The political scene in Lebanon has been stormy in recent months. Frankly, it is not just a matter of the recent months. It is the result of long-lasting problems in Lebanese society, which have culminated after a relatively short calm period. Besides several internal factors badly affecting the political life in Lebanon (particularly from the Muslim point of view, the antiquated as well as unjust system of the division of political positions based upon denomination or economic problems caused by the investors‛ fear of terrorist attacks in the country), predominantly external factors are, from the viewpoint of the research of Syrian foreign policy, more important and have direct influence on the situation in the country. For many years, Lebanon used to be occupied by Israel and Syria. It also was under the strong influence of France, although it gained its independence already in 1943. It was the Syrian policy on Lebanon (and predominantly the occupation that lasted for thirty years) which played an important role in the political skirmishes mentioned.
Syrian foreign policy is to a large extent determined by the current president of the republic Bashar al-Assad. In the constitution is written that the general principles of the policy (this applies to the foreign policy as well) come under the presidential powers. According to the same document, however, the Council of Ministers is the supreme executive body, but it is in charge of the president, who represents the country in international affairs. Moreover, the president is actually upheld by a single political party, which is the Arab Socialist Baas Party, by means of which he has all powers in hand. It functions in this way despite the existence of institutions typical of advanced democracies (i.e. power division among the legislation, executive and judiciary, referendum, elections). The political system is thus very similar to the Czechoslovak one existing before 1989. The 30-year long reign of the president Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded him as early as 2000, provides an empirical evidence of the importance of the position as well as personal authority (the length of the mandate along with the heritability of the position are also evidences on the presence of democratic basis of the political system). After revolutionary power assumption, Hafiz became an key player in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon. During his reign, he was an excellent strategist able to maintain control over the Lebanese territory, where the Syrian army came (with the mandate of the League of Arab States) in 1976 to help the Christian Maronites. It was supposed to protect them from Palestinian radicals from Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the forthcoming civil war. Two years later, however, the army used arms also against the Christians. In the case of Lebanon, Hafiz smartly pursued the country‛s power interests, by means of the support of the Christian Maronites on the one hand and the Shiitish Hezbollah on the other hand. Variables like religion or ethnicity played only a minor role according to Gary Gambill, who even said that although the Syrian Arab Republic was according to the constitution an Islamic republic, during the presence of Syrian army in Lebanon, it was the Sunnit Muslimes who suffered the most. This impression is raised by the up-to-date resistance of the Sunnit (that means Muslim) elites as far as the presence of Syria in the country is concerned. Hafiz remained pragmatic and manoeuvred between Pan-Arabism on one level and the support of the Soviet Union on another level. A huge success in terms of Hafiz al-Assad‛s foreign policy was the Taif Accord dating back to 1989 (it stood for the end of the civil war) and the subsequent Lebanon-Syria Treaty on Cooperation in 1991, which granted Syria, in addition to economic, industrial, cross-border and agricultural cooperation, also the presence of armed forces in Lebanon. The date of the retreat wasn‛t fixed. The forces were supposed to supervise the country‛s political stability and prevent the possible outbreak of civil war.
The influence of the Syrian president on foreign policy as well as its final form can be analysed through the comparison of the period, when the former president held office, with the period, his successor was in office. The successor was in the case of Syria the already mentioned Bashar al-Assad. Analysts mostly share the opinion on Syria having fallen into disrepute on the international scene owing to the inevitable substitution of presidents. Although, some analysts‛ prospects were positive at first highlighting predominantly Bashar‛s ideological openness, good relations with the West (since he studied and worked in London) or his erudition, after several years, the opinions on him changed under the pressure of national and regional political situation. Eyal Zisser described it precisely, stating: “Not only does Bashar lack maturity, experience, and self-confidence, he also lacks charisma and leadership qualities and the so called “killer instinct” vital to anyone who would rule the country.” (Zisser, 2005). Some authors even reproach him for making irrational policy, particularly in the case of the War on Iraq. They say it was more convenient for Bashar to support the USA, like his father had done before in order to reinforce his position in the Arab world and gain profits when supporting Kuwait in 1991. Bashar, however, turned his back on the Americans, which, in spite of some forthcoming Syrian steps (short cooperation in the fight against terrorism), led to deterioration in relations between the two countries and also to the threat of preventive American attack on Syria.
