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'Hopeful moment in the Middle East'
by Lance Gay
Scripps Howard News Service


March 02, 2005

The State Department is already labeling Lebanon's peaceful street demonstrations the "Cedar Revolution," a new display of people power that can force teetering autocratic regimes to change and persuade foreign troops to withdraw.

"This is a hopeful moment in the Middle East," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday. "We're seeing in demonstrations in the streets of Lebanon that the Lebanese people aspire for greater freedom and a democratic future. They want a country that is sovereign and independent from outside interference and intimidation, free of the violence that has too often marked that region of the world."

Academics and experts on Lebanon are more cautious about drawing parallels between what's happening in Lebanon and Georgia's "Rose Revolution," the Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution" of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution."

They acknowledge that massive but peaceful street demonstrations demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops that brought the collapse of the government this week are unusual in the Middle East.

But they caution that after three decades of civil war, tiny Lebanon is a deeply divided country with fractious ethnic divisions that could easily explode into violence once again.

Here are some of the issues involved.

Q: Is it likely that Syria will withdraw its troops?

A: Not if Damascus has its way. Syrian troops were sent into Lebanon in 1976 and there are now about 15,000 remaining. Since Israel withdrew the last of its troops from its "security zone" inside Lebanon in 2000, there is no justification left for Syria being there.

Laurie King-Irani, former editor of the Middle East Report, says that in the last three decades, powerful Syrian families have built economic and trade links with Lebanon that they are driven to keep in order to maintain their lifestyles, and about 1 million Syrian young people now work in Lebanon. "Lebanon is their economic lungs," she said.

Q: Can Syria influence politics in Lebanon?

A: Yes, and it has repeatedly done so. Syria has direct control of southern Lebanon through Hezbollah, a political party that the U.S. State Department labels a terrorist organization. Augustus Richard Norton, a Lebanon expert at Boston University, says Hezbollah is the best-organized party in Lebanon and numbers at least 150,000 members. Others put the number at 250,000. Syria and Iran also have links to Lebanon's restive Muslim Shiite population, which was politically suppressed before the civil war. There are also more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, many of whom support Syria.

Q: Could a new civil war erupt?

A: Ethnic strife is a definite possibility, but unless outside powers interfere, an all-out civil war seems remote. The bloody civil war, which erupted in 1975 and lasted into the 1990s, involved a conflict between Maronite Christians and left-leaning Muslim groups over political power inside the mountainous country and worsened as Israel, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization employed Lebanon as the battlefield for their own conflicts. That fighting destroyed Beirut, once one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East.

Billionaire businessman Rafik Hariri, who loved to portray himself as "Mr. Lebanon," oversaw the reconstruction of the country when he served as Lebanon's prime minister from 1992-1998 and 2000-2004, and Lebanon has tasted prosperity again. Hariri was assassinated in February when his car was blown up.

Barbara Bodine, executive director of the Middle East Governance Initiative at Harvard University and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said the peaceful nature of the anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut indicates the Lebanese want to avoid violence.

"This is the ultimate and best revenge for the assassination of Rafik Hariri - a refusal by the Lebanese people to be pushed back into violence, or manipulated by others seeking to control their political choices," she said.

Q: Was Syria involved in Hariri's assassination?

A: No specific link has been made to Syria, although many Lebanese believe it will eventually be found. The bombing of Hariri's car did occur while he was driving in a Beirut district under the control of Syria's intelligence agents, and Hariri had open disputes with Syria. Opposition politicians in Lebanon say they want an investigation to expose the truth of Hariri's death.

Q: What is the position of the international community?

A: The United Nations last September passed a resolution directing Syria to withdraw its troops and for the militias in Lebanon to be disarmed. Neither has yet happened. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad contended in an October speech that forcing Syria to remove its troops would push the Middle East toward greater chaos.

Q: Are new elections in the works?

A: Parliamentary elections were scheduled for May before the government quit, and the government has resisted calls for moving the date up since Hariri's death. Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud, a Maronite Christian who is regarded as pro-Syria, is trying to form a caretaker government until the balloting, which is expected to test the depth of opposition to Syria.

Q: What is the United States interest?

A: A peaceful solution in Lebanon would send a strong message through the Middle East about how changes can be made to autocratic governments without violence. The United States has not been happy with support Syria has given Saddam Hussein's loyalists in Iraq or the support Syria is giving troublesome radicals like the Islamic Group, which has a press office in Damascus. Weakening Syria's grip on Lebanon could undermine support inside Syria for Bashar al-Assad's regime.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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