Vol. 5 Num 295 Sat. March 26, 2005  

Lebanon: In search of a future

The political uncertainty in Lebanon rests like an ominous cloud over the volatile region of the Middle East. It had seemed that the memories of a brutal civil war that ended almost 15 years ago had almost receded into the background of a more stable Lebanon. But the recent assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik al-Hariri in Beruit has now set off a chain reaction of events that threaten to destabilize Lebanon to the brink of another political chaos.

The ruling pro-Syrian Lebanese government taking into consideration the changing political mood of the nation had resigned with new parliamentary elections being slated for May 2005. It had been followed by the Syrian government's announcement to redeploy its troops to the eastern Bekaa valley. An initiative that was taken after almost three weeks of opposition protest urging the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the growing US and international pressure on Damascus to do so. It is strongly believed that Syria is responsible for the death of Mr. Rafik al-Hariri although there is no evidence to substantiate the assumption and Damascus has continued to deny any involvement. But there is an air of unease as anti-Syrian sentiments increase in contradiction to the hundreds of thousands of people that turned out for a pro-Syrian rally organized by the Hezbollah, a Shia militia group with considerable political and military influence in Southern Lebanon. As the drama of conflicting political ideology unfolds, the present is balanced between the shadow of a turbulent past it cannot leave behind and the aspiration for a promising future it must embrace. But every conflict has a history that has defined its present and influenced its future.

In context to the Lebanese conflict, Syria is a crucial part of that history. The Syrians have always looked upon Lebanon as part of "Greater Syria" that had been divided by the French colonial rulers and having strategic significance to defend the vulnerable western border. In 1976, Syria became militarily involved in the Lebanese civil conflict. The initial intervention was on the request of Lebanese Christian leaders concerned with Palestinians presence that threatened to change the equations in the conflict. In 1978 and again in 1982, Israel along with its Maronite Christian allies invaded Lebanon. The Syrian forces soon returned as peacekeepers under the auspices of the Arab League to restrict the growing Israeli influence. In 1987, Syrian forces had entered Beirut to end the fighting between Shia and Sunni Muslim factions. By 1990, Syrian forces had not only brought the Lebanese civil war to an end but also maintained the peace. However, according to the Taif Accord signed at the end of the conflict in 1989, Syrian troops were to make a gradual withdrawal from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley and the mountains of central Lebanon by 1992. This would then lead up to a total withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory. But the accord was not literally followed through and when Israel withdrew its forces from Southern Lebanon in 2000, the Syrian were being pushed to do the same. The continuing presence of Syrian troops and the clear influence it exerted had begun to cause resentment within Lebanon. By 2001, Syria in an effort to ease the growing tension withdrew some of its troops from Beirut. In September 2004, a UN resolution was passed calling for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and Syria responded with a further withdrawal.

In the present scenario, the Syrians have already begun to withdraw their troops from southern and northern Lebanon towards the eastern Bekaa valley. The US has described this withdrawal as a "half-measure" and reiterated their demand for complete withdrawal before the parliamentary elections in May. But while the US demands the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, its own presence in Iraq is disputed. Although, it would not be fully accurate to make a parallel comparison, as both issues are a product of different circumstances and time, it does bring into question the credibility of the US or its allies to intervene in the matter.

Many in the Middle East see the US as not only an occupying force in Iraq but also a nation biased by its own close alliance with Israel. In such circumstances, the US intervention is bound to be seen as hypocritical and a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The international community on the other hand, reprimands Syria for failing to adhere to international law and UN resolutions but remains silent to similar violations by countries such as Turkey and Israel. This kind of inconsistent response undermines the credibility of the international community of a fair play to justly intervene in a conflict and ensure that justice and peace prevail.

There is no doubt that the Syrian presence in Lebanon is far from desirable but nonetheless must be dealt with realistically. Lebanon is a complex nation fiercely divided on sectarian lines and traditional clan loyalties. It has already gone through a devastating civil war in which Syria has played a prominent role to bring about peace and stability. The Syrians have over a period of time developed an influence that cannot be simply discarded by an immediate troop withdrawal. The process has to be gradual and systematic, whereby the Lebanese security forces have the adequate space and time to establish control. This is another American folly of short-sightedness, unless proved otherwise in the forthcoming election by means beyond doubt.

At present, there seems to be no strategy in place to deal with the unexpected implication of a Syrian withdrawal and the probability of a power vacuum. Lebanon is far from united as the conflicting demonstrations have proven. Although many would like to believe otherwise, the transition to a sovereign Lebanon will be far from easy as new structures and alliances are created to deal with the changing times. It is also most likely that Syria will continue to be an important element in Lebanon although its role will be redefined as the political, social and economic context begins to change. However, Lebanon's quest for sovereignty and independence must be from within rather than imposed from outside.

The idea of democracy that the US has been constantly drumming up and loudly reiterating in the Middle East is also resonated in Lebanon. The concept of democracy is best illustrated by the celebrated words of Abraham Lincoln: "Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people." However, democracy is a complicated political ideology filled with contradictions, myths and complexities. It is not just about elections but maintaining a fragile balance between good governance, rationality and the aspirations of the people. There is no doubt that democracy remains the most stable and desirable form of government and in late Sir Winston Churchill's words …. A tool of great power…. However, it is a political ideology one can encourage nations to adopt, but not impose upon them, for that itself defies the principles of a true democracy.

Lebanon has to make the political transition to freedom and sovereignty in its own terms and pace and within the prevalent historical, social and political context in place. The US belief that 'freedom will prevail" as soon as the Syrians withdraw their troops is rather an idealistic view of global politics and overlooks the political implications of a power struggle. It is a serious misconception that a Syrian withdrawal will lead to a smooth transition towards democracy. The first step would have been taken but it is still a long road to be travelled. The US needs to be more practical and pragmatic in its approach instead of being half-hearted and partisan, in larger interest of Lebanon and world peace. It also needs to tactically avoid French encouragement and sponsorship of words behind the curtain. One should not loose sight of US involvement in one-time French colony Vietnam. Besides, any political solution will realistically need the support of the Hezbollah with its strong presence in Southern Lebanon to bring peace and stability. Conflict cannot be ended without making all parties a part of the peace process. A clear example is the peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians, which are often derailed due to lack of participation of groups with different ideological approach to peace. Therefore, efforts will have to be made to bury political differences and comprises accepted for the greater good of the country.

Lebanon's President has once again invited the pro-Syrian former Prime Minister Omar Karami to form a new government. The move comes a few days after Mr. Karami had resigned in the midst of anti-Syrian protests. The demonstrations have ended but not the aspirations for Lebanese sovereignty and freedom. As Syria begins the historic withdrawal of about 1/3 of its troops, Lebanon has awakened once again to an uncertain future. It is now to be seen if Lebanon can reconcile to the differences of the past by uniting to confront the turbulence of the present, carving a new destiny defined by its own aspirations to be the stable and progressive nation it was truly meant to be. Lebanon has taken a step forward where there is no turning back but to move with assured steps to a future it holds the power to define.

Fatima Chowdhury is a freelance writer residing in Kolkata.