Bashar‛s shortcomings are visible as to Lebanon as well, despite the fact that Lebanon represents a significant geo-strategic room for Syria, which is considered by many scientists as well as politicians to be a historical part of the Great Syria. To obtain this territory, which was a buffer zone on the border with Israel, is a matter of Syrian concern, since it is not interested in carrying out sorties against Israel from its own territory. For the sake of attacks on its enemy Syria uses mainly the Beqaa Valley or the southern Lebanon, which is actually a territory under Hezbollah‛s control. The controversial Golan Heights are situated there. The primary objective of Lebanese foreign policy was and still is the weakening of Israel. This is the bond between Bashar‛s and Hafiz‛s foreign policy, though their ways of achieving it differ.
Bashar staked on strict anti-Americanism and the support of Palestinian terrorist groups in Lebanon which are labelled by the Syrian administrative as soldiers fighting against Israel. This seemed to be a wrong decision. Thus Bashar refused the help from the USA, which realised that in some cases, economic support is a better means to secure loyalty than occupation (of Egypt and Jordan for instance). Also some Bashar‛s instruments, by means of which he followed his interests in Lebanon, were misunderstood on the international scene. These encountered defiant attitude among Lebanese public as well.
Syria and Hezbollah
The support of the Hezbollah Movement is one of Bashar‛s controversial steps. Hezbollah, a movement supported by Iran, actually fights for the favour of Shiitisch community which amounts to approximately 32% of the Lebanese population. Since it has set up a network of schools, social facilities and hospitals in the region, like other groups of radicals have done, it is more and more popular among the natives. The support is also a result of a radical stance on corruption the Lebanese society suffers from. Last but not least, the uncompromising attitude towards Israel is a pivotal factor as well. It was exactly the question of Israel, through which Hezbollah attracted the adherents of the Shiitish movement Amal, that was the most influential movement by 1980‛s and preferred rather a peaceful solution of the conflict.
Obviously, the Syrian support of Hezbollah cannot be attributed solely to the current president Bashar. His father Hafiz used to support this movement to some extent as well, because of purely pragmatic reasons (i.e. the fight against Israel), although in the 1980‛s, Syrian support was aimed more at the moderate Amal Movement, which took part in the military conflict with Hezbollah (by the way, founded by some radical members of Amal). For Syria, the fight between Hezbollah and Israel was in fact convenient. Anyway, from the perspective of real policy and stability of the Syrian regime it was more advantageous to secular Hafiz not to support these critics of secularism and cooperation with the East or the West and rather take Amal‛s part, which, in contrast to Hezbollah, did not profess to the ideas of Islamic state, had not direct links with Iran and did not oppose the Syrian secular establishment so fiercely. Moreover, for the West, Hafiz‛s support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah (it is been questioned, whether it is among terrorist organisations) was favourable to some extent that time, since Hafiz managed to bring the movement under control and he even provided the West with valuable information on its activity.
The question remains, to what extent Bashar changed this attitude or whether the Hezbollah movement transformed itself, or rather, the political situation in the region. In 1992, Hezbollah set up a process of “Lebanonisation”. This way it actually gave up the idea of forming an Islamic state in Lebanese territory, enfeebled the cooperation with Iran and democratised itself in such a manner that it was capable of taking part in the general elections. The situation in Lebanon changed as well when the Israeli forces left the country in 2000 and thus exerting pressure on Syrian forces. This was the reason why Syria was forced to search for support among population as well as political elite, in terms of which, Hezbollah appeared to be a more suitable partner in comparison to what it had been like before its transformation. Bashar‛s problem is in fact that he keeps on supporting this radical movement even in times, in which the international community headed by the USA reacts very sensitively to any sign of terrorism. Syria has aggravated by means of such policy its international status. Together with the support of Iraq insurgents, it is considered an irrational step of the Syrian president by many analysts, although it is questionable, taking Israel into account, if this step can be irrational at all. Another mistake is that Bashar doesn‛t try to conceal the support of Hezbollah, like his father did, or Iran, for instance, that in spite of suspicions of exerting direct influence on Hezbollah, denies it, at least officially. According to the observers, there are posters hanging in Syria, on which, there is a photograph of Bashar and the leader of Hezbollah sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. Also the vice-minister of foreign affairs Fayssal Mekdad admits openly that nowadays they do not support Hezbollah, but yet in 2005, before the departure of Syrian forces from Israel, they supplied military help. This confirms also the UN, which issued a report on Syria in 2005. It accused Syria of furnishing Palestinian military groups with weapons and training terrorist groups in the territory under the joint control of Syria and Hezbollah.
