Lebanon Dodges Bullets of Another Civil War

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Lebanon Dodges Bullets of Another Civil War

By Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

More than at any other time in the past 10 years, Lebanon today seems on the verge of another sectarian outburst. Events have been in the making, more or less, since June 10, 2000--the date of Hafez Al-Assad's passing--and in constant turmoil since then.

The late Syrian leader had helped end Lebanon's civil war in 1990, thereby establishing a paramount influence on all aspects of Lebanese decision-making. He set up a friendly government in Beirut composed of Syrian loyalists--both Christian and Muslim--and banished all anti-Syrian elements into exile. The civil war's still-living casualties last summer included former Maronite leaders President Amin Gemayel and Army Commander Michel Aoun in exile, and Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, the radical Maronite militia, in jail.

Having cleared the stage of troublemakers, the Syrian regime began grooming more moderate Christian figures for leadership, and promoted Elias Hrawi, a seasoned Lebanese statesman, to the presidency in 1991. A Syrian loyalist to the end, Hrawi managed to keep the Lebanese scene under control. Striking a delicate balance between his Maronite origins and Syrian requirements, Hrawi appealed to the disgruntled Maronites as "one of them," while remaining loyal to the Syrian establishment.

Hrawi's successor, Gen. Emile Lahoud, failed by all measures to match Hrawi's achievement. Lacking any power base within the Maronite community, Lahoud was snubbed by his co-religionists from day one. Unlike Hrawi, whose political career dated back to the 1960s, Lahoud was a newcomer to the scene, and could play only by Syria's rules--thereby losing any form of legitimacy within radical Christian circles.

With Aoun and Gemayel in exile, and Lahoud unable to fulfill any of their aspirations, Christians opposed to Syria's military presence in Lebanon began searching for a leader who would represent their cause. Amin Gemayel's return to Lebanon last July under the auspices of current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad apparently was not enough to quench their political thirst. They were looking for someone with enough courage to say, "We want the Syrians to leave." Gemayel, apparently, was too weak to make such a statement. He only recently had returned from his Paris exile under Assad's patronage, in a bid at "burying the hatchet," and considered it too early to bite the hand that fed him.

The courage found lacking in Gemayel was eventually located in the Maronite patriarch of Lebanon, Cardinal Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. In August 2000, the 81-year-old cleric issued a "Statement of Bishops and Cardinals" asking for Syrian troop redeployment. The statement set off a wave of emotions within Christian circles not seen since the Civil War era. Syria's former ally Walid Jumblatt, a staunch supporter of Assad pere for 20 years, praised Sfeir's initiative and raised the issue of Syria's military presence during an October parliamentary session. As the Druze community's traditional chieftain, Jumblatt easily secured the support of his men and his Socialist Progressive Party.

Frustrated, Damascus announced that Jumblatt's VIP status in Syria no longer was valid. That statement caused even more discontent within Druze circles, pushing them further into Sfeir's orbit. Embarrassed by its rather unconsidered response, the Syrian regime revoked its revocation a few weeks later.

Jumblatt, seemingly pleased by the brouhaha and enjoying his new-found popularity within Maronite circles, ignored the reissued perquisite and continued to question the presence of 30,000 Syrian troops on Lebanese soil. Moreover, he continued to raise the issue of the murder of his father, Kamal Jumblatt, an anti-Syrian Lebanese warlord who was assassinated in 1976 by unknown assailants, thought to be Syrian.

This, apparently, was the final straw for Damascus. …