Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The roots of Syria's role in Lebanon.

Juan Cole's synopsis of Lebanon's history explains that when Syria moved into Lebanon, it was with our support:
By 1975 the Maronites were no longer the dominant force in Lebanon. Of a 3 million population, the Shiites had grown to be 35 percent (and may now be 40 percent), and the Maronites had shrunk to a quarter, and are probably now 20 percent. The Shiites were mobilizing both politically and militarily. So, too, were the Palestinians.

The Maronite elite found the newly assertive Muslims of the south intolerable, and a war broke out between the Maronite party-militia, the Phalange (modeled on Franco's and Mussolini's Brown Shirts) and the PLO. The war raged through 1975 and into 1976 (I saw some of it with my own eyes). The PLO was supported by the Druze and the Sunnis. They began winning against the Maronites.

The prospect of a PLO-dominated Lebanon scared the Syrians. Yasser Arafat would have been able to provoke battles with Israel at will, into which Syria might be drawn. Hafez al-Asad determined to intervene to stop it. First he sought a green light from the Israelis through Kissinger. He got it.

In spring of 1976 the Syrians sent 40,000 troops into Lebanon and massacred the Palestinian fighters, saving the Maronites, with Israeli and US approval. Since the Baathists in Syria should theoretically have been allies of the Palestinians, it was the damnedest thing. But it was just Realpolitik on al-Asad's part. Syria felt that its national interests were threatened by developments in Lebanon and that it was in mortal danger if it did not occupy its neighbor.
Over time, and particularly with Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Syria has slowly lost the backing of the Maronites. Syria's support was strongest among the Sunnis, but it antagonized them with recent intervention to lengthen the tenure of the president. Former Prime Minister Harari, recently executed, was a Sunni; Syria's perceived complicity in his death has cost it Sunni support, leaving Lebanon in a rare moment at which the Sunnis, Druze and Maronites all want a Syrian withdrawal. "The last time they all did, it was about the need to end the French Mandate, which they made happen in 1943. This cross-confessional unity helps explain how the crowds managed to precipitate the downfall of the government of PM Omar Karami."

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