The aim of the following work is to investigate the role of Syrian influence on the domestic affairs of Lebanese government. First, the relationships between the two countries will be briefly analyzed tracking back to the past, that is from the end of 19th up to 20th century. The role of Syria in Lebanon has to be clarified in order to deeply understand the ties linking the two countries, especially for a relevant event, that is the assassination of President Hariri in February 2005; such event, thus, struck Lebanon to its core political centre. Therefore, the focus of the analysis will be on the assassination, on its implications for Lebanese domestic sphere and, finally, on the culprits of the attack. Both United Nations and the U.S. assigned the blame on Syria as the main responsible of the assassination, though the issue is more controversial and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is still working on the case.
Syria has always had a longstanding influence and powerful role in Lebanon. During the Ottoman Empire, the area that then became Lebanon was part of Greater Syria, which was an overall administrative territory held by the government of Damascus. When the borders of the countries were established in the aftermath of First World War, Lebanon was created from what many Arab nationalists claimed to be rightfully part of Syria. Indeed, since the countries became independent, they have never had formal diplomatic relations. To date, the Syrian government steadily avoids the possibility to formally demarcate the geo-political border and it still refuses to intertwine diplomatic relations with Lebanon. In 1975 Lebanon suffered a full-scale civil war between the Marionite Christian groups of the Lebanese Front and the Lebanese National Movement, which was made up of left-leaning Muslims who wanted a greater share of political power. The violent fighting ended in 1976 when the Marionite government asked for support from Syria.
Hence, in May 1976, the Lebanese President Suleiman Franjieh received Syrian troops sent by Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who aimed to strengthen the Marionite government in order to manipulate it and to increase Syrian influence on the country. Damascus has always defined Lebanon as a sort of backyard bound to its eastern neighbor by ‘distinctive relations’, an euphemism Damascus utilized to legitimize its interference in Lebanon’s domestic affairs and foreign politics. In a revealing speech of Syrian President Assad, he explained the reasons of the intervention in Lebanon since the defeat of Christian militias would invite Israeli intervention into Lebanon. This, in turn, was bound to expose Syria’s western side to an Israeli attack undermining Syria’s leverage and, consequently, increasing its regional isolation. A Christian defeat in Lebanon would also represent an appalling scenario through an Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which could drag Syria to a confrontation with Israel. In order to avoid a possible defeat, President Assad deployed his troops in Lebanon helped by contingents from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Sudan later on. The war lasted 15 years.
What caused the war?
Tensions among Lebanon’s Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and the Druze Muslim sect were the main reasons that originated the conflict in 1976. Under French occupation, which lasted from the end of the First World War until independence in1943, Christians had the full control in the national assembly and, then, in choosing the President. This caused resentment in Lebanese Muslims, especially as they grew to eventually outnumber Christians. In early 1970s, with the arrival of Yasir Arafat and his fellows militants of PLO ( Palestinian Organization Liberation), Lebanese Muslim groups supported those fighters while Christian Marionite groups worried that PLO raids against Israel would invite retaliation and destabilize Lebanon. Throughout the 1970s, the PLO increasingly used Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel. Israeli forces invaded in 1978 and in 1982; after the second invasion they remained and occupied a strip of land in Southern Lebanon for nearly 20 years. Egypt, Iraq and Libya supported Muslim militant groups in the civil war, while the US and Israel gave their help to Christian groups. During the long course of the conflict, Syria alternately supported the Christian and Muslim sides.
