What The Lebanese
By Robert Fisk
14 March 2005
the last Syrian troops moved through the storms and blizzards of Mount
Lebanon into the Bekaa Valley yesterday morning, they passed beneath
the glowering statue of Basil al-Assad, the man who would have been
president of Syria had he not died in a Damascus road accident. Seated
astride his favourite horse, dressed in military uniform, wearing a
peaked cap and graced with three withered wreaths, he has been guarded
this past decade by two equally glowering Syrian intelligence officers.
"No photo," they growled at me when they saw my camera. But
theres a problem.
For when the last
of the Syrian troops leave Chtaura, along with their mukhabarat spooks,
who will guard Basils statue? It was erected by local Lebanese
businessmen with an eye to gaining Syrias favours, but the Syrians
can hardly cart the whole thing off to Damascus. Unguarded, no one wants
to bet on its future. "Do you want to buy it?" one local shopkeeper
asked me sarcastically. "We could sell it to you." The owner
of a shoe store was more prosaic. "Well demolish it,"
he said, and snapped his fingers in the air.
Not that the people
of Chtaura have been writhing under Syrias military heel. "When
they first came here, there were tens of thousands of them," the
owner of the Adidas gun store said. "But over the years, we got
used to them and they were friendly enough, just part of the scenery.
They didnt bother us and they bought food from the shops, so they
contributed to the economy." Not that theres much economy
left in Chtaura. The Park Hotel, its interiors cloaked with curtains,
boasts no guests. Most of the shops are shut and every businessman has
changed his Lebanese pounds into US dollars. The shade of Rafiq Hariris
murder lies heavy over the towns of Lebanons Bekaa Valley.
been here for almost three decades and enough is enough," the man
in Assy Sport remarked without much enthusiasm. "But the real danger
is a vacuum. The Lebanese army must arrive before they leave and take
over all their positions. We cannot afford to have a gap." Its
not difficult to understand why the Lebanese fear a sudden withdrawal.
They do not want the old Syrian bases to be suddenly filled with pro-Syrian
militias. Everyone these days is reliving their memories of the civil
A few of them never
lost their anger, including a man who could have been only a child when
the war began. "The Syrians came here to take our money and our
heritage and we Lebanese let foreigners come and mess with us. We sell
everything that belongs to us. Im going to the big rally in Beirut
on Monday to support the opposition. We need real freedom here and we
wont have it as long as others are in our country."
Behind the international
highway, Syrian troops in steel helmets and with bayonets fixed guard
the entrance to the second most important Syrian intelligence post in
the Bekaa Valley - their headquarters, home to Brigadier General Rustum
Gazale, is just down the road in the town of Aanjar. Three of the mukhabarat
men insisted they didnt have a departure date, but all equally
insisted that they had heard their President - Bashar, Basils
brother - say that they would all leave by the end of April and had
no reason to doubt this information.
The last Syrian
positions in the mountains were abandoned in the early hours and one
of Syrias big radar bases near Mdeirej - used to monitor Israeli
overflights - has been dismantled. Only a few Syrian trucks are left
on the lower slopes, many covered in snow after the nights blizzard.
It does not look like an army in retreat - certainly not like an army
of occupation - but its departure on this bleak, cold morning provided
an astonishing contrast to its arrival in June 1976. I was here in this
little town of boutiques 29 years ago and watched the hundreds of Syrian
armoured vehicles pour down the international highway towards Beirut.
Three tanks were parked in the long grass outside the town like old
dogs resting on a hot day. President Carter had given his blessing to
the deployment since the Arab League had granted Syria a peacekeeping
role to end the civil war.
I had stood on the
same pavement then and listened to another shopkeeper mulling over the
cost of free speech in the new, humbled Lebanon. "It is always
nice to have visitors," he said archly. "And it is always
nice when they go home again." And now those "visitors"
are going home, leaving not a little fear in their wake. The desire
of everyone in Chtaura to avoid being identified spoke for itself.
a man in a cell phone shop said quietly, "the Syrian border is
only 15 miles away and the border is open. You know that Syria has many
supporters in Lebanon. What makes you think that the mukhabarat men
cant just come back without their guns showing? What makes you
believe that Syrias influence will end now? It wont. Syria
will always be located to the east, just up there on the next mountain
Certainly, few of
the soldiers trucked through the town yesterday could be blamed for
Syrias sojourn. The man who first sent this army here -President
Hafez al-Assad, Basils father - is long dead. And most of them
were not even born when the first Syrian tanks arrived at the gates
WARS AND PEACE
1918: After more
than 400 years of mainly Ottoman rule, Lebanon is occupied by British
and French forces.
1920: State of Lebanon
created and League of Nations grants mandate to France.
1940: Lebanon comes
under control of Vichy French government. A year later, it is occupied
by Free French and British troops. Independence declared on 26 November.
1943: France recognises
independence and agrees to transfer power. Three years later, British
population rises following second Arab-Israeli War.
1973: Israeli commandos
raid Beirut and kill three Palestinian leaders. Lebanese government
resigns next day.
1975: Civil war
erupts as Christian and Muslim communities clash. One year later, Syrian
June 1982: Israel
launches full-scale invasion of Lebanon to counter Palestinian activity.
Following assassination of president -elect Bashir Gemayel, Israeli
forces occupy West Beirut, and Christian militias enter Palestinian
refugee camps, murdering civilians.
1983: Deal struck
for Israeli withdrawal.
1988: Lebanon effectively
now has two governments. Christian in East Beirut and Muslim in West
1990: Civil war
ends as Syrian Air Force attacks presidential palace and Christian leaders
take refuge in French embassy.
1991: National Assembly
dissolves all militias, but Syria-backed Hizbollah allowed to remain.
1993: Israel launches
heaviest attack in a decade on Hizbollah forces in the south.
2000: Israeli forces
withdraw from southern Lebanon.
2005: Former prime
minister Rafiq Hariri assassinated in Beirut. Cabinet resigns after
two weeks of anti-Syria rallies. Growing calls for Syrian troops to
2005: 14,000 remaining
Syrian peacekeepers begin withdrawal to border areas.
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