Is Lebanon walking into another nightmare?

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

The Independent

07 March 2005

Lebanon confronts a nightmare today. As the Syrian army begins its withdrawal from the country this morning, after mounting pressure from President George Bush - whose anger at the Syrians has been provoked by the insurgency against American troops in Iraq - there are growing signs that the Syrian retreat is reopening the sectarian divisions of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

The first Syrian units are expected to cross the Lebanese-Syrian border at Masnaa before midday and their military redeployment should be completed by Wednesday.

To the outside world, this may seem a victory devoutly to be wished: just two weeks after the murder of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri - a prominent opponent of the Syrian presence in Lebanon - the army of Damascus is pulling out of the country it has dominated for 29 long years. At last, free elections might be held in Lebanon, further proof that - thanks to Mr Bush - democracy is breaking out across the Arab world. Iraq held elections, Saudi Arabia held local elections, President Hosni Mubarak promises a contended election for the presidency of Egypt. So why shouldn't Lebanon be happy?

Have we forgotten 150,000 dead? Have we forgotten the Western hostages? Have we forgotten the 241 Americans who died in the suicide bombing of 23 October 1983? This democracy, if it comes, will be drenched with blood - but the blood will be that of the Lebanese who live here, not that of the foreigners who wish to bestow freedom upon them.

Alas, this is a dark corner of the former Ottoman empire - whose First World War defeat allowed the French to create Lebanon out of part of Syria - which rests precariously upon an understanding between its Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze inhabitants. All factions came together to mourn Hariri. But now, at night, most - though by no means all - of the demonstrators in Martyrs' Square who have demanded a Syrian withdrawal are Christian Maronites. Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of the Hizbollah Shia guerrilla movement, a loyal if somewhat unwilling Syrian ally which drove the Israelis out of Lebanon in 2000, called yesterday for a massive demonstration close to Martyrs' Square tomorrow - to support the "unity and independence" of Lebanon, but also to thank the Syrians for their "protection" of Lebanon. Mr Nasrallah invited Christians and every other religious group to join their demonstration. But most of those present are bound to be Shias - who, like their co-religionists in Iraq - are the largest community in the country.

Thousands of Lebanese now fear that when the Syrians do leave, they may be asked to pay a price for this: that in the absence of these "sisterly" Syrian soldiers, civil conflict might suddenly - mysteriously - return to Lebanon.

On Saturday night, a few dozen members of the Lebanese Baath party turned up in the Christian Sassine Square area of Beirut and two shots were fired in the air. The Lebanese army quickly suppressed this apparently pro-Syrian demonstration (no arrests were made). Was this because their leader happens to be the Lebanese - and equally pro-Syrian - minister of Labour?

How swiftly a Middle Eastern country which had become a bedrock of financial stability and security - even for thousands of new Western tourists - can fall into the abyss. Within 24 hours of Hariri's murder, hundreds of Saudi landowners were closing their properties in Lebanon - after paying their condolences to Hariri.

The Central Bank has announced that the Lebanese pound is secure; but it has spent almost $2bnsupporting the pound, at 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar, in the past fortnight - and Lebanon has a $32bn (£17bn) public debt which only Hariri's international reputation might have salvaged. Then there came Syrian President Bashar Assad's speech to the parliament in Damascus on Saturday evening in which he referred to those Lebanese who were loyal to Syria and those who were on "shifting sands".

Did the latter include Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader and erstwhile Syrian ally, who suddenly departed for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and who personally told me that he was probably next on Syria's hit list after Hariri?

A UN team is investigating Hariri's death - Hizbollah's Nasrallah gave them his full support yesterday - and the Lebanese government insists it has searched every nook and cranny for evidence of the culprits. Problem: three more bodies have been discovered at the scene of the bombing in the two weeks since the attack. Hungry cats and the stench of death revealed two of them; which doesn't say much for the detective work of the government authorities so keen to solve the murder.

President Assad said that 63 per cent of Syria's army in Lebanon had been withdrawn since 2000 and that the "international media" had paid no attention to this. He was right. Mr Nasrallah, in his press conference in Beirut yesterday, said the American demands for the withdrawal of the Syrians and the disarmament of the Hizbollah itself were "a photocopy" of Israel's plans for Lebanon. He, too, was right.

But here is the real problem. The Syrians and Hizbollah say that Syrian forces are withdrawing from Lebanon under the terms of the inter-Arab 1989 Taif agreement which ended the civil war here.

This called for a Syrian withdrawal from Beirut - already accomplished by the Syrian army but not by its intelligence services - to the Mdeirej ridge in the mountains east of Beirut, and then to the Bekaa Valley and, after talks with the Lebanese and Syrian governments, to Syria itself.

UN Security Council resolution 1559 calls for pretty much the same - but also for the disarmament of the Hizbollah guerrilla movement in southern Lebanon, which still attacks the Israelis in the Shebaa farms area, which belonged to Lebanon under French mandate law but which has been occupied by the Israelis since 1967.

Tomorrow, the Hizbollah will be supporting Taif because it called for national unity and arranged for an orderly Syrian withdrawal - but didn't mention the disarmament of the guerrillas. The Hizbollah will be against their own disarmament. They will be against UN resolution 1559. And they will be only 500 yards from the Hariri demonstrations. The Hariri protesters, who at the least deserve to know who killed a man who wanted to rebuild Lebanon and who never had a militia - in other words, he never had blood on his hands - will stage yet another demonstration tomorrow, from the crater of the bomb which killed him, to his grave before the ugly mosque he built in central Beirut.

But yet again, Lebanon risks becoming a battlefield for the wars of non-Lebanese.

For 30 years, America has tolerated - even supported - Syria's military presence in Lebanon. In 1976, both the Israelis and the Americans wanted Syrian troops in Lebanon - because they would be able to "control" the 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - but now Mr Bush's real concern is Syria's supposed support for the insurgency in Iraq.

The irony is extraordinary: 140,000 American troops occupy Iraq - we shall leave the Israeli occupation forces in Palestinian lands out of this equation - while their President demands the withdrawal of 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Democracy indeed!