June 1, 2005 | WebMemo on Middle East
Lebanon's parliamentary elections, which started May 29 and will continue for the next three consecutive Sundays, are an historic opportunity to chart a new course for a nation that has been dominated by neighboring Syria's ruthless dictatorship for three decades. But the going will be difficult. The United States and other friends of Lebanon must remain actively engaged to ensure that real democracy takes root.
Syria's Assad regime initially sent troops in 1976, ostensibly to tamp down the violence of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war. Syria exploited its military presence to dominate Lebanese politics, drain Lebanon's economy, and acquire a staging area for the anti-Israeli operations of its terrorist surrogates, including radical Palestinian groups and Hezbollah ("Party of God"), the fundamentalist Lebanese Shiite movement.
Last September, the United States and France pushed through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. Damascus had clumsily overplayed its hand by ordering its Lebanese political allies to alter the Lebanese constitution to secure an extended term for its puppet, President Emile Lahoud. Syria dragged its feet on withdrawing its 15,000 troops, and many Lebanese increasingly resented their presence, particularly after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.
Simmering Syrian-Lebanese tensions exploded following the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had become an increasingly vocal opponent of the Syrian presence. Many Lebanese suspect that Syrian intelligence agents orchestrated the assassination to intimidate the Lebanese opposition-just as the Syrians had eliminated many other independent Lebanese politicians, including President-Elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982.
Hariri's assassination, however, united many of Lebanon's diverse political factions and emboldened them to publicly demand Syria's withdrawal from Lebanese affairs. Huge popular demonstrations signaled that the Lebanese would no longer tolerate Syrian occupation, and Damascus grudgingly agreed to remove its military forces from Lebanon by the end of April.
But the key to Syria's stranglehold over Lebanese politics long has been Syria's extensive intelligence presence in Lebanon, augmented by Syria's handpicked proxies placed in key slots of the Lebanese Army, police, intelligence, and internal security organizations. Syria's Lebanese allies, and undoubtedly many of its plain-clothes intelligence personnel, remained behind after its uniformed troops left.
The Assad regime is unlikely to accept passively the undermining of its control over Lebanon. It has strong economic reasons to maintain its grip. Up to 20 percent of Syria's gross domestic product is derived from Lebanon. More than one million Syrian workers, unable to find jobs in Syria's stagnant socialist economy, are employed in Lebanon. And high-ranking Syrian officials are believed to rake off a share of the lucrative cross-border smuggling of illegal drugs and other contraband. The Assad regime also has strong political reasons to restrict Lebanese independence. As an unpopular dictatorship dominated by Syria's Alawite minority, which comprises only about 15 percent of the population, the Damascus regime cannot afford to allow subversive democratic ideas to infect its own repressed citizenry.
The Assad regime therefore is likely to play a covert spoiler role in Lebanon. Several car bombs already have been detonated in Lebanese Christian neighborhoods that in recent years have been strongholds of the Lebanese opposition. Damascus can rely not only on its deep-rooted intelligence networks to stir up trouble, but also on its stooges in various Lebanese bureaucracies, pro-Syrian factions such as Hezbollah, and pro-Syrian Palestinian groups based in Lebanon's many refugee camps.
In view of these factors, the elections are likely to be the beginning of an extended political struggle to purge the remnants of Syrian power from Lebanon, and not the birth of a full-fledged democracy. The opposition presently controls about one-third of the Lebanese parliament and expects to gain a majority after the elections. Saad Hariri, the 35 year-old son of the late Prime Minister, led a coalition that scored a major victory in the first round of the elections by winning all of Beirut's 19 seats. But a low voter turnout (only 28 percent of eligible voters participated) and grumbling about the lack of meaningful choices (nine of the nineteen seats were uncontested) may hurt the opposition coalition in future rounds of voting. Moreover, the Assad regime is sure to retain many allies in the new parliament, in part due to its 2000 gerrymander of electoral districts that boosted the electoral prospects of pro-Syrian political parties.
The United States therefore must remain vigilant and actively deter continued Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. It should work with France and other interested members of the Security Council to monitor Syrian activities in Lebanon. If necessary, the Security Council should punish any attempts to rig the elections or intimidate the opposition by imposing economic sanctions on Syria.
Washington should also insist that the Hezbollah militia be disarmed, as required by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. This is only likely to be achieved through extensive intra-Lebanese negotiations and patient diplomacy, not foreign intervention. But if Hezbollah seeks to expand its legitimacy as a political party (and it is likely to increase the number of seats that it controls in the new parliament) then it must be persuaded, in large part by other Lebanese, that it cannot continue to function as an armed group or terrorist organization. Armed coercion and terrorism are incompatible with genuine democracy.
After the elections and the formation of a new government, the United States should support efforts to purge Lebanon's army, police, and other government bureaucracies of Syrian surrogates. This is likely to be a protracted campaign that could bog down if the Lebanese opposition, currently united against Syria, dissolves into rival factions. Many of the candidates that will be elected to parliament are not part of a new wave of democratic reformers, but members of the same group of traditional sectarian leaders whose bitter feuds led to the civil war and Syrian intervention in the first place. The United States should work quietly behind the scenes to help maintain the unity of the opposition and help build a stable national government.
The bottom line is that there should be no complacency about the prospects for Lebanese stability after the elections. The United States and other friends of Lebanon must remain actively engaged to help the Lebanese build a truly independent and stable democracy.
James Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.