What the U.S. really wants in Lebanon


GEORGE W. BUSH claims that he “stands with the Lebanese people” in demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. But his position suffered a blow when some 500,000 people–more than 10 percent of Lebanon’s entire population–gathered for a demonstration March 8 against U.S. calls for Syria to leave. The mass rally, organized by the militant party Hezbollah, dwarfed previous protests–much hyped by the U.S. media–demanding Syria’s immediate exit.

What is the background to the situation in Lebanon and Syria today? This article looks at the history of the two countries–and their relationship with Washington.

THE ENORMOUS demonstration organized by Hezbollah exposed the ethnic, religious and class divisions that cut through Lebanon–a small country that lies on the Mediterranean Sea, bordered on the south by Israel and the east by Syria. Bush and his acolytes in the press had tried to link popular demands for Syria’s withdrawal to the U.S. agenda of extending its domination throughout the Middle East. But Bush’s demands for “democracy” in Lebanon are based on support for the Maronite Christian minority–which accounts for about 20 percent of the population. The Shiite population, largely considered to favor the Syrians, makes up about 40 percent of the population.

Bush is only the latest in a long line of foreigners to project their own agendas onto the people of Lebanon–a situation that has left the Lebanese the losers.

FOR CENTURIES, Lebanon was considered a district of the larger region of Syria under the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the First World War, when Britain and France divided up the Ottomans’ Middle East dominion among themselves, the French took Lebanon and Syria. In order to forestall the development of an Arab nationalist movement that would assert Syria’s independence from France, French colonial officials created Lebanon in 1920, relying on a Maronite Christian elite as their chief source of support. “The ‘State of the Greater Lebanon’ proclaimed by the French Gen. Gourand on August 31, 1920 was…a totally artificial, French-created entity,” wrote journalist Robert Fisk in his book on Lebanon, Pity the Nation. “Its frontiers, over 20 years later, would become the borders of the independent Lebanese state. It was in defense of the presumed ‘sovereignty’ of this peculiar nation–a product of the Quai d’Orsay rather than the creation of any Arab national aspiration–that countless thousands were to die more than half a century later.”

To win support for the Allies in the Second World War, French leader Charles De Gaulle promised independence to both Lebanon and Syria if they would side with the allies against the pro-Nazi Vichy regime that controlled France after the Nazi invasion. Once the Vichy forces were defeated in the Middle East, DeGaulle started to back away from his promise.

But the movement for Lebanese independence was strong, and the U.S.–eager to fill the Middle East vacuum created by French and British retreats from their former colonies–became the main guarantor of Lebanese independence.

So Lebanon received its independence on the back of a deal: the Maronite elite would give up direct French protection in exchange for a political system that guaranteed its dominance, despite the fact that the Maronites weren’t a majority of the population. In 1943, independent Lebanon set up a “confessional” political system in which different sects and religions were assigned fixed percentages of representation in parliament and government jobs, based on the 1932 census.

For the U.S., Lebanon represented a pro-Western state ruled by a religious minority, whose identity insulated it from the appeal of Arab nationalism. The U.S. underscored this commitment by sending 20,000 Marines to prop up the right-wing government of Camille Chamoun, when it faced a nationalist challenge inspired by the 1958 revolution in neighboring Iraq.

The U.S. intervention strengthened the Chamoun government’s most militant component–the Falange, a quasi-fascist party that founder Pierre Gemayel modeled on Francisco Franco’s party in Spain. For the Falange and other right wingers, the threat to their power lay with the millions of impoverished Lebanese of all religions–but it was concentrated among country’s Muslims. Another source of opposition was the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled their homeland when Israel was formed in 1947 and 1948.

Over the following decades, the demographic and political balance on which a pro-Western Lebanese government depended shifted. The result of these political shifts was the 1975 Lebanese civil war between the forces of the right allied with Israel and grouped around the Christian Falange, and the left, involving Arab nationalists, Palestinian and Druze formations and others.

