International consensus supported Lebanon's effort to rebuild its shattered economy after the civil war and Rafiq Hariri, with Saudi and Western backing, took over as Prime Minister in 1992 to oversee the reconstruction program. Yet persistent Syrian efforts through Lebanese allies, including President Emile Lahoud, to undermine Hariri by blaming him for the country's economic woes raised suspicions that Damascus sought unrivalled influence in Lebanon. Hariri's efforts to privatize the corrupt state sector and attract direct foreign investment proved incompatible with Syrian hegemony. Complex factors were behind Syria's stance, relating to its insecurity in Lebanon, heightened by perceptions of Hariri's association with the West and the personal financial interests of leaders of the Syrian Ba'th regime in Lebanon's economy. The crisis crossed the point of no return with the extension of Lahoud's presidential term in September 2004.
The Ta'if National Accord of October 24, 1989 set the parameters of a new Lebanese state following the shattering impact of the 15-year civil war. The most notable consequence of the Ta'if Accord was the balancing of political power between the country's sects, effectively leaving Syria as the main powerbroker in Lebanon. This situation was reinforced by a US green light in 1990 following Syrian participation in the UN-led operation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. With the establishment of a new political formula, the challenge in the 1990s became economic reconstruction of postwar Lebanon, which was closely associated with Rafiq Hariri. But Hariri's liberal economic policies and long-term goals of modernizing and reforming the corruption-riddled state sector would eventually underscore the weaknesses of the post-Ta'if political order in Lebanon. More strikingly, Hariri's liberal economic vision, which required political stability and moderation, would clash directly with Syria's determination to maintain a strong grip over Lebanon that was aided by the loyal presidency of Emile Lahoud, who considered Lebanon's historic pluralism and dynamism anathema to his pro-Syrian authoritarian tendencies.
On September 3, 2004, the on-going political and economic struggle in Lebanon reached its most critical period since the Ta'if Accord. The incident sparking the crisis in September was the Syrian decision to extend the term of President Lahoud beyond his constitutional entitlement, and the heavy-handed methods Syrian security agents and their Lebanese allies used to force an amendment through the country's parliament. Despite the direct threats, 29 MP's from various sects including Sunni Mosbah Ahdab, Druze Akram Shehayeb and Maronite Nassib Lahoud voted against.'
While the Syrians and Lahoud ultimately succeeded in parliament, they failed at the UN Security Council, where Resolution 1559 was passed on September 2, 2004. The Resolution called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops in Lebanon and for the Lebanese to be able to select their leaders free from foreign influence. Syrian protestations that the Resolution set a dangerous precedent by interfering in the internal affairs of a member state were rebuffed by the French ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sablière, who countered that non-action by the UN would permit Syrian "interference in the internal affairs of another state."2
The French position was significant at the time because it was to herald untypical coordination with the US over a Middle East issue. US Ambassador to the UN John Danforth stated that Syria's continued military presence in Lebanon was "wrong" and more significantly, that "it would be very wrong of Syria to continue to interfere in the presidential electoral process in Lebanon."3 This US-French convergence against Syria nurtured prospects for major changes in the Middle East, not only in the Lebanese context but in terms of a broader regional peace. Isolating Syria would marginalize Iran and eliminate its foothold in Lebanon, disentangle Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the wider Arab scene and restore democracy to Lebanon. …