Lebanon Calls for End of Syrian Occupation

Oct. 6, 2000 -- One of the last satellite nations in the world is pushing for independence.

Syrian forces have occupied Lebanon since the country’s civil war began in 1975, and an estimated 35,000 Syrian soldiers remain stationed there. But now Lebanese religious and political leaders from across the political spectrum are calling for the withdrawal of those troops.

Although the calls aren’t new, developments both within and without Lebanon will make them impossible to ignore. Most importantly, the growing anti-Syrian sentiment opens the door for another player — Iran — to undercut Syria’s influence in Lebanon. Increased tension within the Levant could spark conflict between the two Middle East nations.

Although anti-Syrian factions have always criticized Lebanon’s occupation by Syrian troops, two major developments recently brought the issue into the spotlight: the pullout of Israeli troops from South Lebanon in May, and the death of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in July.

Syria is strategically and economically important to Lebanon. Controlling Lebanon allowed Damascus to threaten Israel without directly challenging the Jewish state.

Changes in the Region

Damascus had long used the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon to deflect criticism of its own deployments in the country. But now the withdrawal of Israeli forces has undermined Syria’s reasons for occupying Lebanon.

Additionally, President Hafez al-Assad dealt severely with dissent and thus enjoyed cooperation from many of Lebanon’s religious and political leaders. The new Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, hasn’t yet established a similar reputation for ruthlessness.

The fallout from the Israeli withdrawal and the elder Assad’s death came to the forefront in campaigns for Lebanese parliamentary elections in August and September.

A United Opposition to Syria

For the first time, competing factions found themselves united against the Syrian presence. On Sept. 25, the Council of Maronite Bishops issued a call for the withdrawal of Syria’s troops.

A few weeks earlier, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called for the redeployment of the troops in accordance with the 1989 Taif accords.

In fact, all of Lebanon’s main political groups issued statements criticizing the presence of Syrian forces in the country and the continued influence of Damascus in Lebanon’s internal politics.

The apparent unity won’t last long. Jumblatt has already backtracked on his earlier statements after traveling to Damascus to meet with Assad. Nonetheless, anti-Syrian sentiment among the nation’s citizens has clearly strengthened and could create an opportunity for another outside power, namely Iran.

Iran Exerts Influence

Iran also exerts political and economic influence in Lebanon. It has provided financial and military support to the Islamic group Hezbollah for years.

Now, it may offer support to the emerging independence movement. Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon recently expressed his government’s support for Lebanese “territorial integrity,” according to a Sept. 27 report by the Iranian news agency IRNA.

Although Iran has made similar statements before, the context has changed. Previous statements were directed against the Israeli occupation; now they can only refer to the Syrian presence.

By stoking anti-Syrian sentiment, even indirectly, Tehran may strain its already tenuous relations with Damascus.

And if Damascus doesn’t quell the movement, the reign of Syria’s new president could be threatened. Bashar is not his father. The changing of the guard has prompted all those Syria once controlled with an iron fist to redefine that relationship.

Even Syrian-backed Lebanese politicians like Jumblatt used protests against Syria’s occupation as a campaign issue.

The next step could be violence against Syrian forces.

Already, an unknown Lebanese group calling itself the Citizens for a Free and Sovereign Lebanon are attacking Syrian nationals living in Lebanon, according to a Sept. 26 report in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir.

Bashar will have to act. So far, the new president has appeared content to let Lebanon’s competing factions undermine each other. But threats to Syrian nationals and Syria’s continued hold on the Levant cannot go unanswered.

Jamie Etheridge is an analyst covering the Middle East and Africa for Stratfor.com, an Internet provider of global intelligence.