Syria's grip on Lebanon tested

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

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.

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.

Even close allies such as France lost patience. In a move that stunned the Lebanese and Syrians, Paris agreed to cosponsor with the US the UN Resolution 1559, which calls on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, allow an unhindered presidential election, and to stop interfering in Lebanese affairs.

"The decision to prolong the mandate of Lahoud triggered 1559. We could have avoided 1559 if we hadn't taken this stupid decision," says Jumblatt.

Yet in stark defiance of the resolution's demands, the day after it was passed, the Lebanese parliament, under Syrian pressure, voted to amend the constitution, granting Lahoud another three years in office.

In an ominous portent of the anticipated crackdown on opponents to Lahoud's rule, Marwan Hamade, former minister and a close friend of Jumblatt, was badly wounded and his bodyguard killed earlier this month by a car bomb. The bombing was seen as a signal to Jumblatt to curb his rhetoric.

"It's impossible to engage in serious dialogue with such people," Jumblatt says. "They don't want any dialogue. When we said 'no' to the prolongation [of Lahoud's presidency] they said OK, 'we will kill you.' "

Diplomats here believe the attempted assassination signals a more ruthless approach by the next government to quash signs of internal dissent. "There are high expectations that it will be a national security government that will challenge Resolution 1559 and lead a broad crackdown on the opposition. We are looking out for signs of that," says a Western diplomat.

The Lebanese opposition says that it is not seeking confrontation with Syria but wants a balanced state-to-state relationship. "What I want is an independent Lebanon," Jumblatt says. "I have no objection to the stationing of Syrian troops for defensive purposes ... until peace is established between the Syrians and the Israelis. But I don't want the Syrian intelligence and the Lebanese intelligence to interfere in public affairs."

On a regional level, Lebanon traditionally has served as a battlefield for Syria and Israel to settle their differences. But Professor Khazen says that Syria's long-standing support for Lebanon's Hizbullah organization and radical Palestinian groups are no longer bankable assets with which to win concessions from Israel or the US.

"What the Syrians don't realize is that today their so-called cards such as Hizbullah are like a check that they cannot cash. The bank closed for them on September 12, 2001," he says.

But analysts suspect that the Syrian government lacks the flexibility to redress its relationship with Lebanon, favoring a tighter grip and playing for time. "The Syrians are betting on the momentum being lost in the UN and that a defeat for President Bush in November will bring about a new ball game," says Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington.

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