Suddenly, there is debate in Beirut: how can Syria keep Lebanon while condemning Israel?

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

07 January 2005

Never before has it happened in Lebanon. Since the Syrian army entered the country in 1976 - just a year after the start of the 15-year civil war, at the request of Lebanese Christian Maronites - there has been no public debate about the presence of thousands of Syrian troops here, nor the suffocating political grip which Damascus has maintained over the Beirut government.

But last year's United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops, and an aggressive US policy towards Syria, has suddenly released a tide of resentment and debate. Even Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and a hitherto reliable ally of Syria, now says that Lebanon is the last satellite country on earth.

The Lebanese are stunned. They know that the regional tour of the US neo-conservative deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, with his demands for a Syrian withdrawal and the disarmament of the anti-Israeli Hizbollah militia, is part of Israel's agenda in Lavant. A weakened Syria, along with a pliant Lebanon without any anti-Israeli forces on its border, is almost as pleasant for Washington and its Israeli friends as an emasculated, American-dominated Iraq.

Syria's supposed support for the Iraqi insurgency - another of Mr Armitage's griefs - has a special irony. It was Lebanese rebel General Michel Aoun's alliance with Saddam Hussein in 1990 that originally inspired the US to support Syria's destruction of Aoun's statelet.

But Syria's control of Lebanon has become as tired and as blatant as the Soviet Union's domination of the Warsaw Pact. The successful attempt by pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to add three years to his presidency was too much. Lebanese newspapers, which had confined their criticism of Syria to news agency dispatches written in Europe or America, suddenly editorialised their suspicions of Damascus in a way that must have shocked Syria as much as their readers. "Damascus must review its policies on Lebanon - immediately," demanded the Daily Star. On 13 December the so-called Democratic Forum including Christian and left-wing groups and Mr Jumblatt's Druze party denounced the interference "of the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services which have transformed Lebanon into a police state".

Almost immediately, offices of the Syrian Mukhabrat intelligence services were closed in Beirut and Syrian forces in the mountains above the city were redeployed.

Syria's presence has never been as pernicious as Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000, but the Christian Maronite community - which failed to oppose Israel's 1978 and 1982 invasions - has always claimed to lead Lebanon's opposition to Syrian tutelage. Syria's constant demand that Israel abide by UN resolutions, most notably 242 which demands an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, makes the current crisis all the more dangerous. Can Syria insist on Israel abiding by UN resolutions while ignoring 1559? There are those here who believe that the young President Bashar Assad has failed to grasp how serious is the Lebanese demand, and the UN resolution, for Syrian withdrawal.

Christian Maronites suspect that real Syrian power in Lebanon is exercised by the head of Syrian military intelligence, General Rustom Ghazali rather than the Syrian President. Syrian intelligence agents move easily among the one million Syrian "guest workers in Lebanon'' but the Lebanese have long memories.

Walid Jumblatt's father, Kamal, resisted Syria's overtures at the start of the civil war and was assassinated. Mr Jumblatt's close aide and friend, Marwan Hamade, was the target of a car bomb last November. He survived, but his bodyguard was killed.

Lebanese politics may appear Byzantine, even boring, but it can be deadly to the participants.