The Taif Accord was signed in 1989 and it represented the end of the conflict. The agreement was promoted by Arab Nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, and it gave Lebanese Muslims a greater share of political power in Lebanon and it formalized ‘preferred relations’ between Lebanon and Syria. Thanks to the agreement, Syria’s role was internationally recognized as ‘the guarantor of Lebanon’s security’ and its influence on the Lebanese government was at least officially justified. From that date, Syria confirmed its dominant role in Lebanon as a source of balance among the power of different Lebanese communities, recognizing that the two countries are strictly linked together through a sort of ‘protective brotherhood’ relation, which became official in 1991 with the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination. Therefore, that treaty stated that: ‘the two countries will work to achieve the highest levels of cooperation and coordination in either political, economical and security field’. Such agreement, though, allowed Syria to send its troops in the Bekaa Valley, a strategic security zone between Syria and Lebanon, with the official objective of protecting the security of the country by providing both internal cohesion and order. However, Syria still maintains its troops in the Valley, whose number reached almost 40,000 in 2000, ensuring to be ready to withdraw them as soon as Lebanon asked it.
In 1992, then, the charge of Prime Minister was assigned to Hariri, who was committed in the rebuilding of the country, starting from the city of Beirut, which before the conflict had been known as ‘Paris of the Middle East’. As far as Syria is concerned, from 1991 to 26 April 2005, it had total control of both domestic and foreign politics in Lebanon. Indeed during this period, Syria became at the same time the dominant domestic actor in Lebanon and the main external party overseer in the transition from war to peace. Control over Lebanon not only led Syria to the Arab-Israeli negotiations but it also gave Syria a major regional power.
Control over Lebanon confirmed, however, that without Syrian consent, there would not be a Middle East peace settlement.
What is the position of International Community on Syria?
After the Syrian strategic occupation of the Bekaa Valley, the US pointed out that Damascus had always been a promoter for terrorism due to the presence of Hezbollah movement and, for this, it has banned any foreign aid, American investment and the sale of military equipment or dual-use items to Syria.
On the other hand, the United Nations has a long history of urging foreign troops, including Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian fighters, out of Lebanon. In 1978, U.N. Resolutions 425-427 called for Israeli troops to withdraw from Lebanon and in 1982, after the second Israeli invasion, the security Council passed a raft of Resolutions deploring the violence of that year and asking all parties to cease fighting and withdraw their troops. Since Israel pulled out in 2000, the attention of International Community focused again on Syria’s troops and, eventually, in September 2004, U.N. Resolution 1559 passed and it was the latest Security Council action on foreign presence in Lebanon.
What does Resolution 1559 say?
Resolution 1559, sponsored by the United States and France and supported by Lebanese leader Hariri, called for two main objectives: first the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and the end of their interference in Lebanese affairs; then, it also called for the disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias in the country. Those militias were supposed to be disarmed right after civil war but the Lebanese government left the army supplies to Hezbollah militias, which were involved in fighting against Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon. UN Security General Kofi Annan decided to implement Resolution 1559 which declared the support ‘for a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election conducted according to Lebanese constitutional rules and devised without foreign interference or influence.’ Syria opted to confront the international community in lebanon so that despite the Resolution, President Bashar al-Assad decided to renew the internal political situation by forming a new cabinet. Hariri, who was opposed to the renewal, decided to confront Syria in the 2005 parliamentary elections since a majority would give him control over executive institutions. The U.S. and France through UN Resolution 1559 and with implicit Arab support would be able, thus, to force a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and Hariri could dismantle the Syrian political-security apparatus in Lebanon.
A bloodstained brotherhood, the assassination of Hariri
As it was said before, Syria’s occupation of Lebanon started in 1976 when President Franjieh called for support from Syrian troops in response to fighting that had escalated into the country’s second civil war in less than 20 years. The war ended with the sign of the Taif Accord in 1989, which ended the fighting and formed a power-sharing government jointly controlled by Christians and Muslims. The accord also served as Lebanon’s new constitution. As part of the accord, the Lebanese parliament called for a special relationship between Syria and Lebanon, with Syria assisting the government in controlling the country over the next two years. In 1992, hence, when the Syrian troops were expected to withdraw from Lebanon, the Syrian government did not maintain the agreement signed in Taif and that denial originated an escalation of tensions between the countries, which were tight together in a ‘Brotherhood and Cooperation’ relationship. In 2004, the United Nations, under the pressures of both the US and France decided to intervene calling for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops through UN Resolution 1559.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops finally took place in 2005, after the increase of pressures following the assassination of ex-prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. In February 2005, Hariri was killed in a car bomb explosion that killed other 21 people who were with him. The attack was promptly defined by the International Community as a terroristic attack; most of the responsibility for it fell under Syrian government, which was even blamed for being the main actor in planning the attack. Moreover, the opposition parties, to which Hariri belonged to, and his family accused The Lebanese and Syrian governments of having had a hand in the killing and demanded an international investigation into his death.
