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Q&A: What is Syria's role in Lebanon?

March 7, 2005



Since the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Rafik Hariri, the popular opposition leader and Lebanon's former prime minister, thousands of Lebanese have poured into the streets to protest Syria's military presence in their small Mediterranean country. The world, too, has turned its attention to Syria's role there. Correspondent Annia Ciezadlo looks at the historical roots of the tension between these two countries.

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Q: Why is Syria in Lebanon?

A: The short answer: Syria was invited by Lebanese Christians in 1976 to stop a brewing civil war. But even with 27,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, the war that started as skirmishes between Muslims and Christians continued for 15 years. It eventually involved the country's other religious factions, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel, and the United States.

While Syria intervened on the side of the Christians, it switched allegiances to Yasser Arafat's PLO, which was using Lebanon as a base to attack Israel, and the PLO's Arab nationalist allies, mostly Muslim and Druze. In the end, Syria aligned itself with the Shiite Amal and Hizbullah parties. Because Syria is now the main power broker in Lebanon, these parties have an advantage in the constant shuffling of Lebanon's balance of power.

But the long answer to Syrian involvement in Lebanon - like many issues in the Middle East - goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, when the European victors divided the Ottoman territories, the French ended up with what was then called Greater Syria, which encompassed Syria and Lebanon. The French, aligned with the Maronite Christians (originally followers of a 4th-century Syrian hermit priest named Maron) of Lebanon and created an autonomous region for the Maronites in their ancestral home of Mount Lebanon.

To give Lebanon greater economic viability, the French combined the predominantly Muslim Bekaa Valley and the ancient coastal cities with the mostly Christian enclave of Mount Lebanon.

Q: How many religious groups are in Lebanon?

A: The main religious groups are Christian, Muslim, and Druze. Druze is a secretive sect that some maintain is an offshoot of Islam, but that also incorporates a belief in reincarnation. These religions are further subdivided into 18 sects; each gets a certain number of seats in Parliament under Lebanon's confessional system. The major subdivisions among the Muslims are Shiites and Sunnis; among the Christians they are Maronites, Armenian Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Greek Orthodox.

Q: What is a confessional system?

A: As of Lebanon's last official census in 1932, Lebanon was about 51 percent Christian and 49 percent Muslim. When Lebanon declared independence from France in 1943, this balance was enshrined in the National Pact, a covenant of understanding that Parliament would have a 6 to 5 Christian majority, with a Christian president, Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite speaker of parliament. Because Muslims became the majority by about the 1950s, the parliamentary makeup caused political tensions. The Taif Accord changed the Parliament's ratio to 50/50, but the executive branch remains the same.

Q: Why hasn't Syria left after all these years?

A: The Syrian government claims that Lebanon needs its troops to ensure stability. Experts say reasons for maintaining its grip on Lebanon are economic and political: Syrian guest workers, estimated at 500,000 to 1 million, send home millions of dollars each year. Politically, Lebanon is useful to Syria in its efforts to regain the Golan Heights, territory that was occupied by Israel in 1967. However, Syria has reduced its troop levels from 40,000 in 2000 to 14,000 today.

Q: What role does Israel play in the tension between Lebanon and Syria?
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