prime minister, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire businessman who has steered the country through its post-civil war reconstruction phase. Mr. Hariri, who heads the largest parliamentary bloc, is a bitter rival of the president.

Hariri had indicated he would resign if Lahoud stayed on as president. But he appeared to change his mind after meeting with Gen. Rustum Ghazali, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, who plays the role of Syrian proconsul here. Hariri subsequently told his bloc to vote as they please before heading to his holiday home in Sardinia for a short break.

Analysts say that the prospect of another three years of political and economic paralysis between Hariri and Lahoud spells disaster for the country. "We've had no political life and economic life has been blocked," Young says. "And all the Syrians can do is perpetuate this."

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