WORLD DECEMBER 11, 2006
Yes, I admit it. This is a theme I've been harping on for almost aquarter of a century: Syria sees Lebanon as an illegitimate break away from a great empire ruled from and by Damascus. Parts ofIraq and Turkey, and Cyprus in its entirety, are also duchies in this imagined imperium. And, of course, Israel. In the struggle against the Jewish restoration, many Arabs of Palestine called themselves southern Syrians. That provided a rationale for Damascusto fight in every Arab war against the Jews.
Lebanon itself is a contrivance of the French, hewn from thedisintegrated Ottoman Empire. Composed of Christians (MaroniteCatholics and Greek Orthodox), Sunnis, Shia, and Druze, the countryhas an intricate sectarian formula for political representationbased on a census conducted three-quarters of a century ago. But,off and on, Lebanon has functioned as a tolerably free society,mercantile rather than productive (tourism, banking, cannabis).Since Lebanon has been the weakest Arab state, it has held thedistinction of hosting the most Palestinian "refugees." ThePalestinians cannot become citizens, and they cannot legally workwithout a permit, which is hard to get. By now, almost no one inLebanon cares a fig for the Palestinians.
During the late '70s and early '80s, however, Yasir Arafat and thePalestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) succeeded in establishinga functioning mini-state in southern Lebanon, harassing Israelacross the border and ruling the local Shia with a very heavy hand.In 1982, Israel freed itself and southern Lebanon from the onerousdictatorship of its neighbor's Palestinian guests. The PLO wasshipped off to Tunis, and the defeated ordinary Palestinians inLebanon kept on dreaming of their fantasy orange orchards in whatwas once sand and is now metropolitan Tel Aviv.
But, while all of this was going on, there was an actual civil warbeing fought with car bombs and militias among the sects inshifting and unstable alliances. It is hard to reconstruct thebattle zones of memory. First at the behest of Christian warlords,and then to "protect" the Palestinians (in any case, at least halfa decade before the Israeli Defense Forces invaded in 1982), theSyrians arrived to restake their operational claim over Lebanon. Ofcourse, Damascus switched sides as many times as the seasonschanged, backing this faction and then another. Even the Maronites,who, with some bourgeois Sunnis, are what is left of authenticLebanese nationalism, still have figures and followers among themaligned with Bashar Assad's regime: the spineless President EmileLahoud, for example, and General Michel Aoun, who sometimes putsthe title "Marshal" in front of his moniker, la grandeur and allthat. The Syrians had developed a near-certain method for keepingpoliticians in line: assassinate enough of them so that otherswon't think for a moment of being independent.
This only works up to a point. Over 21 months, Assad successfullytargeted at least five politicians and undisciplined journalists,including Rafik Hariri, an idolized zillionaire and former primeminister of the country. Then, a fortnight ago, the Syriansmurdered Pierre Gemayel, a minister in the Lebanese cabinet and theson of a former president whose brother, Bashir Gemayel, anotherpresident, was also murdered by the Syrians after he had tried tomake peace with Israel in 1982. Political parties in Lebanon aretypically family affairs at the top but with loyalties running deepwithin their followers and clansfolk. So, when Hariri was killed,the country rose up--not as one, this being Lebanon, but as morethan half, and Syria retreated, at least perfunctorily. Monsterdemonstrations--attendance at one was estimated to be as large asone million--erupted again after the recent assassination of thesecond Gemayel to be in Syrian gunsights. The pendulum swings.
What is the chemistry of these demonstrations? Some of it is sheeroutrage at the stark freedoms that Syria takes with its neighbor.Some of it is out of fidelity to the individuals whom the Syrianshave butchered. Allegiance to the Gemayels is a mix of both.Pierre, the paterfamilias who died in 1984, founded the Phalange in1936. The fascist tag was not an accident, and violence was not alight habit of the bearer. But Gemayel was not a general like Francoor a philosopher or a cleric like the Catholic priest/fascistdictator of Slovakia. He was a small-town druggist edging over intoa thug, with the determination to keep a vibrant autocephalousMaronite Catholicism alive in the country.
These Christians pronounced themselves European. Or at leastLebanese and not Arab. Actually, they did speak French. I recall atrip to Lebanon, in 1982, behind the skirts of the Israeli army. Iwent with a friend for lunch at Chez Eddie in Beirut, where we wereasked whether we wanted a souffle. Yes, we said, and in 20 minutes,mirabile dictu, it appeared. Just as Eddie was about to place it onthe table, a bomb exploded on the other side of the city. But theother side of the city was only two blocks away. So the souffleexploded, too. Or, rather, imploded. And Eddie, without blanching,told us that we could have another one in 20 minutes. The aplomb ofthe French Lebanese! The Maronite birth rate declined and that ofMuslims increased. Massacres were common in the early days, and theChristians were as much their planners as their victims.
The violent internal vicissitudes of Lebanese politics may appearlike the state of nature. But outside factors are often thedecisive agents. James Baker has been a decisive outside factorbefore. After the Gulf war, ostensibly won by a wide coalitioncomprising Arab forces, Baker richly rewarded Syria for its(non)participation in Kuwait's liberation. He implicitly promisedSyria the go- ahead to routinize its hold over Lebanon. To HafezAssad, this meant the erasure of the border between his country andLebanon. For more than 20 years, the real capital of Lebanon wasDamascus.
Then, in 2005, out of fear that the United States, which hadoverthrown Saddam Hussein, might now turn its aim at him, BasharAssad beat a retreat substantial enough for Beirut denizens tobreak out their Cedars of Lebanon banners. Even the United Nationsput an investigation together to identify the Hariri assassins. Allpaths pointed to Damascus--more specifically, to Assad's brotherand brother-in-law, who ran Syrian intelligence. Still, nothingdefinitive ever happened. Assad began to suspect that his retreatwas unnecessary.
Once again, the Bush administration appears to have handed over itsIraq policy to Baker, the man who used to think for George W.'sfather. Baker still seems to trust the Assad clan. Now, Baker wantsto involve Syria in calming the waters of Babylon. But what will beAssad's price? The tacit U.S. blessing over his restored control ofthe Lebanese fragment of the Greater Syria imperium, no doubt.Nonetheless, Assad is not capable of doing the chore that Bakerwants accomplished. Although he hails from a schismatic Shia sect,Assad cannot manipulate or persuade the Iraqi Shia that they needto ease up on their Sunni enemies. The Shia know perfectly well whoBashar is. They cannot fail to see that, while persecuting Sunnisat home, Assad has been sending Sunni warriors from all over theMuslim world across Syria's border with Iraq, where they massacreShia on arrival. Just as Baker betrayed the Kurds and Shia of Iraqafter the first U.S. military encounter there 15 years ago, theformer secretary of state is prepared to betray the Christians andSunnis and Druze of Lebanon to Syria, and all for a promise thatAssad cannot possibly fulfill.