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Syria Hits Back in Lebanon

Bilal El-Amine Aug 31, 2005

BEIRUT, LEBANON—The first order of business for Lebanon’s new prime minister, Fouad Siniora, after winning a parliamentary vote of confidence was a visit to the Syrian capital of Damascus. Siniora was a lifelong friend and confidant of former Prime Minister Rafiq Harriri, who most believe was assassinated by the Syrian military, an act that precipitated their hasty withdrawal from Lebanon.

For weeks after the assassination, Syria was subjected to a storm of criticism in the Lebanese and international media. Some 30 Syrian workers were lynched, many more were attacked, and thousands fled their homes in fear.

Just as Siniora was forming his government and drawing up its manifesto, Syria decided it was time to hit back. Syria virtually shut down its border with Lebanon and the only land routes for commercial trade from Beirut through Syria to Iraq, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf.

According to some estimates Lebanon was losing $300,000 a day with no easy alternatives – going through Israel was not an option. Then, in an unprecedented move, the Syrian authorities detained several Lebanese fishermen who crossed into Syrian waters, and publicly demanded compensation for the families of Syrian workers murdered in Lebanon.

This had a sobering effect across Lebanon’s political establishment – in a few deft moves, the Syrian Baathist regime reminded them of their country’s strategic importance to Lebanon’s economic, if not political, well-being.

The new government in Beirut got the point fast. Its manifesto made mending Lebanon’s “unique” relations with Syria its top priority.

Crucially, the ministers declared that they would not allow the country to be used as a conduit for anyone (i.e., the United States) intending to harm Syria. And before long, Siniora was boarding a plane to Damascus.

Few could have predicted Syria’s lightning comeback – just as many were writing it off, it boldly reasserted itself as a regional player.  The Arab nationalist Baath regime in Damascus, now passed from father Hafez Al-Asad to son Bashar, was determined not to be cornered and given the “Iraq treatment” by the United States.

Syria’s rulers carefully managed the loss of Lebanon and seem to have absorbed the ensuing aftershocks with minimal damage to the regime’s standing at home. Ordinary Syrians, far from rebelling, have largely stood by their government throughout the crisis.  (Interestingly, one Syrian dissident attributes this popular support to the wave of chauvinism against Syrian workers in Lebanon after the assassination.)

But this is not the end of the story; undoubtedly, Washington will respond.

The first opportunity will present itself when the U.N. committee investigating the assassination of Harriri files its final report in the coming weeks. If it points the finger at elements in the Syrian government as has been rumored, the U.S. campaign against Syria will get hot again very quickly, particularly on the Lebanese front.

And even though many Lebanese want to know who killed Harriri, they are getting jittery as the deadline approaches, fearing the outcome may tear the country apart, or spark a confrontation with Syria that Lebanon would probably lose.

The Bush administration has been gradually raising its stake in the new Lebanon: politically through its very busy ambassador and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit, economically by offering all forms of aid and assistance to ease the country’s gigantic debt, and now militarily by working closely with the Lebanese armed forces.

There are already plans afoot to move the U.S. embassy (now outside Beirut) closer to Yarzeh, the same town that the Lebanese ministry of defense calls home. And the Pentagon is conducting joint exercises with their Lebanese counterparts, offering the army further training in the U.S. and new weapons.

Given all this, it is understandable why Lebanese are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the future. Many fear that continued foreign meddling in a divided and conflict-prone country like Lebanon could usher in another civil war. Washington’s performance in Iraq certainly does not reassure anyone here that the deepening U.S.  involvement in Lebanese affairs will stave off such a disaster.