by Dr. Gayane Novikova

It is just the way I would like to describe current developments in Lebanon, triggered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

When analyzing the situation in Lebanon, it is necessary to take into account such domestic political factors as the structure of the power pyramid in the confessional way, the role of Hizbullah (“The Party of God”) organization and presence of the Syrian troops on the territory of the country since 1976. One of the main foreign political factors is Lebanon’s place in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the level of bilateral relations between Syria and Iran, and the geo-strategic belonging of this Arab country to two mega-systems –the Greater Middle East and the Mediterranean basin.

The fragile internal stability in Lebanon in the recent fifteen years was guaranteed by preservation of the balance, which was broken on the eve of the Parliamentary elections to be held on May: the opposition, referring to Resolution 1559 adopted by the UN Security Council on September 2, 2004, definitely demanded withdrawal of the Syrian troops and special services from the territory of the country. From the first sight, developments in Lebanon resemble another new “colored revolution”… But the most substantial difference is that the opposition is mainly seeking withdrawal of the Syrian troops, rather than redistribution of power.

The Syrian military presence in the neighboring middle-eastern country started in 1976, and it is just since that period Lebanon is moving along the track of the Syrian foreign and domestic policy. The Syrian presence was fixed as such by the Taif agreement, signed by the Lebanese MPs in the Saudi Arabia in October 1989. That agreement put an end on the civil war in Lebanon, but there were not mentioned concrete terms of presence of the Syrian troops on the Lebanese territory: the Lebanese government had to reinstate its sovereignty over the entire territory of the country within a two-year period, create a national consent government and make political reforms. Only after the end of that period Syria and Lebanon had to decide the issue of re-dislocation of the Syrian troops to the Bekaa valley.

After the signing of that document, Syria kept its military presence in the north and north-west of Lebanon, the south of Lebanon was still under the control of the pro-Israeli Army of the Southern Lebanon and the Hizbullah ­units, whose activity was aimed against Israel and actually supported and sponsored by Iran and Syria.

The Taif agreement defies categorical classification, as Syria has, on the one hand, greatly contributed to bringing the civil war in Lebanon to an end, while virtually depriving Beirut of any independence in foreign policy. In particular, in 1991-1992 Lebanon as, probably, the weakest link in the Arab-Israeli confrontation was ready to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Then Syria succeeded in keeping up Lebanon within the course of its own policy, the Lebanese direction of the Middle-Eastern conflict was attached to the Syrian one, and a little later, in 1994, the Israeli-Lebanese talks were broken.

Inside the country, there were some attempts to get rid of the Syrian, however the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri on February 14, 2005, who resigned in Autumn 2004, disagreeing with the pro-Syrian policy of the President of Lebanon, triggered the present crisis.

Today the situation is as follows: Syria is withdrawing the main part of its contingent from the territory of the country (since the year of 2000, the number of soldiers has reduced from 40.000 to 14.000), dislocating in the Bekaa valley about 2.000 servicemen. The withdrawal started after the meeting of the Syrian and Lebanese Presidents on March 12, and is being held in accordance with the mentioned Taif agreement. The time of complete withdrawal has not been agreed upon so far, but the public opinion polls show that the Lebanese society is confident that the Syrian troops will leave the country until May.

For Syria, now demonstrating readiness to adhere to the norms of international law, the withdrawal of troops from Lebanon is advantageous, taking into account the present conditions in the region, because most probably this step will be followed by decreasing political and economical pressure, first of all on the part of the U.S. However this step will inevitably invoke resistance of the Syrian military elite, having exposed economic interest in Lebanon (according to the Lebanese “Daily Star”, March 22, 2005, Syria has “pumped out” more than $24 billions from Lebanon during last twelve years), which ma y cause tensions inside Syria.

