Has Syria Overplaced Its Hand This Time: The Syria-Endorsed Three-Year Extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's Mandate Has Triggered the Most Serious Crisis in the Relationship between Damascus and Beirut since the End of the 1975-1990 Civil War
Blanford, Nicholas, The Middle East
THE GOVERNMENT OF Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's long-running prime minister, has been replaced by a lacklustre pro-Syrian cabinet which will serve only seven months before dissolving after parliamentary elections scheduled for Spring 2005. The new government headed by Omar Karami was boy-cotted by opposition groups and barely won the endorsement of the Lebanese parliament.
Some key Lebanese leaders, and erstwhile allies of Damascus, have grown increasingly outspoken in their criticism of Syria's hegemony, further polarising political society.
Crucially, Lebanon and Syria face unprecedented international pressure, with even a once sympathetic France losing patience and siding with the United States in co-sponsoring a UN Security Council resolution demanding Damascus cease interfering in the affairs of its tiny neighbour.
Although Damascus could not have predicted the far-reaching consequences of its decision to endorse its close and reliable ally, President Emile Lahoud, for another three years, it did appear to be an unusually provocative move.
"This is the greatest miscalculation Syria has made in recent years," said Farid Khazen, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut (AUB). "The Syrians thought they could get away with imposing their man on Lebanon, but they failed to realise that the world has changed."
Lahoud's six-year term in office was due to end in November and conjecture over his replacement or whether his mandate would be prolonged began in earnest in July. The Lebanese constitution permits a president to serve only one six-year term. If Lahoud was to be granted an extension, Clause 49 of the constitution would have to be amended. Such an amendment has happened twice before. Once in 1947 and again in 1995 when Elias Hrawi won a three-year extension due to Syria's desire to maintain the status quo in Lebanon while engaged in peace negotiations with Israel. This time, unlike in 1995, however, there was a strong body of opinion in Lebanon, both in the political and public arenas, against a constitutional amendment.
On 24 August, Lahoud announced he would be willing to serve an extra term, a declaration that told most Lebanese Syria had made up its mind about the presidency.
"The campaigns and scenarios of cheering and applause which will be organised for you, Mr President, and the summoning of tens of deputies by political warrants to sign the documents for amending the constitution to allow you to run for another term, will not hide the truth or the constitutional crime that is being committed," said Bassena Sabah, a Beirut MP.
Sabah was a close ally of Prime Minister Hariri who was known to oppose a presidential extension. Indeed, Lahoud and Hariri were bitter rivals whose political disagreements over the past four years have paralysed economic growth.
The heated domestic debate took on an international dimension when the US and France co-sponsored a proposed UN Security Council resolution to block Lahoud's presidential extension.
It says much for the international view of Syria's hegemony over Lebanon that it was perhaps the only policy issue in the Middle East which could unite Paris and Washington.
The Lebanese were aghast that Paris, which has long served as a counterpoint to US support for Israel, had chosen to side with Washington in proposing an anti-Syrian resolution, particularly as French President Jacques Chirac is a close friend of Hariri. Chirac had invested much effort in securing international assistance to bolster Lebanon's ailing economy and help promote reforms in Syria. But the French president had grown exasperated at the inability of Beirut to usher in the promised initiatives to revitalise the economy, such as privatisation, a symptom of the feud between Lahoud and Hariri. Syrian reform efforts have been equally slow in coming, despite French encouragement. Perhaps the nail in the coffin was Syria's failure to fulfill its promise to award a lucrative contract to France's Total-Elf to explore lot oil and gas in central Syria. …