Is Lebanon Walking
By Robert Fisk
08 March, 2005
confronts a nightmare today. As the Syrian army begins its withdrawal
from the country this morning, after mounting pressure from President
George Bush - whose anger at the Syrians has been provoked by the insurgency
against American troops in Iraq - there are growing signs that the Syrian
retreat is reopening the sectarian divisions of the 1975-1990 Lebanese
The first Syrian
units are expected to cross the Lebanese-Syrian border at Masnaa before
midday and their military redeployment should be completed by Wednesday.
To the outside world,
this may seem a victory devoutly to be wished: just two weeks after
the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri - a prominent opponent
of the Syrian presence in Lebanon - the army of Damascus is pulling
out of the country it has dominated for 29 long years. At last, free
elections might be held in Lebanon, further proof that - thanks to Mr
Bush - democracy is breaking out across the Arab world. Iraq held elections,
Saudi Arabia held local elections, President Hosni Mubarak promises
a contended election for the presidency of Egypt. So why shouldn't Lebanon
Have we forgotten
150,000 dead? Have we forgotten the Western hostages? Have we forgotten
the 241 Americans who died in the suicide bombing of 23 October 1983?
This democracy, if it comes, will be drenched with blood - but the blood
will be that of the Lebanese who live here, not that of the foreigners
who wish to bestow freedom upon them.
Alas, this is a
dark corner of the former Ottoman empire - whose First World War defeat
allowed the French to create Lebanon out of part of Syria - which rests
precariously upon an understanding between its Christian, Sunni, Shia
and Druze inhabitants. All factions came together to mourn Hariri. But
now, at night, most - though by no means all - the demonstrators in
Martyrs' Square who have demanded a Syrian withdrawal are Christian
Maronites. And yesterday, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of the
Hizbollah Shia guerrilla movement, a loyal if somewhat unwilling Syrian
ally which drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000, called for a massive
demonstration close to Martyrs' Square on Tuesday - to support the "unity
and independence" of Lebanon, but also to thank the Syrians for
their "protection" of Lebanon in bygone years. Nasrallah invited
Christians and every other religious group to join their demonstration.
But most of those present are bound to be Shias - who, like their co-religionists
in Iraq - are the largest community in the country.
And of course, thousands
of Lebanese now fear that when the Syrians do leave, they may be asked
to pay a price for this: that in the absence of these "sisterly"
Syrian soldiers, civil conflict might suddenly - mysteriously - return
On Saturday night,
a few dozen members of the Lebanese Baath Party turned up in the Christian
Sassine Square area of Beirut and two shots were fired in the air. The
Lebanese army quickly suppressed this apparently pro-Syrian demonstration
(no arrests were made). Was this because their leader happens to be
the Lebanese - and equally pro-Syrian - minister of Labour?
How swiftly a Middle
Eastern country which had become a bedrock of financial stability and
security - even for thousands of new Western tourists - can fall into
the abyss. Within 24 hours of Hariri's murder, hundreds of Saudi landowners
were closing down their properties in Lebanon - after paying their condolences
The Central Bank
has announced that the Lebanese pound is secure; but it has spent almost
$ 2bn (repeat: billion) to support the pound, at 1,500 Lebanese pounds
to the US dollar, in the past fortnight - and Lebanon has a $ 32bn public
debt which only Hariri's international reputation might have
salvaged. Then there
came Syrian President Bashar Assad's speech to the parliament in Damascus
on Saturday evening in which he referred to those Lebanese who were
loyal to Syria and those who were on "shifting sands".
Did the latter include
Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and erstwhile Syrian ally, who suddenly
departed for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and who personally
told me that he was probably next on Syria's hit list after Hariri?
A UN team is investigating
Hariri's death - Hizbollah's Nasrallah gave them his full support yesterday
- and the Lebanese government insist it has searched every nook and
cranny for evidence of the culprits. Problem: three more bodies have
been discovered at the scene of the bombing in the two weeks since the
attack. Hungry cats and the stench of death revealed two of them; which
doesn't say much for the detective work of the government authorities
so keen to solve the murder.
said that 63 per cent of Syria's army in Lebanon had been withdrawn
since the year 2000 and that the "international media" had
paid no attention to this. He was right. Nasrallah, in his press conference
in Beirut yesterday, said that American demands for the withdrawal of
the Syrians and the disarmament of the Hizbollah itself were "a
photocopy" of Israel's plans for Lebanon. He, too, was right.
But here is the
real problem. The Syrians and Hizbollah say that Syrian forces are withdrawing
from Lebanon under the terms of the inter-Arab 1989 Taif agreement which
ended the civil war here.
This called for
a Syrian withdrawal from Beirut - already accomplished by the Syrian
army but not by its intelligence services - to the Mdeirej ridge in
the mountains east of Beirut, and then to the Bekaa Valley and, after
talks with the Lebanese and Syrian governments, to Syria itself.
UN Security Council
Resolution 1559 calls for pretty much the same - but also for the disarmament
of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement in southern Lebanon, which still
attacks the Israelis in the Shebaa farms area, which belonged to Lebanon
under French mandate law but which the Israelis have occupied since
Thus on Tuesday,
the Hizbollah will be supporting Taif - because it called for national
unity and arranged for an orderly Syrian withdrawal - but didn't mention
the disarmament of the guerrillas. The Hizbollah will be against their
own disarmament. They will be against UN resolution 1559. And they will
be only 500 yards from the Hariri demonstrations.
The Hariri protesters,
who at the least deserve to know who killed a man who wanted to rebuild
Lebanon and who never had a militia - in other words, he never had blood
on his hands - will stage yet another demonstration tomorrow, from the
crater of the bomb which killed him, to his grave before the ugly mosque
he built in central Beirut.
But yet again, Lebanon
risks becoming a battlefield for the wars of non- Lebanese.
For 30 years, America
has tolerated - even supported - Syria's military presence in Lebanon.
In 1976, both the Israelis and the Americans wanted Syrian troops in
Lebanon - because they would be able to "control" the 300,000
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - but now Mr Bush's real concern is
Syria's supposed support for the insurgency in Iraq.
The irony is extraordinary:
140,000 American troops occupy Iraq - we shall leave the Israeli occupation
forces in Palestinian lands out of this equation - while their President
demands the withdrawal of
14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Copyright: The Independent.