Lebanon needs an end to all foreign interference

Assad's promise of withdrawal should have been made when he first became president
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The Independent Online

The nearest parallel to what is happening in Lebanon is not the democratic revolutions of the Ukraine or Eastern Europe, it is the anti-IRA demonstrations in Belfast. There you had a situation - in that case the continued oppression of IRA gangs, in the Syrian case the continued occupation of Lebanon by Syrian troops - which was causing increasing upset among the local community but to which the wider world was turning a blind eye until a murder finally drove the populace on to the streets.

The nearest parallel to what is happening in Lebanon is not the democratic revolutions of the Ukraine or Eastern Europe, it is the anti-IRA demonstrations in Belfast. There you had a situation - in that case the continued oppression of IRA gangs, in the Syrian case the continued occupation of Lebanon by Syrian troops - which was causing increasing upset among the local community but to which the wider world was turning a blind eye until a murder finally drove the populace on to the streets.

The assassination of Rafik Hariri in Beirut, just like the killing of Robert McCartney in Belfast, was the straw that broke the back of citizen tolerance, and in doing so left the Syrian government, as the IRA, hopelessly trying to catch up and regain the confidence of a community which they had taken for granted for so long.

All to the good. President Bashar Assad's suggestion this week that Syria would be willing to pull out its troops should have been made as soon as he succeeded his father as Syrian president four years years ago. The Syrians sent troops Lebanon to help to bring order to a country torn apart by civil war. Once that war was well over and, even more, once the Israelis had withdrawn from southern Lebanon in 2000, there really was no reason to keep them there other than as a means of keeping control of Lebanese affairs. It would have been clever of Damascus to have done it back then. Now it just looks (as with the IRA) as if it's ungraciously giving in to pressure.

Whether this can be marked down as another victory in the great Bush-led march to Middle East democracy is doubtful. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, was never going to miss this opportunity to put the boot in, although her characterisation of Syria as a country "standing in the way of Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians and others in their aspirations for a better world" was pushing the triumphalism a bit. If the Lebanese were demonstrating against foreign occupation, the obvious parallel was just over the border in Iraq.

Nor is the castigation fair. Just at this moment it suits everyone to have a go at Syria. The Israelis and Palestinians have an interest in blaming it for the recent bombing in Israel because any other interpretation could upset the new Abbas-Sharon rapprochement. The US and UK occupying forces in Iraq like to blame it for the violence there, because that is a lot easier than trying to come to terms with an insurgency that is home grown.

The reality is rather different. Syria is a problem, in so far as it is a problem, not because it is strong but because it is weak. The young President Assad's hold on power, and his control of the security forces, is tenuous After the failure of the Israeli peace talks with his father, Damascus has withdrawn in on itself, nervous of its neighbours, frightened of the Americans and uncertain where to turn. Its offers to help the US post-Saddam were rebuffed, its contacts with Israel spurned. So it faces all directions, and allows many groups within its borders, for fear of which way the future will turn.

Yet there is a real desire for change there, particularly economically, and a genuine reform constituency around the new president. The appetite for peace with Israel remains, albeit with a fiercely nationalistic determination to see all its land taken in 1967 returned. There is no great appetite outside certain parts of the security and armed forces for control of Lebanon.

Syria, it has to be remembered, was invited into Lebanon to secure peace among the warring factions, including by Walid Jumblatt, the opposition leader now demanding its exit, just as the Christians once encouraged the Israelis to deal with the Palestinians and the Shia asked for help from the Iranians to cope with the Israelis. Remove the Syrians and there is no guarantee that the factions won't tear the country apart again. It was noticeable that, in the demonstrations against Syria, there were plenty of Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims, but little evidence of the Shia who make up half the population.

In the same way, no one should pretend that the Alawite rule in Syria is anything other than nasty and oppressive. But speak to any Christian, or the other minorities in the country, and you find a real fear of what will happen to them if the Sunni majority takes over. The example of what has happened to the Copts in Egypt or what is happening to the Christians in Iraq today is not a good one. Add to that the problem of its Kurds and the nearly half million Palestinian refugees in its country, and you can see that Syria can't just be pushed into a corner on its own as if it had no interest or role in its neighbouring countries, whoever is in power there.

"We are starting to see a picture of a Syria that really is a blockage to a different kind of Middle East," said Condoleezza Rice with the air of a schoolma'am picking out a pupil for punishment. Fine, if you genuinely mean that the Middle East should be left free to determine its own future in its own way. But if what you really mean is pressuring change for your own purposes, then Lebanon itself stands as the grim example of what happens to a country that becomes the pawn of outside influence.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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