Syria reasserts power in Lebanon as its ally returns as prime minister

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

11 March 2005

He's back. Omar Karami, the Ramsay MacDonald of Lebanese politics, has returned to power as Prime Minister - "power" being a word of limited definition here at the moment - only 10 days after he resigned from office during mass demonstrations against Syria's presence in Lebanon.

The most pro-Syrian prime minister of Lebanon - his cabinet was dubbed "made in Syria" by the US administration - was reappointed by one of the country's most pro-Syrian presidents, Emile Lahoud, after 71 of 78 MPs in the 128-member Lebanese parliament put forward his name, more than half of the votes required in the assembly.

MacDonald was perhaps Britain's most impotent 20th century prime minister - Churchill cruelly described him as "the boneless wonder" - but Mr Karami arrived at parliament yesterday with a threat: unless he could form a cabinet which included the opposition - which had already rejected his premiership - there might be "unforeseen, dangerous results" to the Lebanese economy.

It was the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister and symbol of Lebanon's post-civil war regeneration, on 14 February, that endangered the economy, but there was no doubt that Mr Karami understood the dangers. Lebanon is $33bn (£17bn) in debt and with Mr Hariri assassinated, who can safeguard future investment in Lebanon? Certainly not Mr Karami.

The Syrian army yesterday continued its evacuation of bases around Batroun, Tripoli and the mountains above Beirut - their military intelligence offices in the capital still remained open for business - as Lebanese troops took over their positions. But the return of a Karami government, supposing he can form one, put Syria's fingerprints back on the Lebanese cabinet. Needless to say, Mr Karami said that he would form a "government of national unity and salvation" - something which Lebanese prime ministers have been doing on and off for the past 30 years.

Samir Franjieh, one of the opposition MPs who helped to break the last Karami government, claimed that the reappointment was intended to destroy any hope of a national dialogue. "It is a step that greatly challenges the opposition and the people's feelings," he said. Mr Karami claimed that he had the support of a parliamentary majority and of the people, adding that the Hizbollah-organised pro-Syrian demonstration on Tuesday, which drew half a million, was "a massive demonstration that asserted our legitimacy in the Lebanese street". That the new prime minister believes he is entitled to his job because of a Hizbollah rally says almost as much about Lebanese politics as his own reappointment.

What is becoming clearer, however, is that after Syria's military withdrawal, the Hizbollah guerrillas who led the resistance to Israeli occupation are going to be the vanguard of Damascus in Lebanon, the institution whose organising power and discipline will be used to prevent the Syrian retreat turning into the first stage of a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty until there is an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian and Syrian lands.

Although it has only seven seats in the Lebanese parliament, Hizbollah refuses to contemplate the disarming of its members - as UN Security Council Resolution 1559 demands, along with the Israeli government - and even Washington appears to have concluded, after Tuesday's massive rally in Beirut, that the organisation it has vilified for the past three years as another centre of "world terror" will have to be lived with. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and now in effect head of the Lebanese opposition, repeatedly points out that ShiaHizbollah is a Lebanese movement that has a political role to play in its country. Israel and America may dream of a disarmed Hizbollah but the idea that the Lebanese army, whose soldiers include a large number of Shias, will collect its weapons, is a myth.

What is becoming clear is that Syria's tactic of drawing out its military withdrawal is intended to break the unity of its Lebanese opponents. Yesterday, there were no major demonstrations, in Martyrs' Square in Beirut, no "cedar" revolution and little real unified response from the opposition to Mr Karami's reappointment. The best the opposition could do was announce a Saturday rally in Beirut in which 10,800 people would form a massive red, white and green Lebanese flag - shirts distributed free of charge - in the centre of the capital. Pro-Syrian groups have organised another rally in Tripoli, Mr Karami's home city. "Sister Syria", it seems, still intends to clutch Lebanon in its family embrace.

* Because of an editing error, a sentence in Robert Fisk's despatch from Beirut on 8 March was transposed, and should have read: "when a car hit a rubbish skip and dragged it across the road with a terrible, grating roar."