Syria's role in Lebanon under fire

A huge turnout at Wednesday's funeral in Beirut is one sign of growing anti-Syrian sentiment.

As a sea of mourners converged on downtown Beirut Wednesday for the funeral of billionaire politician Rafik Hariri, many Lebanese are asking if the massive car bomb that killed Mr. Hariri has also sounded the death knell for Syria's long and controversial presence in this tiny Mediterranean country.

Although there has been no direct evidence linking Syria to the bomb that exploded Monday in Beirut, killing Lebanon's former prime minister and 13 others, many here and abroad have instinctively linked the attack to Syria, which dominates the Lebanese government.

"The Syrians cut off the branch they were sitting on," says Michael Young, a Lebanese poli- tical analyst. "The Syrian system here no longer has the slightest level of legitimacy."

But the bombing has not only resulted in a backlash from opposition groups here who oppose Syria's involvement in Lebanon, there is outrage from the West and the Arab world, which could put an indelible imprint on already strained relations with this country branded a supporter of terrorism by Washington.

Analysts say that if it becomes clear that Syria had a hand in Hariri's assassination, Damascus will become isolated regionally as well as globally. "Syria will have to take dramatic and effective action to track down Hariri's killers and deflect the blame," says Joshua Landis, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He's living in Damascus and is the author of Syriacomment.com, a blog. "If it can't do that, its name will be mud," Mr. Landis says.

Washington withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, Margaret Scobey, on Tuesday for urgent consultations. The United Nations condemned the "terrorist" killing of Hariri, and called on Syria to fulfill Security Council Resolution 1559, which demands an immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

Syria in Lebanon

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in strength in 1976 to help restore order after a year of civil war. Syria's fortunes in Lebanon waxed and waned with the flow of conflict, but by 1989 it had secured a position as the dominant power broker.

During the 1990s, Syria's influence in Lebanon was all-pervasive except in a strip of southern Lebanon occupied by Israel. While Lebanon possessed all the trappings of independence, most analysts say that real political power lay with Damascus. Syria views Lebanon as an economic asset and a necessary bulwark against Israel.

Despite the presence of some 25,000 Syrian troops in the early 1990s (since reduced to about 14,000 soldiers), Damascus's influence was subtler than Israel's military occupation of the south, analysts say.

"Syria's role has been apparent at all levels of Lebanese society and government," says Mr. Young, the political analyst. "Unlike Israel, Syria is not regarded as a formal enemy, which made it easier for them."

The withdrawal of Israeli troops from south Lebanon in May 2000, and the death a month later of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, led to calls for a redressing of Lebanese-Syrian relations.

Syria conducted several minor troop redeployments to appease the growing criticism. But it was not until last September when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559 that the opposition began gaining significant momentum. That momentum is set to increase further with the death of Hariri, analysts say.

"Everybody expects the Syrian regime to pull out," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian social analyst. "If no moves should take place, and soon, the Europeans and the Americans are more likely to work together to push something through the Security Council."

Syria and the Mideast

If Syria is compelled to withdraw its forces from Lebanon due to intensified international pressure and mounting Lebanese opposition, it will significantly alter the geostrategic environment of the region, analysts say, but not necessarily to Syria's detriment.

Ties with other Arab countries would be likely to improve, as some leaders have long been uncomfortable with Syria's hegemony over Lebanon. A withdrawal from Lebanon could also open up Syria to much-needed foreign investment, as well as improving relations with the US.

Among the potential losers, however, are elements within the Syrian regime that have personally benefited from Syria's involvement with Lebanon. Syria's Lebanese allies, including the militant group Hizbullah, would also find themselves out in the cold with the departure of Syria.

If Israel took advantage of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon to accept Syria's repeated offers to resume frozen peace talks over the disputed Golan Heights, Iran could find itself alone in the anti-Israel camp.

Reaction from Damascus

Noticeably absent from Wednesday's funeral were representatives of the Lebanese government. The Hariri family rejected offers from the government to hold a state funeral, preferring a "popular" farewell. They and the Lebanese opposition say they hold the government and Syria responsible for the bomb blast.

"All the opposition forces have reaffirmed their commitment to our cause. Enough is enough, we can't go on like this," says Nayla Mouawad, a prominent member of the opposition, whose husband, René, was assassinated in a bomb blast in 1989, 17 days after being elected president of Lebanon.

Syria has condemned Hariri's assassination and rejected accusations that it is to blame. But many analysts believe that even if Syria is innocent, its position in Lebanon is no longer tenable.

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