For Lebanon, the withdrawal of the Syrian troops may have serious consequences. However, if it is reasonable to expect positive shifts, in particular, resumption of the negotiating process on peaceful settlement with Israel, growing role of Lebanon within the program of the EU-Mediterranean dialog, influx of foreign investments, etc., the situation inside the country may be much more complicated.

Bearing in mind the statement of the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “Lebanon has to make out its own domestic political problems,” it is necessary to remind that the civil war of 1976-1990 was just an attempt to settle the problems within the structure of the power. Today much more than nearly 30 years ago the confessional system of the state structure does not meet the real proportion of Muslims (59.7%) and Christians (39%) in the population of the country. The continuing Islamization of this least Muslim state in the Middle East the above mentioned factor may become critical.

In addition, it is necessary to take into consideration that the opposition is mostly consisted of the forces that more or less have been fighting with the Syrian presence. It is expected that the withdrawal of the Syrian troops will be completed before the parliamentary elections to be held in May 2005, and the “domestic foreign enemy” will be removed from the country, but the pro-Syrian forces, represented by President Emil Lahud (Maronite Christian) and the newly appointed Prime-Minister Omar Karami (Sunni Muslim).

Hizbullah organization, an influential political force in Lebanon, also can be ascribed as pro-Syrian. Its leadership in early March said that the only legal basis for the withdrawal of the Syrian troops may be the Taif agreement, which naturally, taking into account that the UN SC Resolution 1559 of September 2, 2004, supported by the USA, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and other states, envisages Hizbullah’s disarmament.

The issue of Hizbullah’s disarmament has already divided Lebanon: On March 15 the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeyr insisted on disarmament, Walid Jumblatt and some other opposition leaders consider Hizbullah as resistance movement and intend to support it. Mr. Jumblatt added, “they would speak with Hizbullah, but not with a team that had been a part of the outgoing government,” and that “Hizbullah is a domestic problem, which has to be solved in the talks that, hopefully, will be productive, so today disarmament is in question.” The Shiite community is categorically against the disarmament.

Whether Lebanon would sink in the abyss of the civil war or not, very much depends on Hizbullah’s behavior. The spiritual leader of the organization Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah has already said disarmament is absolutely excluded and that the organization is ready to have a political dialog with the Lebanese authorities. He also said that security of the country can be guaranteed by the Lebanese army and Hizbullah’s regiments.

In the Lebanese society Hizbullah is treated as militia, defending the southern frontiers of the country. 999 respondents (of 3307) gave a positive answer to the question “Is Hizbullah a terrorist organization?,” and 2308 said “no” (results of the interactive polling of March 17-22, 2005, held by “The Daily Star,” Beirut). It is obvious that any attempts to speed up solution of this problem will lead to aggravation of the political situation in the country.

This means that the UN SC Resolution 1559 will not be implemented in spite of the foreign pressure, and in accordance with the 1989 agreement, Syria has a legal excuse for prolongation of the withdrawal of its troops from Lebanon and can use it in the most unstable period.

In addition to pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian mass rallies, bursting out here and there, also alarming is the probability of confessional clashes. As a result of the blast of March 19 in the northern part of Beirut, mostly populated by Christians, ten people were wounded. The opposition, led by Walid Jumblatt, blamed in it the Special Forces, supported by Syria. The second blast roared at night of March 23 in the trade center of the resort town of Kaslik in the Juny bay.

So the political situation in Lebanon is still very tense. Although it will be possible to speak about the real distribution of forces only after the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from this state, it is quite obvious even now that the authorities will unlikely succeed in holding the parliamentary elections more or less quietly. Political struggle will be held against the background of mass rallies under various slogans, meanwhile one is already noticeable – it the demand to the United States not to interfere into the situation.

And finally: the future development of the region very much depends on the results of the elections in Lebanon, on Hizbullah’s decision to enter the Parliament or ignore it, on continuation Emil Lahud’s presidency.

However, Lebanon is rapidly reaching the dangerous line, after which – the civil war.

March 24, 2005