Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lebanon Faces a Critical Week

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lebanon Faces a Critical Week

Article excerpt

Syria's domination of neighboring Lebanon looks increasingly in doubt following the Monday resignation of Omar Karami, the Lebanese prime minister, a move that has generated the greatest political upheaval in this tiny Mediterranean country since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Flushed with victory at unseating the pro-Syrian government and buoyed by the presence of thousands of protesters, the Lebanese opposition is gearing up for a showdown with key Lebanese allies of Syria, including President Emile Lahoud and the heads of the intelligence services.

"This week is going to be a very critical week," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "Either the country will emerge united in terms of forming a transitional government or ... if there are no concessions between the two sides, Lahoud will have the choice of resigning or forming a military government."

The rapid pace of developments in Beirut comes amid growing indications that Damascus has decided to withdraw almost all its 14,000 troops as a precursor to readjusting its relationship with Lebanon.

"Syria is going to disengage. I think they have no option.... Syria is looking for an honorable way out," says Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the syriacomment.com weblog, who is currently living in Damascus.

The Lebanese opposition meets Wednesday at the mountain residence of Walid Jumblatt, the most outspoken critic of Syria's presence here, to decide its next moves. Analysts say the opposition has to choose whether to push for a confrontation with the pro-Syrian president now or wait until after the parliamentary elections, which must be held by the end of May.

"The ideal course is for Lahoud to resign, a compromise candidate to be elected and a new government to be formed. The new president and the new government would then ask the Syrians to leave before elections are held," says Chibli Mallat, a professor of international law at St. Joseph University.

A transparent electoral process, free of traditional Syrian- backed gerrymandering, could give the opposition the majority in parliament, which would make President Lahoud's position untenable.

However, analysts doubt that Lahoud will go quietly.

A former commander of the Lebanese Army, he has been a staunch ally of Syria since taking office in 1998. Last September, the Lebanese parliament, with a nod from Syria, voted to change the constitution to allow Lahoud a three-year extension to his six-year mandate, which was due to expire in November. It was the extension that precipitated mounting opposition to Syria's influence here, which reached a climax after the Feb. 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister. Many blame Syria for Mr. …

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