BEIRUT - Lebanon
has not really had the occasion yet to enjoy the departure of Syrian troops
and the victory of anti-Syrian groups in the parliamentary elections last month.
The country is facing a period of political and economic upheaval almost unparalleled
since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
This week, a fifth bomb went off in a series that has been aimed at mostly
anti-Syrian politicians and journalists since October last year. Syria extended
a week-long slowdown of border checks for trucks coming out of Lebanon, and
the country's prime minister-designate is close to resigning as a result of
pressure by Syria's still powerful supporters.
The target of Tuesday's bomb attack was outgoing defense minister Elias Murr,
who is also deputy prime minister and former interior minister. He is a scion
of the powerful Murr family that has had a hand in many political and economic
pies in the country for decades.
Murr, who survived the blast that killed two people in a northern suburb of
Beirut, is also son-in-law of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud.
Tannous Mouawad, a security analyst with close ties to the army, says that
despite his pro-Syrian image and connections, Murr had been in conflict with
the powerful former head of Syrian security in Lebanon, Dustom Ghazale, since
So far, only explicitly anti-Syrian politicians and a journalist have been
targeted, apart from a parallel series of bombings aimed at commercial properties.
The most prominent victim of the bombings was former prime minister Rafiq Hariri,
who was killed in a huge blast in the center of Beirut in February. He had resigned
several months earlier after a conflict with Syria over the extension of the
mandate of President Lahoud, which he initially opposed.
Despite Syrian denials of involvement, the killing of Hariri sparked huge protests
in Lebanon that eventually, in combination with international pressure, led
to the withdrawal of Syrian troops who had been present in the country for some
The attack against Murr, said Mouawad, was meant not only as a settling of
accounts but may also have been intended to intimidate his immediate family,
President Lahoud in particular. "You always think it will not happen to
you but when it hits your family, you start thinking about it," he told
Lahoud is Syria's most important remaining asset in the Lebanese political
system. But he has the approval of the new cabinet that the victorious anti-Syrian
coalition is trying to form.
Prime minister-designate Fouad Siniora from the bloc of Saad Hariri, son of
the murdered former prime minister, has been trying to put together a broad
coalition, including also the pro-Syrian Hezbollah and Amal parties and the
right-wing former army general Michel Aoun.
On Tuesday, hours after the attack on Murr, Siniora finally presented a list
of 30 ministers to Lahoud for approval. Later in the evening, Aoun and Hezbollah
withdrew from the list. President Lahoud is rumored to be opposed to the list.
With all of Syria's allies or presumed allies such as Aoun opposed to the new
government, the impression of Syrian obstructionism in the formation of the
new government became even stronger in Lebanon after weeks of negotiations in
which Siniora had given in to most of their demands.
Syria has condemned the attack on Murr, as it has condemned earlier attacks,
but the timing does again lead many Lebanese to point the finger at Damascus.
"Syria wants Siniora out and [current pro-Syrian PM] Najib Mikati back
in," said Mouawad. Mikati is known to be friendly with Syria's president,
While there is no hard evidence to link Syria to any of the violence in the
country, or even to the political stalemate, there is now a clear element of
economic pressure added to the mix.
For more than a week now, Syria has imposed stringent border controls on traffic
leaving Lebanon, particularly on trucks exporting products from the country,
but also on travelers.
Hundreds of trucks, some carrying perishable produce, have been stuck for days
at border crossings that are normally negotiated in a matter of hours.
Lebanese trade lobbyists have accused Syria of using economic pressure for
political purposes. "This is a political game the Syrians are playing to
influence the formation of the new government," said Mouhedienne Jammal,
coordinator of Lebanon's agricultural and industrial cooperatives.
Many Lebanese see the Syrian behavior as an act of vengeance. At the main border
crossing between Beirut and Damascus at Masnaa, where travelers were rarely
seriously checked by Syrian customs, the checks verged on the bizarre this week.
One Lebanese woman was told to open a box of biscuits, and a family was not
allowed to bring a bag of diapers into Syria.
Syria has given contradictory explanations for the slowdown. Interior Minister
Ghazi Kena'an, a former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, was quoted in
the Arab media as saying that the checks were for security reasons. A border
official said that last week customs officials had intercepted a cargo of explosives
on the border at Jdeide, on the Syrian side of Masnaa.
But Syria's head of customs Basel Sannoufa had earlier denied this. He blamed
logistics at the border terminals and also congestion at Syria's border with
Iraq, the destination of many trucks coming from Lebanon.
The border with Syria is Lebanon's only open land crossing. The frontier with
Israel, with which it is in a state of war, is closed. Lebanon annually exports
goods worth more than half a billion dollars to Syria and through Syria to the
rest of the Arab world, according to the Association of Lebanese Industrialists.
Siniora has held talks with Nasri Khoury, who heads the Lebanese-Syrian higher
council that oversees political and economic cooperation between the two countries.
Khoury also blamed security for the border problems and said he was working
on ending the delays.
Syria's measures may be in violation of an Arab League free-trade agreement.
The controls may also run counter to the association agreement that Damascus
wants to sign with the European Union.