Why Hariri was assassinated?
In the years following the Taif agreements, Syria not only kept its troops in Lebanon but it also imposed a deep influence on both country’s economy and politics. An estimated 1 million Syrians lived and worked in Lebanon according to the US Department of Defense and experts said that the Pro-Syrian Lebanese government continues, still now, to answer to Damascus. Along with those Syrian influences, American officials also criticized the presence of the Syrian intelligence agency, an arm of the Syrian government known as the ‘mukhabarat’, through which Syria maintained control over much of the daily life in Beirut. Such influence had as a consequence, the assassination of Hariri, who was a popular business man and politician from the opposition party. Hariri, hence, was against Syrian occupation and Syria’s hold on the government and called for the withdrawal of troops leading up to a general election in May 2005. As an example of Syria’s dominance, prior to Hariri’s resignation, Syrian leaders lobbied the Lebanese parliament to pass an amendment to extend the term of the Pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud.
Moreover, the reasons that could increase Syrian commitment into the assassination were either the Syrian military hold on Lebanon, its dealing with Hariri as a member of the opposition party, and the controversial political regime of Damascus itself. First, Syrian troops were responsible for the security of Lebanon but after the assassination they showed their inadequate role and they had no more justifications to stay on Lebanese soil. Second, Hariri had good relations with French President Chirac, though this fact did not please Syrian government, which blamed Hariri of having facilitated the signing of Resolution 1559 and the demilitarization of Hezbollah. The implementation of this resolution would deprive Syria of its only available negotiating tool against Israel resulting fatal for its strategic interests. Third, the killing of Hariri has to be analyzed taking into the account the context of the Syrian regime itself, which was a regime driven by a combination of militarism, ideology and tribalism.
What impact did the assassination of Hariri have on the Syria-Lebanon relationship?
The killing gave its contribution to focus both national and international attention on the Syrian occupation and revealed deep anti-Syrian feeling in Lebanon. Angry attacks hit Baath party headquarters in Beirut and Syrian workers and trucks in other cities, including Tripoli and Hariri’s hometown of Sidon.
Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria stressed that “ the majority opinion in Lebanon is that Syrian troops should leave immediately” even though expelling all the Syrians from Lebanon it was not an easy objective since in addition to the soldiers, there were more than 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon, a country of roughly 4 million people, and thousands of undercover Syrian intelligence agents.
Nevertheless, the withdrawal of Syrian troops could not eradicate the influence of Syria on both the domestic and foreign affairs of Lebanon as Bashar al-Assad commented: “Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon does not mean the absence of a Syrian role in the country. This role is governed by many geographic and political and other factors. On the contrary, we [will be] more at liberty and more forthcoming in our dealings with Lebanon.” Syria’s continued interest in Lebanese matters became real after the closure of the long border with Lebanon as the first post-withdrawal cabinet was being formed in mid-July 2005.
As a consequence of that statement, in July 2005, pro-Syrian Lebanese politicians called for the rebuilding of the relations between the two countries labeling them “distinctive in their strength ,depth, transparency, equality and sincerity”.
Why Lebanon is so appealing for Syria’s government?
