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Syria's Involvement in Lebanon

Syria has played an important role in Lebanon by virtue of its history, size, power, and economy. Lebanon was part of post-Ottoman Syria until 1926. Greater Syria is the term used by historicans and others to designate the region that include approximately the present-day states of Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria before those states were formed. Greater Syria, embracing the whole of Palestine and Lebanon, was an official Syrian ambition based upon the now defunct Ottoman Empire's administrative regions. Many Syrian nationalists had long regarded Lebanon as part of a "greater Syria". Assad had long aspired to annex Lebanon as part of a historical Al-Sham (Greater Syria). Assad was well aware that Syria cannot absorb Lebanon or annex it, but he wanted, above all else, to prevent the establishment of a Maronite—dominated, Israeli—supported mini—state on Syria's border.

The regime gained its stability in Syria in the 1970's through its role in Lebanon. Lebanon provided opportunities, through smuggling and corrupt business deals, to generate huge amounts of money that the regime used to buy loyalty. It also provided Syria with a stage on which to project its critical regional role and shore up its internal legitimacy.

The presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon dated to 1976, when President Hafiz al-Asad intervened in the Lebanese civil war on behalf of Maronite Christians. Following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Syrian and Israeli forces clashed in eastern Lebanon. However, Syrian resistance blocked implementation of the May 17, 1983 Lebanese-Israeli accord on the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

In 1989, Syria endorsed the Charter of National Reconciliation, or "Taif Accord," a comprehensive plan for ending the Lebanese conflict negotiated under the auspices of Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco. In May 1991, Lebanon and Syria signed the treaty of brotherhood, cooperation, and coordination called for in the Taif Accord.

According to the U.S. interpretation of the Taif Accord, Syria and Lebanon were to have decided on the redeployment of Syrian forces from Beirut and other coastal areas of Lebanon by September 1992. Israeli occupation of Lebanon until May 2000, the breakdown of peace negotiations between Syria and Israel that same year, and intensifying Arab/Israeli tensions since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000 delayed full implementation of the Taif Accord. The United Nations declared that Israel's May 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon fulfilled the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 425.

Syria and Lebanon, however, claimed that UNSCR 425 had not been fully implemented because Israel did not withdraw from the Sheba Farms area occupied by Israel in 1967, which Syria claimed was part of Lebanon but the United Nations places in Syria. Hizballah has used this occupation to justify attacks against Israeli forces in that region, leading to Hizballah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers on July 12, 2006, which sparked a 34-day conflict in between Israel and Lebanon. After the conflict, UNSCR 1701 authorized the enhancement of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), raising its presence in southern Lebanon from 2,000 troops to 15,000. UNIFIL is tasked with ensuring peace and security along the frontier and overseeing the return of effective Lebanese government and military authority throughout the border region.

Until its withdrawal in April 2005, Syria maintained approximately 17,000 troops in Lebanon. A September 2004 vote by Lebanon's Chamber of Deputies to amend the constitution to extend Lebanese President Lahoud's term in office by 3 years amplified the question of Lebanese sovereignty and the continuing Syrian presence. The vote was clearly taken under Syrian pressure, exercised in part through Syria's military intelligence service, whose chief in Lebanon had acted as a virtual proconsul for many years. The UN Security Council expressed its concern over the situation by passing Resolution 1559, which called for the withdrawal of all remaining foreign forces from Lebanon, disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias in accordance with the Taif Accord, the deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces throughout the country, and a free and fair electoral process in the presidential election.

Former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and 19 others were assassinated in Beirut by a car bomb on February 14, 2005. The assassination spurred massive protests in Beirut and international pressure that led to the withdrawal of the remaining Syrian military troops from Lebanon on April 26, 2005. Rafiq Hariri's assassination was one of a number of attacks targeting high-profile Lebanese critics of Syria.

