The Lebanese agonize over Syria's presence

The Lebanese and the Syrians have a strange relationship of love and hate.

Syrians are ethnically very close to the Lebanese. They speak the same language, with a similar dialect; they share geography, history and strategic interests. Syria's influence, or rather dominance, in Lebanon is more political and economic than military. This recasts the "Syrian occupation" as a "Syrian presence" for some Lebanese.

The Lebanese disagree vehemently on how to change their relations with neighboring Syria. If the Lebanese, for instance, had been united and willing after the civil war of the 80s, they could have pressured Syria to leave their country.

The Syrian regime boldly defends its presence in Lebanon. Syrian officials claim that the sectarian communities of Lebanon are not united and so they need Syria to maintain national unity. Syria also says it is needed to fend off foreign (Israeli) interventions. Syria refuses to move its 14,000 troops from Lebanon - citing on one hand, Lebanon's disunity, and on the other, the Israeli occupation of its Golan Heights, a swath of land which sit between Israel and Syria.

Lebanon is in a new phase of instability as it faces UN Resolution 1559, passed in September on a vote jointly sponsored by the US and France. In effect, 1559 is about Lebanon's unity and independence.

US policy has priorities in Resolution 1559: first, protection of Iraq's western borders from insurgents coming through Syria; next, the demilitarization of Hezbollah, currently considered a terror threat; and only third, Syria's departure from Lebanon.

For the moment, the US is embroiled in Iraq and is in a tight domestic election; hence, Syria has temporary leeway to delay action. Diplomatically, France, Lebanon's closest Western ally, is having a rare moment of reconciliation with the US over 1559. These two powers are pressuring the UN to urge Syrian compliance, and the UN is "complying."

Lebanon will suffer if the Lebanese sectarian communities fight over the timing, intent, context and technicality of the Resolution. Or what the Resolution, is really all about: Syria's presence and Hezbollah's militia.

The sad fact is that Lebanon has not yet gone through an honest process of national healing, reconciliation, telling the truth, rendering justice and learning lessons of a senseless civil war that ended 15 years ago. The warlords that took Lebanon into civil war are still entrenched in their positions of legislative and executive authority.

The power-sharing formula among the religious communities (Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Druze) is fragile and outmoded. The Christian community is about 30 percent of the population; Shiite Muslims by far outnumber all other communities and have a larger proportion of the poor.

Despite their smaller numbers, the Christians are entitled to 50 percent of the legislative body, the presidency, chief of armed forces and head of security.

This strange political power-sharing formula encourages others to seek power outside official state structures.

For instance, the demographically dominant Shiite community managed to retain its militia (Hezbollah) after the settlement of the civil war. Hezbollah became popular in the 1990s because of its effective resistance against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, which ended four years ago.

Hezbollah is still popular among the Shiites because it offers social services to their poor and articulates a political strategy for a unified Lebanon. Hezbollah is a formidable cultural and political phenomenon, not sufficiently understood by US policy makers. It is part urban tribe, part political party and part army.

Following up 1559, the UN Security Council issued a statement on October 19, pressuring Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon. The Council warned it intended to monitor Syria's compliance.

On October 21, Lebanese President Lahood (whose term was recently extended, under pressure from Syria, beyond the constitutional limits) designated Omar Karami, seen as a weak figure, as the new prime minister to replace Rafic Hariri.

Hariri's political departure may threaten the economy and strengthen the opposition groups. Hariri's wealth, international connections, and political leadership brought some security to the Lebanese after the civil war. Hariri is associated with a "recovered Lebanon" image, but he is also associated with a large and crippling national debt.

It remains to be seen if the international US-led diplomacy will succeed in loosening Syria's hold on Lebanon. The Resolution has provoked the Arab League and emboldened those Lebanese who reject the Resolution. The Arab League is reacting to what it sees as a double standard in the US foreign policy in the region. The peculiar relationship between Syria and Lebanon, the Arab rejection of the UN Resolution, and the absence of progress on the Middle East peace make the liberation of Lebanon both risky and complicated.

Syria will eventually leave Lebanon. But Syria should not be removed from Lebanon with brute force, given Lebanon's internal ethnic fragility discussed above. If given enough time, the Lebanese and the Syrians will establish a new partnership built on equality.

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