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Syria's Role Forces Hard Look at Lebanon Sovereignty

The international community has had to confront a long-ignored issue after the reported meddling in the proxy state's presidential vote.

September 18, 2004|Rania Abouzeid and Megan K. Stack | Special to The Times

BEIRUT — While war-torn Lebanon worked to rebuild its dazzling limestone capital by the sea and dubbed itself the Arab world's lone democracy, rulers in Syria ran the country from afar, wielding power over the president, the prime minister and the majority of the Lebanese parliament.

But Syria's recent reported interference in Lebanon's presidential election may have been too much.

Instead of letting Lebanese lawmakers pick a new president next month, Syrian President Bashar Assad and his advisors apparently decided they preferred the man already in power. Lebanon's lawmakers amended the constitution to give President Emile Lahoud, whose term expires Nov. 24, three more years in office.

Syria has denied involvement in the vote, saying it was a Lebanese matter.

Before the parliament in Beirut cast its vote, the United Nations issued a stern resolution warning foreigners not to meddle in the electoral process and calling for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces, an indirect reference to Syrian troops.

Syria and Lahoud have remained defiant even as the U.N.'s Oct. 3 deadline nears.

"Lebanon considers the Syrian military presence on its territory a legitimate factor which helps reinforce stability in the region," Lahoud said this week. Meanwhile, friction between Syria and an already peeved United States intensified, and a political crisis flared in Beirut.

Syria's relations with its staunch ally France also were strained, and even some Arab states called on Damascus to heed U.N. orders and let Lebanon choose its own leaders.

"This was the first time that the Syrians have acted completely like an occupying force, abandoning all pretense," said Gebran Tueni, publisher of the influential Beirut daily An Nahar, which waged a campaign against extending Lahoud's mandate.

Syria's military presence in Lebanon dates to 1976, when it sent in troops after civil war broke out. When the violence ended in 1990, the Syrian soldiers were to stay on temporarily, to keep the peace.

Today, nearly 20,000 Syrian troops remain in Lebanon, and virtually every serious political question is decided in Damascus.

World leaders grumbled quietly about the presence, but nobody forced Syria to leave.

Now the Lahoud incident seems to have forced the international community to confront the questionable status of Lebanon's sovereignty.

"France used to view the Syrian presence in Lebanon like that of American soldiers in Germany during World War II," said Fares Khachan, political editor of Al Mustaqbal newspaper in Beirut.

"Now they view it like that of German soldiers in France during the same period."

In Washington, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz threatened to add Syria to the Bush administration's "axis of evil" list that includes Iran and North Korea.

Damascus came under U.S. sanctions this year after accusations that it was harboring militant organizations, not stopping foreign fighters crossing into Iraq and trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Why Syria would risk further antagonizing the West is baffling. With or without Lahoud, Syria was unlikely to lose its grip on Lebanon. Under current circumstances, no president would be able to run Lebanon without Syria's backing, and Damascus had its pick of favorable candidates.

"I think Bashar Assad is still reading from the Baathist book of the late 1960s," An Nahar publisher Tueni said. "The international community was waiting for him to produce positive signs of change within the Syrian regime."

But Assad and his advisors may have had their reasons.

Syria trusted Lahoud to protect Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia whose troops line Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Syria may also have wanted a president strong enough to counterbalance Lebanon's prime minister, billionaire businessman Rafik Hariri.

Whatever the logic, analysts called the amendment a serious miscalculation on Syria's part.

Even within Syria, a country that tolerates little debate over government policy, the move has sparked an annoyed, albeit quiet, backlash from the political elite.

And in Lebanon, the public is seething.

A longtime Syrian ally, Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, led the charge against the extension of Lahoud's term. The opposition lawmaker called the amendment "a coup d'etat against the constitution."

Four ministers have resigned, and the rest of the Cabinet is expected to step down before the end of the month.

"There's a feeling of depression," said Lebanese columnist Michael Young. "People are down. Economically, the country isn't doing well. People think this will perpetuate the stalemate. They feel marginalized."

One remaining wild card is Hariri, who is regarded by many in Beirut and Damascus as the only person capable of shoring up Lebanon's crumbling economy. Hariri and Lahoud are bitter rivals, and at first Hariri threatened to resign if Lahoud stayed in power.

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