Although it is a subject of discussion on who plays the central role in this relation, one is clear, namely, that Syria, helped by Hezbollah and its main coalition partner Amal, is been promoting its own interests on the Lebanese political scene. They hinder the departure of their forces and stage pro-Syrian demonstrations as a counterbalance to the anti-Syrian ones. Nowadays for example, Hezbollah is been calling for an abdication of the Suunit prime minister Fouad Saniora, who is in Hezbollah‛s opinion pro-western and thus anti-Syrian. Gambill marks this relation as ” a matrimony without love”, a kind of inevitable alliance ignoring the ideological and political discords. He points out a variety of disputes and Hezbollah‛s reluctance to uphold Syrian interests in Syria, which is caused either by Syrian attacks on its adherents in the past, or due to corruption and secularity of Syrian regime.
To sum it up, sincerity and the extent of cooperation between Hezbollah and Syria are disputable. However, one thing is clear and though, that in the present, their alliance is advantageous for both sides mainly in terms of their relations to Israel. This holds despite the fact that Syrian policy is been facing criticism from the side of the UN as well as western countries. The cooperation between Syria and Iran is also questionable as regards this issue, since the bond between Hezbollah and Iran is flagrant. Information from intelligence agencies reveals that no consignment of weapons will leave Iran without Syrian consent. The same holds true for the 2000 soldiers of Pasdaran (Islamic revolutionary guard corps parallel to Iran army) deployed in Lebanon.
As both the countries don‛t contradict themselves as to Lebanese national interests, moreover, they pursue a common aim i.e. the fight against Israel, their cooperation is rational, mutually convenient, but it hasn‛t as yet evolved into cooperation in other issues (e.g. the quest for a shift in ideological thinking and the secularisation of Hezbollah). That might be more difficult.
Syria and Assassinations
The murders of burdensome persons amount to the next controversial method how Syria pursues its interests in Lebanon as well as in the Middle East. At first sight, it is again not possible to differentiate between Bashar and Hafiz, because both statesmen took advantage of the assassinations of burdensome persons. Hafiz, for instance, used to win the loyalty of Suunit clergymen by means of threatening that they would be killed in the case of an uprising. The Great Mufti in Syria Hasan Khalid lost his life in this way after Hafiz had him killed in 1990. The same fate met the Muslim deputies in Lebanese parliament in 1989, because they criticized Syrian occupation. Among other examples are the Druze leader Kamal Junblatt and Bashir Gemayel who were in the lead of Lebanese armed forces. Syrian agents are the prime suspects in these assassinations, since the victims were persistent critics of Syrian occupation.
Bashar al-Assad continues in murdering, but he has made the rest of the world an enemy due to a wrong “choice” of victims. A groundswell of indignation against the Syrian occupation was completely stirred up as early as the murder of the Suunit prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was very popular with Lebanese population, was committed. He criticised the forcible change of constitution by Syria, that protracted the mandate of the pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud and following his resignation from the office of the prime minister, Hariri fiercely opposed the Syrian occupation. Besides this, an international problem occurred, because Hariri held a high office in Lebanese political system and thus also on the international scene. He maintained above-standard relations with the Saudi king Fahad as well as the western world (particularly France) from which he gained investment promises.
The investigation of an international committee under the auspices of the UN drew a conclusion that the Syrian secret service (headed by Bashar al-Assad‛s brother and brother-in-law) along with some representatives of Lebanese secret services are responsible for the murder.
Syria and its allies in Lebanon
It is the linkage among Syria and some high Lebanese representatives as well as various industries that represents another Syrian foreign-political instrument in the relation with Israel. In addition to its direct influence on the Christian president Lahoud, the mandate of whose became the apple of discord as to the Syrian occupation, Syria takes advantage of the already mentioned Amal-Hezbollah coalition (its official name is Resistance and Development Bloc). Syria itself forced Hezbollah to form this alliance in order to increase the number of votes as much as possible. Now, there are only 35 pro-Syrian out of the total number of 128 deputies in the parliament after the 2005 elections. This group, however, has a dominating position in southern Lebanon. In the latest elections, it was supported by more than 80% of voters who took part in the elections. That‛s why it can be assumed that Syrian support is strong predominantly among local leaders and the population of particular parts of Lebanon. This enables the Syrian government a deeper penetration into the Lebanese society. The question remains, to what extent the Hezbollah and Amal voters are able to identify with the pragmatic pro-Syrian policy of their parties. Massive pro-Syrian demonstrations indicate that many Lebanese share the attitudes of their party elites as far as this issue is concerned.