By October 2005 UN investigators concluded that high-ranking Syrian and Lebanese officials were involved in the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The investigators charged officials, including Syria's foreign minister, with trying to mislead them. After an exhaustive four-month investigation, German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis provided a clear picture of the planning and execution of Mr. Hariri's assassination. He presented his findings to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The 54-page report was also given to the 15-member Security Council. In unusually strong language, the report concluded that the assassination was prepared over several months, and carried out by a group with extensive organization and considerable resources. While not making any direct charges, the Mehlis report pointed a finger at senior Syrian and pro-Syrian Lebanese officials, saying there is converging evidence of their involvement.

The UN International Independent Investigative Commission (UNIIIC) probed Hariri's assassination until the UN Security Council established the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The STL began operating in March 2009, continuing UNIIIC’s work with an aim toward prosecuting the individuals behind the attacks.

On 11 May 2006 several hundred prominent Syrian and Lebanese citizens signed the Damascus-Beirut Declaration, which includes a ten-point "joint future national vision" for reconciliation between the two countries. The Declaration's Syrian signatories include many prominent dissidents, intellectuals, activists, and artists from both within and outside Syria. The document's proposals cover a range of issues, including the need for resumption of diplomatic relations to "enhance their joint confrontation to the Israeli aggression and the American attempts of hegemony," the restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria and of Shebaa Farms and Kafar Shouba to Lebanon, the need to review historic tensions and work for reconciliation, the establishment of democracy in both countries, the increase in economic transparency and cooperation, and the denouncement of political assassinations and sanctions against the Syrian people. A number of Syrian signatories were promptly arrested. The diverse profiles and ideological backgrounds of the arrested indicated that the Syrian government used the Declaration as a means to move against all political opposition.

Despite recurring expectations that he would use a particular speech to reach out to an international audience and try to position himself as a moderate and consensus builder, Bashar al-Asad has often struck a harsh, defiant tone, especially in speeches that have focused on Lebanon. His mid-November 2005 speech at the University of Damascus, as well as one delivered the year before to a group of Syrian expatriates, for example, came off as unexpectedly strident. The common thread in these and other bellicose Asad speeches is Lebanon. The regime has been fixated on preventing Lebanon from slipping completely out of Syria's clutches. The bold rhetorical flourishes in Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's 15 August 2006 speech provided some indications that Syrian policy was possibly becoming more hard-line and confrontational, especially in the wake of what is overwhelmingly perceived in the Arab world as Hizballah "victory" over Israel.

As a result of the crisis in Lebanon, for the second summer in a row, Syria enjoyed a larger than usual influx of rich Gulf tourists who normally vacation in Lebanon. Also, as a result of the conflict, all of Damascus's best hotels and tourist facilities were packed for most of the summer with wealthy Lebanese who usually avoid Syria because of its anemic service sector. As the tourist season has slowed and upward pressure has built on the Syrian Pound (SYP), Syrian construction workers were reportedly flowing back into Lebanon, generating much needed hard currency.

Syrian-Lebanese relations have improved since 2008 when, in response to French and Saudi engagement with Syria, Damascus recognized Lebanon’s sovereignty and the two countries agreed to open full embassies in each country and exchange ambassadors. Syria sent Ali Abdul Karim Ali to Beirut as its ambassador to Lebanon in March 2009, and Lebanon sent Michel Khoury as ambassador to Syria in April 2009. Following his election in November 2009, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the slain leader, traveled to Damascus for discussions with President Asad. During the visit, the two countries agreed to demarcate their border for the first time. As of January 2012, the border had yet to be demarcated.

Syrian relations with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri became strained due to his support for the STL and Syria’s continued support of Hizballah. Hizballah and its parliamentary allies engineered the fall of the Hariri government on January 12, 2011 when they resigned from the cabinet en masse, triggering a constitutional crisis. Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati has strong connections to the Syrian regime. Tensions within Syria are increasing strains among various groups in Lebanon. The Syrian regime claims that weapons for the Syrian opposition are crossing the border from Lebanon, and the opposition claims that Hizballah is providing support to the Syrian Government.

The United States supports a sovereign, independent Lebanon, free of all foreign forces, and believes that the best interests of both Lebanon and Syria are served by a positive and constructive relationship based upon principles of mutual respect and non-intervention between two neighboring sovereign and independent states. The United States calls for Syrian non-interference in Lebanon, consistent with UNSCR 1559 and 1701.

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