Q&A: What is Syria's role in Lebanon?

Since the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Rafik Hariri, the popular opposition leader and Lebanon's former prime minister, thousands of Lebanese have poured into the streets to protest Syria's military presence in their small Mediterranean country. The world, too, has turned its attention to Syria's role there. Correspondent Annia Ciezadlo looks at the historical roots of the tension between these two countries.

Q: Why is Syria in Lebanon?

A: The short answer: Syria was invited by Lebanese Christians in 1976 to stop a brewing civil war. But even with 27,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, the war that started as skirmishes between Muslims and Christians continued for 15 years. It eventually involved the country's other religious factions, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel, and the United States.

While Syria intervened on the side of the Christians, it switched allegiances to Yasser Arafat's PLO, which was using Lebanon as a base to attack Israel, and the PLO's Arab nationalist allies, mostly Muslim and Druze. In the end, Syria aligned itself with the Shiite Amal and Hizbullah parties. Because Syria is now the main power broker in Lebanon, these parties have an advantage in the constant shuffling of Lebanon's balance of power.

But the long answer to Syrian involvement in Lebanon - like many issues in the Middle East - goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, when the European victors divided the Ottoman territories, the French ended up with what was then called Greater Syria, which encompassed Syria and Lebanon. The French, aligned with the Maronite Christians (originally followers of a 4th-century Syrian hermit priest named Maron) of Lebanon and created an autonomous region for the Maronites in their ancestral home of Mount Lebanon.

To give Lebanon greater economic viability, the French combined the predominantly Muslim Bekaa Valley and the ancient coastal cities with the mostly Christian enclave of Mount Lebanon.

Q: How many religious groups are in Lebanon?

A: The main religious groups are Christian, Muslim, and Druze. Druze is a secretive sect that some maintain is an offshoot of Islam, but that also incorporates a belief in reincarnation. These religions are further subdivided into 18 sects; each gets a certain number of seats in Parliament under Lebanon's confessional system. The major subdivisions among the Muslims are Shiites and Sunnis; among the Christians they are Maronites, Armenian Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Greek Orthodox.

Q: What is a confessional system?

A: As of Lebanon's last official census in 1932, Lebanon was about 51 percent Christian and 49 percent Muslim. When Lebanon declared independence from France in 1943, this balance was enshrined in the National Pact, a covenant of understanding that Parliament would have a 6 to 5 Christian majority, with a Christian president, Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite speaker of parliament. Because Muslims became the majority by about the 1950s, the parliamentary makeup caused political tensions. The Taif Accord changed the Parliament's ratio to 50/50, but the executive branch remains the same.

Q: Why hasn't Syria left after all these years?

A: The Syrian government claims that Lebanon needs its troops to ensure stability. Experts say reasons for maintaining its grip on Lebanon are economic and political: Syrian guest workers, estimated at 500,000 to 1 million, send home millions of dollars each year. Politically, Lebanon is useful to Syria in its efforts to regain the Golan Heights, territory that was occupied by Israel in 1967. However, Syria has reduced its troop levels from 40,000 in 2000 to 14,000 today.

Q: What role does Israel play in the tension between Lebanon and Syria?

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.

Q: What is Hizbullah? How does it factor into Syria's involvement in Lebanon?

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.

Q: Is what's happening in Iraq, and other democratic reforms in the Middle East, important to the anti-Syrian groups in Lebanon?

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.

Q: Why was Rafik Hariri's death a tipping point?

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.

Q: Why are many of the protest signs in English?

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.

Q: Is Lebanon at risk of slipping back into civil war if Syria removes its troops?

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.

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