On one hand, Lebanese leaders have managed the influence of their Syrian neighbor while maintaining domestic stability and preserving strong bilateral economic ties. On the other, Syrian leaders have tried to influence developments in Lebanon in order to prevent forces hostile to the Syrian government from consolidating a position of strength there. This approach always led to direct Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs with the aim of guaranteeing Syrian access to the Lebanese domestic political sphere. At present, Syria keeps its influence in Lebanon through its tight relationship with Hezbollah and with the pro-Syrian governing coalition. Due to this controversial relationship with Hezbollah, which had been defined as a source of terrorism and as a threat to Western World, Syrian presence in Lebanon could be understood as a danger and an inner threat for the security of the country.
Lebanon, however, has also served as a battleground for a number of wars between neighboring countries , including one between Syria and Israel, the latter already involved in hostilities against Hezbollah. For this reason, Syrian had always taken advantage from Hezbollah to maintain both pressure on Israel and control in Lebanon. As an example of the stead relationship among Hezbollah and Syrian leaders, when Syria began to withdraw its troops out of Beirut, in March 2005, Hezbollah called on its supporters to take to the streets in a show of solidarity with Syria: an estimated 500,000 people held the slogan of a further ‘Syrian-Lebanese brotherhood’.
As far as International Community is concerned, the tight relationship with Syria and Hezbollah was not well seen by Western Communities, mostly by the U.S., which, though, kept Syria in a state of isolation, especially after the violation of a UN ban on arming the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.
The Assad government in Syria was one of the most intransigent opponents of peace with Israel and supporter of several anti-Israel armed groups, especially Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Palestinian group Hamas. Hopes for reconciliation, unfortunately, seem a still too blur objective.
A Controversial Brotherhood, intertwined ties
Analyzing the relationship that links Syria and Lebanon it must be said that it has both positive and negative outcomes for the politics and economic growth of the country. On one side, the positive aspect is that Syria’s presence in Lebanon contributes to the development of the country itself by increasing: labor (Lebanon serves as an important outlet for surplus Syrian labor, with an estimated 300,000 permanent Syrian workers); trade (Lebanon depends on Syria as a key transit point for its exports); and, then, finance (the financial sectors of both countries have become increasingly integrated. The Syrian business community has long relied on Lebanese banks as an important financial safe haven, providing a respite from taxes). Conversely, the negative aspects are mostly pointed out by the International community, which, after the violation of some UN Resolutions banning arms to the Hezbollah militias, started looking at Syria’s influence on Lebanon as a possible threat to peace and security.
Furthermore, the U.S. implemented some programs in Lebanon, such as strengthening Lebanon’s weak democratic institutions, limiting Iranian and Syrian influence in Lebanon’s political sphere, and countering transnational threats from Hezbollah and other militant groups through security assistance. Border security, thus, is still a relevant concern because of the porous borders between Syria and Lebanon, which are not properly demarcated. Syria has historically disregarded Lebanese sovereignty in violation of UN Security Resolution 1559 and 1680. Although Syria agreed on participating in a committee to demarcate the border between the two countries in 2008, they did not come to a solution and borders are still rather unclear. The porous feature of those borders are intentionally maintained by the Syrian’s government in order to make it easier for both people and arms to cross the boundary by disregarding Lebanese sovereignty and committing territorial violations. As a reply, Syria justified its incursion saying that the target was to better control the territory preventing any foreign incursion.
Syria also started scattering landmines along several sections of the Lebanese border in order to decrease arms smuggling, while the landmines were meant to kill those members of the opposition who wanted to cross the border and organize attacks against Syria from within Lebanon.
As far as arms are concerned, arms smuggling is a real problem for both Lebanese and Syrian regime since the transfer is possible thanks to the porous nature of the border; this facility constitutes a threat to both national and international security. The Syrian government has accused some Lebanese of smuggling weapons across the border to aid the Syrian opposition in the uprising. Simultaneously, Hezbollah reportedly has moved many of its long-range missiles from Syria to Lebanon, fearful that Assad regime would collapse and the group would be unable to access its stocks of arms. According to one observer, “there’s so much stuff coming across the border…Hezbollah doesn’t know where to put it.”