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Syria's grip on Lebanon tested

The dominance of Damascus in Lebanese politics gives rise to a new opposition leader.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 2004


Walid Jumblatt has always been an unconventional figure. A former ally of the Soviet Union despite his aristocratic lineage and feudal role as head of Lebanon's Druze community, he has survived assassination attempts and political marginalization, treading a path through the intrigue that colors Lebanon's turbulent politics.

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And now Mr. Jumblatt has emerged as the most vocal opponent of Syria's long-running hegemony over Lebanon, at a time when Damascus is under mounting pressure from the United Nations and Washington to stop meddling in the affairs of its tiny neighbor.

With the resignation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last week and the slow progress in forming a new Syrian-backed government in Beirut, Lebanon is grappling with its gravest political crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Almost a quarter of this country's 128-seat parliament has boycotted consultations to form the new government. And the deadlock comes as the US has criticized as "inappropriate" the decision to replace Mr. Hariri with Omar Karami, a 70-year-old former premier with close ties to Syria.

Jumblatt paints a bleak future for Lebanon in the coming months. "The indications are bad," he says, speaking in his sprawling ancestral home in this village deep in the forested Chouf mountains south of Beirut. "The security indications are bad, the economic indications are bad ... and now slowly but surely we are living in a police state in Lebanon, similar to Arab regimes. We don't want to be another Arab regime."

Analysts predict a lame duck government that is beholden to Damascus and able to achieve little during its seven-month lifespan before parliamentary elections in the spring. Damascus and its Lebanese allies also face unrelenting pressure from the UN Security Council, which last week renewed its demand that Syria depart from Lebanon.

Despite the rhetoric from the UN and US, diplomats and analysts do not expect an imminent relaxation of Syria's grip on Lebanon,

"The intentions of the next government and of Syria are not to look for ways to deal with the crisis and not to deal with the opposition," says Farid al-Khazen, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "They will develop a confrontational posture. But that confrontational posture is no longer confined to domestic Lebanese politics. Now they are taking on the UN Security Council."

The departure of Mr. Hariri, who has served as prime minister for 10 of the past 12 years, has removed a potent obstacle to Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president whose Syria-endorsed extension to his mandate last month triggered the current crisis. Hariri was regarded as the best chance at reversing the crippling $32 billion public debt. For Syria, Hariri was an acceptable representative to promote its international interests.

But animosity between the prime minister and Lahoud has paralyzed political and economic life in recent years. The failure to break the political deadlock in Beirut exasperated international lending agencies, which have channeled billions of dollars in aid to rebuild the war-ravaged country only to see the funds wasted or stolen.