Million Gather For Pro-Syrian Rally To Defy Vision Of US
By Robert Fisk
10 March, 2005
It was a warning. They came in their tens
of thousands, Lebanese Shia Muslim families with babies in arms and
children in front, walking past my Beirut home. They reminded me of
the tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims who walked with their families
to the polls in Iraq, despite the gunfire and the suicide bombers.
And now they came
from southern Lebanon and the Bekaa to say they rejected America's plans
in Lebanon, and wanted - so they claimed - to know who killed Rafiq
Hariri, the former prime minister murdered on 14 February, and to reject
UN Security Council Resolution 1559 which demands a Syrian withdrawal
from Lebanon and the disarmament of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement,
and to express their "thanks" to Syria. This was a tall order
But only 100 yards
from the Lebanese opposition protests, the half-million - for that was
an approachable figure, given Hizbollah's extraordinary organisational
abilities - stood for an hour with Lebanese flags, and posed a challenge
to President George Bush's project in the Middle East. "America
is the source of terrorism", one poster proclaimed. "All our
disasters come from America".
Many of those tens
of thousands were Hizbollah families who had fought the Israelis during
their occupation of southern Lebanon, been arrested by the Israelis,
imprisoned by the Israelis and feared that American support for Lebanon
meant not "democracy" but an imposed Israeli-Lebanese peace
There were Syrians
in the crowds - indeed, I saw buses with Syrian registration plates
that had brought families from Damascus - but almost all the half million
were Lebanese Shias and they wanted to reject 1559 because it called
for Hizbollah to be disarmed. They were perfectly happy to see the Syrians
leave (who now remembers the Syrian massacre of Hizbollah members in
Beirut in 1987?) but, bearing in mind Syria's transit of weapons from
Iran to Lebanon, Hizbollah wanted to be regarded as a resistance movement,
not a "militia" to be disarmed. What the Shia were saying
was that they were a power, just as they said when they voted in Iraq.
In Lebanon, Shia Muslims are the largest religious community.
Syria is run by
a clique of Alawis - who are Shia - and Iraq is now dominated by Shia
Muslims who voted themselves into power, and Iran is a Shia nation.
So when President Bush said "the Lebanese people have the right
to determine their future free from domination of a foreign power",
the power the Shias were thinking of was not Syria but the United States
And 100 yards away,
the demonstrators who have bravely protested against the murder of Rafik
Hariri have become factionalised, courtesy of the Syrians. At night,
the opposition protesters are largely Christian. Yesterday's Hizbollah
rally, while it contained the usual pro-Syrian Christians, was essentially
Shia. And their message was not one of thanks to President Bush.
came in the past and were defeated; and they will be defeated again,"
Hizbollah's leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, said in reference to the
Americans. Ironically, President Bush was to refer within hours to the
killing of 241 US Marines in Beirut in October 1982, as if their deaths
were the responsibility of al-Qa'ida. To the Israelis, Nasrallah said:
"Let go of your dreams for Lebanon. To the enemy entrenched on
our border, occupying our country and imprisoning our people, 'There
is no place for you here and there is no life for you among us: Death
on the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war was predictable. The crowds were meeting
on the front lines that had separated the Lebanese during the civil
war; indeed, on the very location of the Christian-Muslim trenches of
that conflict. "We meet today to remind the world and our partners
in the country," Nasrallah said, "that this arena that joins
us, or the other one in Martyrs' Square, was destroyed by Israel and
civil war and was united by Syria and the blood of its soldiers and
This was an inventive
piece of history. Israel certainly killed many thousands of Lebanese
- more than the Syrians, although their soldiers took the lives of many
hundreds - but the half million roared their approval.
So what did all
this prove? That there was another voice in Lebanon. That if the Lebanese
"opposition" - pro-Hariri and increasingly Christian - claim
to speak for Lebanon and enjoy the support of President Bush, there
is a pro-Syrian, nationalist voice which does not go along with their
anti-Syrian demands but which has identified what it believes is the
true reason for Washington's support for Lebanon: Israel's plans for
the Middle East.
The Beirut demonstration
yesterday was handled in the usual Hizbollah way: maximum security,
lots of young men in black shirts with two-way radios, and frightening
discipline. No one was allowed to carry a gun or a Hizbollah flag. There
was no violence. When one man brandished a Syrian flag, it was immediately
taken from him. Law and order, not "terrorism", was what Hizbollah
wished. Syria had spoken. President Bashar Assad's sarcastic remark
about the Hariri protesters needing a "zoom lens" to show
their numbers had been answered by a demonstration of Shia power which
needed no "zoom".
And in the mountains
above Beirut, still frozen under their winter snows, few Syrians moved.
There were Syrian military trucks on the international highway to Damascus
but no withdrawal, no retreat, no redeployment. The Taif agreement of
1989 stipulated that the Syrians should withdraw to the Mdeirej heights
above Beirut, which they have now agreed to do, 14 years later than
they should have done.
The official document
released by the Lebanese-Syrian military delegation in Damascus suggests
this is a new redeployment and that in April the Syrian forces, along
with their military intelligence personnel, will withdraw to the Lebanese-Syrian
But the question
remains: will they retreat to the Syrian side of the frontier, or sit
in the Lebanese-Armenian town of Aanjar, on the Lebanese side, where
Brigadier General Rustum Gazale, the head of Syrian military intelligence,
still maintains his white-painted villa?
Either way, Lebanon
can no longer be taken for granted. The "cedar" revolution
now has a larger dimension, one that does not necessarily favour America's
plans. If the Shia of Iraq can be painted as defenders of democracy,
the Shias of Lebanon cannot be portrayed as the defenders of "terrorism".
So what does Washington make of yesterday's extraordinary events in
© 2005 Independent
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