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Pining for Freedom: Syrian occupation suffocates Lebanon

by graig vickers Saturday, Nov. 08, 2003 at 2:35 PM

Syria's government, with its jackboot system, foul prisons, ruthless repression of dissent and support (in joint venture with Iran) of Hezbollah terrorists based in Lebanon, is utterly unfit to run Syria itself, let alone Lebanon. "All our intelligence agencies are under Syrian control," former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel tells me. Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch says that the entire Lebanese government has become "a creature of Syria." Lebanon is being transformed into a police

Pining for Freedom

Syrian occupation suffocates Lebanon, and the world shrugs.


BEIRUT, Lebanon--Jewelry glitters in the shop windows, street cafes do a brisk business in fancy coffees and cakes, and just down the road from a lineup of fine new restaurants, an acquaintance shows off her exquisitely refurbished apartment, complete with hand-decorated tiles on the floor. Since the civil war ended in 1991, the Lebanese have largely restored the trappings of their shattered capital.

What they have not rebuilt is the once-modernizing civil society that in the 1950s and '60s earned Lebanon its old credentials as the freest nation in the Arab world and made Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. Since their 16-year civil war ended, the Lebanese have had no chance to reclaim the large measure of liberty and law they once knew. Behind the new glitz and bustle born of a cosmopolitan and enterprising culture looms the ugly truth that Lebanon, with the quiet assent of the free world, has become the ward of one of the most brutal states on earth--terrorist-sponsoring Syria.

Under any circumstances, this fate would be a horror. Given the urgency with which the U.S. is now seeking to promote democracy as the route to peace in the Arab world, it is also a crazy waste of Lebanon's rich potential. As one leading academic here notes, if the aim is to create free societies, "this is the only country in the Arab world where you don't have to start from scratch." He ticks off some of the basic institutions that once gave Lebanon such promise: a free press, a free economy, competitive politics. Following Lebanon's independence from France, in 1943, the country enjoyed for a time a civic framework that gave its many factions--Muslims, Christians and subdivisions thereof--ways other than war, or deference to tyrannical rule, to settle their differences.

What upset this balance was the arrival of Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization command, after Jordan kicked them out in 1971. Mr. Arafat set up shop in Lebanon, seeking to create, as many Lebanese describe it, "a state within a state," and bringing with him the havoc that has been the hallmark in many places of his long career. By 1975, Lebanon had descended into war. In 1976, with the blessing of the U.S., Syrian troops first arrived in the name of "stability." There followed many more years of violence, punctuated by a failed U.S. peacekeeping attempt. In 1989, under a deal struck by Arab nations in Taif, Saudi Arabia, Syria became the de facto guardian--and occupying force--in Lebanon.

What followed has been a deeply sinister sort of peace, which has already cost both Lebanon and neighboring Israel dearly, and for which America itself may yet pay a nasty price.

In the dream world of Realpolitik, Syrian forces have simply stayed on in Lebanon with the mission of keeping the country conveniently "stable." In practice, as in so much of the Middle East, this kind of stability is breeding new demons. Syria's government, with its jackboot system, foul prisons, ruthless repression of dissent and support (in joint venture with Iran) of Hezbollah terrorists based in Lebanon, is utterly unfit to run Syria itself, let alone Lebanon.

As one Lebanese political analyst explained it to me, Syria's dictators, first the late President Hafez Assad, now his son Bashar Assad, have simply played their hands more cleverly than Saddam Hussein has. Saddam invaded Kuwait by way of a frontal assault. He provoked the Gulf War, and was driven back. By contrast, Syria got hold of Lebanon in the name of "peacekeeping" and has since been consolidating its grip, largely unchallenged by the world community.

On the matter of this outrageous occupation, there is from many quarters a disturbing indifference. From the Arab world, so full of dictators professing deep concern over democratic Israel's dealings with the Palestinians, there comes not a croak of indignation that despotic Syria continues to occupy Lebanon. From the democratic club of nations comes the occasional groan, including noises recently from both Congress and the European Union. But there has been no serious effort to lever Syria out of Lebanon, or to end Syria's support for Hezbollah--whose terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks here in the 1980s, and today carry out assaults on Israel and threaten the U.S. itself.

By U.S. government estimates, some 25,000 Syrian troops are still based in Lebanon, though in recent years they have stayed out of sight, or at least out of uniform, in the capital itself. But Syria's army is just one part of the extensive machinery Damascus wields to keep control. "All our intelligence agencies are under Syrian control," former Lebanese president Amin Gemayel tells me. Lebanon's Maronite Christian patriarch says that the entire Lebanese government has become "a creature of Syria."

Among Lebanon's pro-Syrian politicians, the relationship is described as one of close "cooperation." Among members of the opposition, the Beirut-Damascus axis gets much less flattering labels. Describe it as you like, the link was amply evident during last week's visit to the Vatican by Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who told the pope that with turmoil ahead in the region, not only does he want Syrian troops to stay in Lebanon, but "I think we need them now more than ever."

And though the Lebanese still enjoy a much greater degree of freedom than do the Syrians themselves (who have none), opposition members here note that step by step, Lebanon is being transformed into a police state. Last year, Beirut authorities shut down an independent television station, MTV, owned by businessman Gabriel Murr, and, on a technicality, kicked Mr. Murr out of a seat he had won in parliament. Interviewed in his 11th-floor office, just upstairs from his boarded-up MTV headquarters, Mr. Murr sums up the situation: "Nothing happens in Lebanon if Syria does not want it to happen. There are some Lebanese who do not like this situation. MTV was for them."

He added that for those favored by Syria, there are no such problems. From his office window, he points across town to the broadcasting tower for the TV station run by Hezbollah. Along with its terrorist operations, Hezbollah fields a vigorous presence in Beirut politics, including a prominent presence at many high-level state functions, and seats in the parliament from which Mr. Murr was expelled.

In recent weeks, the Lebanese authorities have also cut the satellite service of another private TV station, NTV, to stop it from airing a program critical of totalitarian Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, America's request to air paid, Washington-sponsored TV spots were flatly refused by Beirut authorities.

At a respected Beirut-based family-run newspaper, An-Nahar, founded in 1933, publisher Gebran Tueni wonders why a country like America sits so calmly by while Lebanon falls under the sway of a "totalitarian regime." The outspoken Mr. Tueni points out that with a minimum of intelligent policy, Lebanon--freed of Syria--"could find its place and play a major role" in leading the Arab world toward more enlightened government. "We know what democracy means."

I met a group of Lebanese students from various universities, and they also seem to know what democracy means. They all despair of Lebanon's prospects under Syrian occupation. "I don't see that we have a future in Lebanon," said one young man, who plans to leave next year for France. Were there any prospect of Lebanese self-rule, he says he might stay; but "in a totalitarian country, we don't have our future in our hands."

None of this is to say that Lebanon in its heyday was a pristine democracy, or that forcing out Syria would lead immediately to the creation of a free and peaceful society. But the foundations exist, and so does a thoughtful and in some cases daringly outspoken opposition, full of people who wonder why they have been consigned by the free world to live under the shadow of Damascus. As the more enlightened nations of Europe, along with America, ponder ways of bringing true peace and stability to the Middle East, it would be wise to put the liberation of Lebanon high on the agenda. To ignore the democratic promise of this country's early past, while leaving Syria to manage its future "stability," would be to go on incubating monsters.

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