Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Twilight Lebanon, 1990-2011

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Twilight Lebanon, 1990-2011

Article excerpt


In 1990, the Syrian regime reversed 1920. In place of a French high commissioner overseeing Syria from Beirut, the Syrian president commanded Lebanon from Damascus. The Asad regime had always wanted predominance on the seaward flank of its capital; Lebanon and Syria were two states for one people. In exasperation in the mid-1970s, Khaddam let slip that if Greater Lebanon could not function, the answer was not shrinkage to Mount Lebanon but Syrian absorption of everything.1

In the 1990s, however, Hafiz al-Asad knew that the pretense of two states was de rigueur. After all, his mandate in Lebanon came from the United States, sole superpower after the Cold War, and the Americans had just reversed Iraq's absorption of Kuwait. In the last decade of the twentieth century, the United States valued cooperative autocrats in the Arab world even as it pressed democracy elsewhere. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton indulged the Syrian regime in its manipulation of Lebanon. For his part, unlike his son Bashar in 2003-2005, Hafiz al-Asad tested the superpower short of outright defiance.

Syrian hegemony perpetuated the communal sensitivities of the war years. Having devastated themselves, the Maronites retired into indignant impotence. The Maronite mountain had to be watched, but it ceased to be an obstacle for Damascus. Nonetheless, Christians remained more than one-third of the Lebanese population, and alienation of most of them was problematic for Syria. Otherwise, Syria balanced Sunnis and Shia, who had drifted apart after Shia factions moved into largely Sunni West Beirut in February 1984. In the 1990s, Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri's concentration of investment on central Beirut, and the Sunni premier's ties with Saudi Arabia, grated on Shia. Syria had Hariri's government and Hezbollah limit each other between 1992 and 1998, constraining both Saudi and Iranian influence. Syria also encouraged the Maronite president, the Shia parliamentary speaker, and senior ministers to constrict Prime Minister Hariri. Such divide and rule fed sectarian rancor.

Otherwise, warfare intensified after 1990 in southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah organized Shia military activities against the Israelis and their proxy SLA in the Israeli occupied "security zone." Israel ignored the opportunity to withdraw in 1989-1990, while the Syrians were preoccupied and Hezbollah fought Amal. Hezbollah could therefore re-inflate, courtesy of Israel's presence, and displace Amal as the leading Shia faction. Throughout the 1990s, space expanded for Iranian penetration of the Shia, and despite its ambivalence about Iranian influence, Iran's Syrian ally could not resist taking advantage of Hezbollah and Iran to put pressure on Israel.

Genies let out of the bottle after 1967-sharpened Lebanese sectarianism, Syrian intervention, and Israel's collision with the Shia-plagued Lebanon into the twenty-first century.

High Hegemony, 1990-2000

Syria was in a hurry to cement its hold at the end of 1990, with regime institutions, security, and bilateral relations being the priorities. Economic affairs did not at first register despite Lebanon's prostrate condition: Syria allies had their pickings; the lower orders were destitute but not starving; and the population was too dazed to protest.

Hafiz al-Asad picked Umar Karami, brother of the assassinated Rashid, to head a National Unity Government, which was formed in December 1990 and staffed by the old elite, warlords, and Syria's loyalists. It included the Kata'ib and LF, but the latter quickly felt marginalized, and Geagea resigned in March 1991.

The Syrians supervised disbandment and disarmament of militias by mid-1991, with Hezbollah exempted because of its role against Israeli occupation. Hezbollah had to release surviving Western hostages. Army commander Emile Lahoud oversaw reintegration of the Lebanese army, with sectarian mixing in new brigades and overhaul of the officer corps. …

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