Q&A: What is Syria's role in Lebanon?
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A: The Shiite militia Hizbullah is fighting an intermittent guerrilla border war with Israel over a contested area called Shebaa Farms, which is Israeli-held territory that the Lebanese government and Hizbullah claim as Lebanese. But while Israel and Hizbullah skirmish over Shebaa Farms, the UN has determined it to be part of the Golan Heights - meaning Syrian territory that is occupied by Israel. Because of this, many Lebanese feel that Syria is fighting a proxy war with Israel on Lebanese soil.Skip to next paragraph
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A: Hizbullah (which means "Party of God" in Arabic) is a Shiite Muslim militia founded in 1982 after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Originally established with help from Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, Hizbullah's initial goals were to expel Israel from Lebanon and establish an Islamic state similar to that in Iran. Hizbullah is widely believed to be responsible for the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 US service members. From 1982 to 2000, Hizbullah fought a guerrilla war against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. When Israeli troops withdrew in May 2000, many in Lebanon and the Arab world credited Hizbullah with achieving the first Arab military victory against Israel. But for years, Hizbullah has also been building a network of schools, hospitals, and social services that have won it a political following. The US considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization; so far, despite American pressure, the European Union does not.
A: Most of the demonstrators who contributed to bringing down Lebanon's government cite the spontaneous revolutions that have swept former Soviet satellite states, in particular in Georgia and Ukraine, which were broadcast live on Al Jazeera and other Arabic channels. In a way, Lebanon has a lot more in common with these countries than with Iraq, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia because it has a free press and a vibrant political opposition. Lebanon is the most democratic of all the Arab countries.
A: The unexpected and shocking death of Mr. Hariri, the popular businessman and well-connected politician, catalyzed a crisis that was slowly heating up within Lebanon before his death brought it international attention. Before his killing, the anti-Syrian opposition was coming under increasing attack from the pro-Syrian Lebanese government, which was threatening to prosecute two key opposition leaders. Many people believe the prosecutions were politically motivated, meant to eliminate opposition figures before Lebanon's spring parliamentary elections.
A: Lebanon has always been a cosmopolitan, multilingual country. Today, it's not unusual for Beirutis to speak English, French, and Arabic. But there's another reason for all the English signs: the demonstrators' media savvy and their eagerness to reach the world.
A: Old resentments still simmer, but most Lebanese are much more concerned about high unemployment and civil liberties like freedom of speech. There's another important difference: Throughout the civil war, Syria, Iran, Libya, Israel, and other regional players funneled arms and money to the various militias to keep their proxy wars burning. Today, that level of outside involvement is unlikely.
Sources: "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1989; "Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War" by Robert Fisk, Andre Deutsch, 1990; "The Vanished Imam: Musa Al Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon" by Fouad Ajami, Cornell University Press, 1986; The Daily Star.