In a mirror image of those who blame everything
wrong in the world on President George W. Bush, a surprising number of people
are now giving him credit for the recent show of force by hundreds of thousands
of Lebanese protestors demanding an end to Syria's overbearing influence
in their country.
It is extremely doubtful that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has had anything to
do with the inspirational "people power" demonstrations in the Lebanese
capital of Beirut.
Many leading members of the Lebanese opposition – such as the late Prime Minister
Rafik Hariri, whose assassination prompted the recent wave of anti-Syrian protests – were
outspoken opponents of U.S. policy in the region, including the invasion of
Iraq. Hariri's government chaired the emergency Arab League meeting in
Cairo just prior to the March 2003 U.S. invasion in which the 22-member body
expressed its "total rejection of the threat of aggression on Arab nations,
in particular Iraq."
The recently completed Iraqi or Palestinian elections, which were repeatedly
praised by the Bush administration, did not play much of a role either. Lebanon
has held competitive elections for many years, though – like in Iraq and
Palestine – they have taken place under a foreign military presence that
strictly limits the elected government's ability to act independently. The newly
elected Palestinian government is unable to exercise its administration in most
of the West Bank, which is still under the control of Israeli occupation forces
in violation of several UN Security Council resolutions – which call on
Israel to withdraw from areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority prior
to September 2000.
In Iraq, six weeks after that country's election, violence and instability
continue unabated and the new government – which is yet to be formed – has its
power limited by a series of Transitional Administrative Laws and regulatory
agencies imposed under the U.S. occupation. If the Iraqi election actually did
influence recent events in Lebanon, it may be for different reasons than the
Bush administration would like to recognize: parties calling for an end of American
domination of Iraq and for a withdrawal of American forces won an overwhelming
majority of votes, perhaps inspiring Lebanese who want an end of Syrian domination
of their country and for a withdrawal of Syrian forces.
If foreign influence did play a positive role, at least as much credit would
belong to France – the former colonial power, which still exerts significant
influence in the country – as well as to the United Nations, which last year
passed a Security Council resolution calling on all foreign forces to leave
Lebanon and will likely play a major role in overseeing an eventual Syrian withdrawal.
Instead, Washington's attempts to gain support for ridding Lebanon of
Syrian domination may have been counter-productive. The pro-government forces
became mobilized and the anti-government/anti-Syrian movement appeared to stall
as soon as the United States started taking credit for it.
Just as the Bush administration was trumpeting its alleged role of inspiring
demonstrations over previous weeks by tens of thousands of supporters of the
Lebanese opposition, a counter-demonstration brought hundreds of thousands to
the streets to denounce U.S. interference and show support for the pro-Syrian
Lebanese government, and pro-Syrian prime minister Oman Karami, who had been
dumped last month, was returned to power.
The pro-government rally was primarily organized by the Shi'ite Hezbollah party
but was also supported by Amal (another Shi'ite party), as well as segments of
the Sunni population loyal to Karami. Interestingly, Hezbollah's leaders
have not openly called for the Syrians to remain, but have instead insisted
that the withdrawal be carried out according to the guidelines of the Taif Accords
(signed by the Syrian and Lebanese governments in 1989), and not as a result
of foreign pressure.
Some observers believe that the protest – rather than being against a
Syrian withdrawal – was meant more as a show of strength by Hezbollah and
others to bargain for a place in a future Lebanese government. The connection
the fundamentalist Lebanese Shi'ite movement has with the secular Syrian Ba'athist
government has always been primarily an alliance of convenience.
Anti-Syrian sentiment has been growing in Lebanon for some time and has become
increasingly widespread throughout the country's diverse religious and ethnic
communities. The major problem has not been the presence of Syrian troops per
se, which are far less visible and numerous than in previous years, but the
effective control Syria wields through its secret police in Beirut, who effectively
intimidate government officials into not challenging the wishes of Damascus.
It has become less of an issue of ideology or ethnicity as one of nationalism.
The New York Times and other news outlets noted that many of the protestors
not only opposed Syrian intervention, but opposed French, Israeli, and American
intervention as well.
At the same time, the presence of large numbers of affluent Maronite Christians
at the earlier opposition rallies led many to dub the effort "the Gucci
uprising" or "the BMW revolution." Lebanese leftist Ghassam Makarem,
in noting the high visibility at the anti-Syrian rallies of parties affiliated
with the far right and various warlords, observed, "There is absolutely
no question that the Syrian presence in the country and their sponsorship of
this ruling class should end. But there should also be no question that we cannot
allow the genuine calls for peace and freedom to be hijacked by fascists and
The fact that the United States has supported a number of prominent Lebanese
"fascists and war criminals" over the years has added to the backlash.
The growing American calls for greater Lebanese sovereignty is viewed by most
Lebanese as crass opportunism on the part of Washington, which for decades has
undermined Lebanon's sovereignty.
The bottom line is that the complexity of Lebanese politics and the new dynamics
on the ground in reaction to Hariri's killing precludes any premature claim
of American credit for whatever positive developments have emerged in that war-ravaged
country challenging the undue influence of Syria. Furthermore, it is unlikely
that the widespread anti-American sentiment in Lebanon will change as long as
U.S. demands that Lebanese sovereignty be respected appear to be limited only
to situations where the violator of that sovereignty is not allied with the
(Foreign Policy in Focus)