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Middle East: Lebanon's Future Depends On Syria, And On Washington's Intentions

By Jeffrey Donovan

Events in Lebanon this week have highlighted the volatility of the situation in the Middle East. The assassination on 14 February of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister and architect of its post-civil-war reconstruction, also demonstrated the complexity of both relations within the region and America's policy toward the region. The scenario is reminiscent of the 1980s, with Lebanon once again looking like a battlefield locked between its larger neighbors and global powers like the United States.

Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "Syria, get out!" was the main message of many of the estimated 150,000 people who took part in yesterday's funeral procession in Beirut for former Prime Minister Hariri.

The Lebanese opposition blames Damascus and Lebanon's pro-Syrian government for the bomb that killed Hariri and 13 others in downtown Beirut.

But it many ways, it was a strange change to hear in Beirut.

After all, Syria, with America's blessing, is credited with bringing stability to Lebanon after its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, with 150,000 dead.

Only in recent months has Syria's role in Lebanon become an issue of international contention.

That's because -- as elsewhere in the region -- things are changing in Lebanon.

Nadim Shehadi, director of Lebanese studies at Oxford University in England, told RFE/RL the immediate impact of Hariri's assassination was that it had united a large, peaceful, and multiconfessional swathe of Lebanese society.

"The funeral has been more like the biggest demonstration that Lebanon has ever seen on Beirut's streets," Shehadi said. "First of all, it's overwhelming numbers. Second, it's multiconfessional: Christians, Muslims, [and] Druze. It was non-sectarian. It was a huge show of support to the Hariri family but also like a silent, peaceful demonstration against the [pro-Syrian] president [Emile Lahoud] and against the Syrian presence in Lebanon."

The outpouring was joined by calls from the United States for Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon, in accordance with UN Resolution 1559, passed in September.

Syria has condemned Hariri's assassination and denied responsibility. It has also said Hariri's killing should not be used to score political points against Damascus.

But international momentum -- not to mention the mood on the streets of Beirut -- has swung in favor of Syria withdrawing from Lebanon.

It began in September, when Washington and Paris joined to push Resolution 1559 through the Security Council. Shehadi said many believed Hariri had persuaded French President Jacques Chirac, a close friend, to join forces with the Americans on the resolution when it became clear Syria would move to get Lebanon's constitution amended to extend Lahoud's term in office.

By doing so, Hariri apparently incurred the wrath of Syria, which the billionaire builder had for years sought to accommodate.

In Beirut yesterday, Chirac called the 60-year-old Hariri "a great democrat, a statesman, a man of peace."

Shehadi said Lebanon's political scene was now divided between Lahoud's camp and the opposition, now orphaned by Hariri's death. Shehadi said each group had a very different concept of what Lebanon's security needs should be.

The government camp believes the country must have Syrian protection. Hariri's vision, visible on Beirut's rebuilt luxury waterfront, is that Lebanon can revive itself as a prosperous resort and trading center -- and be protected by Western powers, as France and the United States did before the civil war.

But Shehadi pointed out that, no matter which side won, Lebanon still looked like a pawn in a much larger game.

"Lebanon could just be used as a pressure point on Syria, and still be irrelevant," Shehadi said. "So the Lebanese have to weigh how much they can bank on an American intervention -- whether this sort of intervention is really meant to reestablish protection that would allow Lebanon some maneuverability, or whether it's just a pressure point on Syria, in which case the Lebanese would be unwise to behave as though they are beneficiaries of this move."

However, the opposition appears already to have placed its bet that the United States and international community will ensure that UN Resolution 1559 is implemented.

Shehadi said he believed the opposition now stood to do well in May's general elections.

But the key test, he said, will come down to Washington and Syria. Will they make a deal? Or will relations grow more confrontational?

Damascus has already provoked anger in Washington, which accuses Syria of allowing Iraqi insurgents and Palestinian militants, including the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, to operate on Syrian and Lebanese soil. Syria's autocratic Ba'ath regime is also seen as an obstacle by a Bush administration intent on spreading democracy in the Middle East.

Syria is also a strategic ally of Iran, whose nuclear program appears now to be America's chief regional concern apart from Iraq.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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