Across the Bay

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Lebanese Opposition to Syrian Policy

Michael Young sheds light on some significant recent developments in the shape of Lebanese opposition to Syria.

"Yesterday, a broad multi-religious opposition front was formally established in Beirut, its main purposes being to demand a return of Lebanese sovereignty in the face of Syrian hegemony over the country; but also to challenge the leadership of the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was extended under Syrian pressure three months ago. Lahoud is heavily reliant on intelligence goons for his authority."

And much like what Putin has been trying to do with the Ukraine (and the poisoning of Yushchenko), Syria has been doing for decades in Lebanon, only with less subtle methods than poisoning:

"A leading light of the opposition front is the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who was once a close Syrian ally, but who has since become highly critical of Syria's ways in Lebanon (partly, no doubt, because a close friend and politician was almost killed in a car-bomb attack in which Syrian officials are widely believed to have played a role--an attack that was really a warning to Jumblatt). In recent days, before the front was established, Jumblatt was contacted by Syria's powerful intelligence chief in Lebanon to persuade him to pull out of the effort. He persisted, however, and yesterday said: "I won't have a dialogue with Syria through a security officer."

Last weekend, the authorities, as a warning, removed Jumblatt's state-provided security detail from his Beirut home (he's entitled to one as a former minister), and yesterday someone threw a stick of dynamite at one of the offices of his political party. Amusingly, a Jumblatt rival tried to pretend the dynamite was aimed at him. Subtle.

The establishment of a cross-sectarian opposition is crucial (and while it's not the first attempt, this one is more significant because it includes a traditional ally of Syria, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt), which is why the Syrians tried to botch it. It signals more than just a Christian opposition, and that's not the image Syria wants spread to the world. That's why they recently arranged a sham of a pro-Syrian, anti-UN resolution 1559, march (they couldn't amass many people -- the march was supposed to be called the "million man march" -- so they had to rely on Hizbullah to provide the bulk of the people. The total was estimated around 22,000 demonstrators, all of them from Syrian puppet parties, including the Baath, the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, etc.!).

This has also been the traditional view about Lebanon, that in the end only the Christians will oppose the Syrians. For arguments on this point, see Joshua Landis' excellent Syria Comment blog. There, Joshua, Michael Young, myself and others have debated this and other points dealing with Lebanon and Syria. (Most recently, Michael Young and Landis had a back and forth on the Lebanese (and Iraqi) electoral systems.)

So there's a lot of hope being placed on this and other good signs coming from the region (all a direct result of American pressure, and in the case of 1559, joint US-French pressure, that produced the UN resolution). Let's hope they amount to something, and that there is movement on the peace talks between Israel and Syria and Lebanon.

Update: Jumblatt has ordered his parliamentary bloc to sign a petition to release Samir Geagea the imprisoned leader of the anti-Syrian Christian party, the Lebanese Forces. The two parties are historical enemies, so the move is all the more symbolic. Jumblatt has been steadily reinforcing his alliance with the Christian opposition. Even former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has made overtures to the Christian opposition, and moved to cement his stance with Jumblatt. He even hinted at the possibility of his parliamentary bloc signing the petition to release Geagea (which would give it close to 50 parliamentary votes). If this amounts to something, you would have a formidable Maronite, Druze, and Sunni opposition to Syria that can easily counter any pro-Syrian movement in the country.