There was also more than a million workers working in Syria and lots of pupils studied there, as the Syrian inhabitants needn‛t have sit for entrance examinations at Lebanese schools until recently. These facts contribute to the direct or indirect control over Lebanon by the Syrian Arab Republic as well. Economic profitability isn‛t often ranked among the primary reasons for the occupation of Lebanon, but it is a crucial factor. One must be aware, to what extent it is been helping Syria to solve the problem of unemployment in the country, not to speak of the majority of migrating Syrian workers bringing the wages back home. Lebanon is also an important trade centre. It even used to be referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East and Beirut used to be compared with Paris. Though the civil war and the presence of terrorist groups have damaged such an image, the country has its potential which is advantageous for Syria as well. From a historical point of view, Syria, for instance, regards the important port Tripolis as a Syrian city. According to the analyst Nisan, there are cases of charging fees from Syrian companies which run a business near the city. As an argument for Syria using Lebanon for economic interests serves the fact that the majority of goods in Lebanese shops are made in Syria, although as to its quality, they are incapable of keeping up with the competition. Mordechai Nisan talks further about unequal Syrian custom policy which favours the weaker Syrian economy at the cost of the Lebanese one by means of high duties and banning the imports of some goods.
A very convincing argument in favour of the confirmation of Syrian influence in Lebanon were indisputably the Syrian soldiers and secret agents operating either in the capital Beirut, or in the Bakaa Valley. Though in 2005, after the pressure of the international community (particularly the resolution 1559 appealing for the deployment of all non-Lebanese armies from the territory, that was dismissed by Syria as well as the “dragooned” Lebanon), more than 20 000 Syrian soldiers returned back to Syria, it is supposed that secret agents and some pro-Syrian (either corrupted or loyal) representatives of Lebanese secret services are still active in Lebanon.
Syria is still been exerting certain influence in Lebanon, but there are various factors causing this influence in Lebanon to decrease gradually, e.g. the incapability of the president Bashar al-Assad to make successful foreign policy, an inappropriate use of foreign-political instruments or diverse events connected with the region of the Middle East (war in Iraq, fight against terrorism, economic stagnation). The most severe blow to Syria came in the form of the UN resolution No. 1559 which claimed the removal of non-Lebanese (Syrian) troops from Lebanon. Thus the pressure of the international community granted the deployment of Syrian army from Lebanon (after 30 years) followed by elections that confirmed the anti-Syrian trend in the country. The elections were won by a coalition of parties which bore the legacy of the assassinated anti-Syrian and pro-Western prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
It is difficult to predict the further development due to many factors that are to be taken into account. At this moment, there are ongoing inner political fights for new Lebanese trend within the Lebanese society. Although some misgivings about a civil war in the country appeared in the press, such a situation will probably never arise, because in contrast to the last civil war that ended in 1989, the current dispute hasn‛t religious or ethnic complexion, but rather political one. On the one hand, there are Muslim adherents of Syria (the Shiites of Hezbollah) and on the other hand, anti-Syrian activists (the Suunites supporting the prime minister Fouad Saniora). To the Hezbollah-Amal coalition, which supports Syria, belongs for example the Christian party. In addition to this, the Christian president is a puppet in the hands of the Syrian government. A split within the society as to this issue is not as wide as in the case of religion. An armed conflict is therefore not probable. The ball is in Syria‛s court, however, it is under the pressure of the international community because of its policy in Lebanon. We can assume that Syria is not going to undertake any steps which might lead to civil war in the country, as it would become one of the instigators of the situation for which it would take responsibility on the international scene.
The objective of Syrian foreign policy remains clear. Of course, president Bashar will not be willing to give up such a geo-strategically important territory. It will depend upon him as well, because his role in the creation and implementation of foreign policy is the most significant one. Most probably, he will proceed with the support of moderate Hezbollah as well as the loyal political powers in the country. It is to be expected that the pressure from abroad will force Syria to restrict its controversial foreign-political instruments like assassinations and the support of terrorism and to focus more on political and economic instruments which are to a certain extent tolerated by other countries. Nowadays, although some information on a gradual mobilisation of Syrian forces on the border with Israel have been appearing, the quest for an escalation of tension between Syria and Israel, thus logically also the USA, is less probable, since Syria is well aware of the fact that in such case it would be fighting a losing diplomatic and military battle.