Lebanese voices rise against Syria's dominance

The UN said Friday that Syria has failed to comply with a resolution to withdraw all of its troops from Lebanon.

Syria's steely grip over its tiny neighbor Lebanon has begun to look increasingly frail during the past month under the new-found glare of international scrutiny.

Emboldened by the intervention of the United Nations and France - a country traditionally sympathetic to Damascus - Lebanese opponents of Syrian hegemony here are speaking out as the old taboos crumble.

Posters praising a United Nations resolution calling on Syria to withdraw its estimated 14,000 troops from Lebanon now appear in Christian districts of Beirut, and prominent opposition figures are showing up on television to denounce Syrian interference in Lebanon's affairs.

"The status quo as perceived for the past decade is no longer viable," says Simon Karam, a member of the Qornet Shehwan opposition group and a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington.

A bluntly worded UN report released Friday found Syria and Lebanon guilty of failing to comply with Resolution 1559. The US- and French-sponsored resolution passed last month calls on Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon and for the dismantling of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias, a reference principally to the Hizbullah organization. It also calls for the Lebanese government to deploy troops along the tense Lebanon-Israel frontier.

In his report, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that as of September 30, "The Syrian military and intelligence apparatus had not been withdrawn ... United Nations staff on the ground had not discerned any change in the status of Hizbullah ... [and] the government of Lebanon had not extended its control over all its territory."

Beirut and Damascus have rejected the report's findings, arguing that the Syrian troop deployment in Lebanon is a bilateral matter which does not concern the UN.

Lebanon is of strategic importance to Syria on several fronts. Militarily, it is seen as a useful bulwark against a potential Israeli attack. Lebanon also provides employment to some one million itinerant Syrian workers, whose repatriated earnings help bolster Syria's ailing economy. Many analysts here expect Damascus to cling onto Lebanon for as long as possible.

"I think we are all falling prey to the incapability of Syria to adjust to anything different from what the Syrian political and military elite are used to in this relationship," Mr. Karam says.

Still, in what could be a reaction to the UN report, Syria announced Monday that eight ministers had been reshuffled, including the key interior and economy portfolios.

Ghazi Kenaan, Syria's top military intelligence officer in Lebanon until 2002, was appointed interior minister, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency.

The Security Council is expected to meet this week to discuss what further measures to take in light of Mr. Annan's report. Although diplomats in Beirut say the imposition of sanctions is unlikely, the international pressure on Syria to comply with Resolution 1559 will remain strong.

"The report is such a major development that there is not a lot of need for immediate follow-up action," says a European diplomat here. "This is a result of clumsy Syrian politics. They got themselves into this mess."

Resolution 1559 was adopted in response to the Syria-ordained three-year extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office. Mr. Lahoud was due to step down in November, but Damascus granted its close ally an extension despite strong Lebanese opposition.

It was an unusually blatant move by Damascus, which tends to be more subtle in its dealings with Lebanon, and provoked the anger of even its traditional Lebanese allies. One of them, Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon's Druze community, has emerged among the staunchest critics, calling for the abrogation of the presidential extension and redefining the relationship with Syria.

"Syria has alienated key members of the Lebanese political elite who were on their side," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political commentator.

"It shows that they cannot really control their closest allies," says Mr. Young.

The fraught political debate over Syria's presence in Lebanon took a more ominous turn hours before the release of Mr. Annan's report Friday.

In a throwback to the violence of Lebanon's bloody 16-year civil war, Marwan Hamade, a former minister, was seriously wounded when a explosive-rigged vehicle blew up beside his car as he drove to work. The blast, which killed his driver and wounded his bodyguard, stunned the Lebanese and prompted angry scenes outside the Beirut hospital where Mr. Hamade was treated for his wounds.

The former minister, a close political ally of Mr. Jumblatt, resigned his cabinet seat last month in protest at the presidential extension. Although few are saying so publicly, the attempted assassination is being interpreted as a grim warning to Jumblatt to tone down his criticism.

But Jumblatt appears uncowed. In a speech delivered at the funeral of the slain driver, he called for a "clear, correct, and healthy relationship with Syria," describing Syria's Lebanese allies as "mercenary trumpeters" and a "bunch of profiteers."

Many Lebanese believe that the debate over Syria's domination of Lebanon has gone past the point of no return.

"There is a crescendo of criticism of Syria," Mr. Young says. "I do think it's the beginning of the end."

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