Lebanon faces a critical week

Syria's domination of neighboring Lebanon looks increasingly in doubt following the Monday resignation of Omar Karami, the Lebanese prime minister, a move that has generated the greatest political upheaval in this tiny Mediterranean country since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Flushed with victory at unseating the pro-Syrian government and buoyed by the presence of thousands of protesters, the Lebanese opposition is gearing up for a showdown with key Lebanese allies of Syria, including President Emile Lahoud and the heads of the intelligence services.

"This week is going to be a very critical week," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "Either the country will emerge united in terms of forming a transitional government or ... if there are no concessions between the two sides, Lahoud will have the choice of resigning or forming a military government."

The rapid pace of developments in Beirut comes amid growing indications that Damascus has decided to withdraw almost all its 14,000 troops as a precursor to readjusting its relationship with Lebanon.

"Syria is going to disengage. I think they have no option.... Syria is looking for an honorable way out," says Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the syriacomment.com weblog, who is currently living in Damascus.

The Lebanese opposition meets Wednesday at the mountain residence of Walid Jumblatt, the most outspoken critic of Syria's presence here, to decide its next moves. Analysts say the opposition has to choose whether to push for a confrontation with the pro-Syrian president now or wait until after the parliamentary elections, which must be held by the end of May.

"The ideal course is for Lahoud to resign, a compromise candidate to be elected and a new government to be formed. The new president and the new government would then ask the Syrians to leave before elections are held," says Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law at St. Joseph University.

A transparent electoral process, free of traditional Syrian-backed gerrymandering, could give the opposition the majority in parliament, which would make President Lahoud's position untenable.

However, analysts doubt that Lahoud will go quietly.

A former commander of the Lebanese Army, he has been a staunch ally of Syria since taking office in 1998. Last September, the Lebanese parliament, with a nod from Syria, voted to change the constitution to allow Lahoud a three-year extension to his six-year mandate, which was due to expire in November. It was the extension that precipitated mounting opposition to Syria's influence here, which reached a climax after the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister. Many blame Syria for Mr. Hariri's murder.

If Lahoud is cornered by the opposition, he may seek to form a military government rather than step down, says Professor Hamzeh. "If the opposition accepts the resignation of the government as a major victory and is willing to compromise on a neutral government, the country might be saved by the skin of its teeth," he says.

But the opposition also has set its sights on the heads of Lebanon's intelligence services, who are accused of subordinating Lebanon's interests to those of Syria and some of whom are suspected by many Lebanese of having played a role in Mr. Hariri's assassination.

While the prospects looks bleak for some of Syria's most loyal allies in Lebanon, analysts in Damascus say that the Syrian government is "optimistic" it can forge a new relationship with a future government in Beirut.

"The crucial time will be from now until the elections," says Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian political analyst and correspondent for the Arabic Al Hayat daily. "If the Syrians play the game cleverly, they can have good relations with any government in Beirut."

Indeed, despite the intense anti-Syrian protests on the streets of Beirut over the past two weeks, opposition leaders have been careful to stress their desire for good relations with Syria.

"The Syrian-Lebanese security agencies should be dismantled next ... and Syrian forces must be withdrawn from Lebanon," said Mr. Jumblatt following Mr. Karami's resignation. "All this should be done without hostility to Syria. Hostility toward Syria will not be tolerated."

And that, analysts say, is why Syria is believed to be ready to stage a near total troop withdrawal, leaving around 2,000 soldiers in eastern Lebanon along the Syrian border in a defensive posture against Israel.

Analysts in Damascus say that senior members of the ruling Baath Party have accepted the necessity of withdrawing from Lebanon and regularizing relations between the two countries. But only up to a point.

Landis, the Damascus-based professor, says that in order of importance, the Syrians view retaining influence in Lebanon as second only to the survival of the regime. With the tentacles of Syrian influence removed from Lebanon, Damascus will sit back and watch from afar as the Lebanese adjust to the new realities, he says.

"They [the Lebanese] may be in the flush of freedom, but once the battleground for the future of Lebanon begins to take shape we are going to see all of those old confessional divisions line up, and Syria wants to be in a position where it's not the focus of attention, [but is a player] in the background," says Landis. "Syria's relationship with Lebanon is special and that's what Syria is trying to maintain throughout this whole thing."

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