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ORIGINALLY, SYRIA supported the left in the civil war. But in 1976, with the left on verge of routing the right, Syria invaded Lebanon on the side of the right. The Syrian regime concluded that having a right-wing government allied with Israel in power in Lebanon was preferable to a Lebanon controlled by leftist militias. Not coincidentally, the U.S. agreed. It acknowledged the “positive role that the Syrian government play[ed] in Lebanon.” But Washington’s most important Middle East ally, Israel–always intent on meddling in Lebanon–took advantage of the chaos of the civil war to launch its own attempt to reshape the country. In 1978, it invaded a narrow strip of territory on Lebanon’s southern border, putting a right-wing Christian militia called the Southern Lebanese Army in charge.

And in 1982, Israel mounted a massive, unprovoked invasion–commanded by then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel’s aim was to crush the Palestinian resistance based in Lebanon and to install a pro-Israel Falangist strongman in power. After the murder of more than 15,000 Lebanese civilians; the assassination of Israel’s chosen strongman, Bashir Gemayel; and Falangist massacres of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Israel withdrew.

The Lebanese civil war continued for another eight years, until the 1989 Taif Accords brought it to an end. Under Taif, Syria would gradually withdraw from Lebanon, and the confessional system would be modified to increase participation from forces traditionally locked out of the government. In 1990, the Syrian Army defeated a force led by Gen. Michel Aoun, a right-wing Maronite, ending the last resistance to implementing the Taif Accords–and strengthening Syria’s hand in Lebanon since.

In a successful bid to win Syrian support for the 1991 war against Iraq, the U.S.–under George Bush Sr.–gave tacit approval to a Syrian takeover of the Lebanese government. Newsweek magazine reported that Syrian President Hafez Assad (the father of the current Syrian president) “has already been paid off handsomely for his stand against Iraq: the gulf Arabs have committed billions in much-needed cash; Washington gave him international respectability and turned a blind eye to his absorption of Lebanon.”

One circuit through which these billions passed was Lebanon under Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The prime minister of Lebanon through most of the last 13 years, Hariri, a billionaire construction magnate, undertook to rebuild the damage from the civil war–and certainly pocketed millions along the way.

Despite cultivating an image as “Mr. Lebanon,” he was one of Syria’s chief allies until just last year. His mysterious February assassination touched off the anti-Syrian demonstrations that Bush State Department official Paula Dobriansky dubbed “the Cedar Revolution.”

Syria has certainly worn out its welcome in Lebanon. But at the core of the anti-Syrian demonstrations are supporters of Christian politicians who have been historically the most pro-Western political force in Lebanon. New elements were added to the anti-Syrian coalition when Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt–whose political movement found itself on opposite sides of Lebanon’s political divide several times in its 50-year history–and some Sunni Muslim politicians announced their support for getting the Syrians out.

But set against them is Hezbollah–a new political force developed in the last two decades, with roots in the country’s poor Shiite population. Initially introduced in the early 1980s as a proxy force for the newly installed Islamic Republic in Iran, the Hezbollah militia grew into a powerful resistance movement that managed to drive out the Israelis and their puppets from Lebanon’s south in 2000.

Hezbollah’s role in resisting Israel won it prestige and respect across Lebanon’s religious and political divides. Today, it is a political party that operates a vast network of social service agencies and television and radio stations. Hezbollah is far from the ragtag band of “terrorists” that the Bush administration accuses it of being.

Although it remains allied with Syria and Iran, its motivation for the mass demonstration of March 8 wasn’t only a defense of Syria. It favors the gradual withdrawal of Syrian troops, as envisioned under Taif, but opposes U.S., French and Israeli demands that it disarm. With Hezbollah providing the only successful example of a resistance movement that has defeated the Israelis, it is not about to surrender to enemies that openly announce their intention of dominating the region.

That intention–not support for “democracy”–is what lies behind Washington’s calls for Syria to get out of Lebanon today.

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