The Guardian 16 March, 2005

Syria-Lebanon turmoil
has roots in colonialism

Dan Margolis

Following a massive blast in Lebanon last month that killed 17 people, including former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and that wounded more than 100 others, the political situation has been plunged into chaos.

Various theories have emerged as to who may have organised the February 14 bombing, the worst violence since the end of Lebanon's 16-year civil war in 1990. A little known Islamic group claimed responsibility, but others have pointed to different groups, including Israel's security agency Mossad. Still others point to the Syrian government, which has had troops stationed in Lebanon for years, with Lebanon and Syria formalising the relationship in a 1991 treaty.

The allegations of Syrian involvement have led to unrest and international condemnation. Anti-Syria protesters have camped out in the capital, Beirut, for weeks. Prime Minister Omar Karami's pro-Syrian government was forced to resign, emboldening anti-Syrian protesters but has now been reinstated by Parliament. This followed huge pro-government protests which dwarfed the demonstrations by the anti-Syria forces.

The anti-Syria protesters, especially from Christian communities, demanded the withdrawal of Syrian soldiers. As a result, the Syrian government pulled troops away from Beirut, and left open the possibility of their total withdrawal.

Problems in Lebanon stem from the colonial period, when France carved Lebanon out of Syria. Even after its formal independence was granted in 1943, the new constitution guaranteed control of the country by Maronite Christians. By the 1970s, they represented only 30 per cent of the population, and Muslims and progressives formed the National Movement to struggle for democracy.

Religious groups began forming militias. The minority Christian militias were backed by West Germany and Belgium. The 40 armies involved when civil war broke out included Christian and Muslim militias, as well as the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Iran, the United States, and Palestinian liberation groups. The war had devastating effects, including the destruction of Beirut, once considered the "Paris of the Middle East".

The civil war ended with the Ta'if (Saudi Arabia) Agreement of 1989 and in 1991 the dismantling of all militias except Hezbollah. Lebanon began, after that point, to re-establish a central governing authority, though a part of the country remained occupied by Israeli troops until they were forced out in 2000.

According to experts on the region, it is highly unlikely that Syria was responsible for Hariri's murder. If Syria was responsible, said British journalist Patrick Seale, "it must be judged as an act of political suicide. It exposes Syria to attack from its enemies at a time when it is already under intense international pressure."

"The Syrian regime is essentially rational", he said.

Seale also pointed out that Hariri was not part of the opposition to Syria's involvement in Lebanon, but was actively involved in trying to mediate between the anti-Syria groups in Lebanon and Syria itself.

Some charge that the US may have a hand in the current crisis. Lebanese who have been demonstrating against Syria's troops have openly said that they wish to model themselves after the US-backed "Pora" movement in Ukraine.

President Bush has called for Syria's withdrawal, saying that democracy is impossible with an occupying army in place an ironic statement considering the US military occupation of Iraq is part of Bush's plan to "democratise" the Middle East.

Writing in the London-based Independent newspaper, Robert Fisk said that the West's push for Syrian withdrawal is wrong, and could cause a nightmare for the Lebanese people. "There are growing signs that the Syrian retreat is reopening the sectarian divisions of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war", he wrote. "Have we forgotten 150,000 dead?"

Ultimately, it is a question for the Lebanese people to decide. The Lebanese Communist Party has issued an "Initiative for National Salvation", which calls for greater independence but also for reforms within the new government.

People's Weekly World, Communist Party, USA

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