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A series of dramatic changes began in February, 2005, when Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister was assassinated by an extremely large car bomb. All fingers pointed to the government of Syria as the culprit.

Lebanese background

With the onset of WWI, the French and British sent armies and agents into the Middle East to foment revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize Iraq, Syria and Palestine. In 1916, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries. That agreement was superseded by another which established a mandate system of French and British control, sanctioned by the new League of Nations. Under the mandate, Syria went to the French. From this mandate the French carved out two distinct states, Lebanon as a refuge for Maronite Christians and the Arab nation of Syria.

During the 1980’s, Lebanon was consumed with a civil war – one that ended in 1991 via the Ta’if Accord — the blueprint for national reconciliation. However, during the past sixteen years Syria has maintained a strong military presence in Lebanon, to the tune of some 16,000 troops. At first, Syria’s troop deployment was legitimized by the Arab League during Lebanon’s civil war and in the Ta’if Accord. Damascus justifies its continued military presence by citing Beirut’s requests and the failure of the Lebanese government to implement all of the constitutional reforms in the Ta’if agreement.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied the southern half of the country. They gradually pulled back, until in May, 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. The final Israeli withdrawal encouraged some Lebanese groups to demand that Syria withdraw its forces as well. The United Nations became involved in the dispute, and in October, 2004, resolution 1559 was passed by the General Assembly. The resolution called for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and end its interference in Lebanese affairs. To date, this resolution has not been enforced.

Death of Hariri a catalyst

For the most part, the Syrians and Lebanese have lived together with minimal disruption until the assignation of Hariri, who had just recently resigned to protest the Syrian domination of Lebanon.

The reaction to the death of Mr. Hariri was swift. Protests filled the streets and the United States immediately recalled their ambassador to Syria. The New York Times reported on March 8, 2004: “United States President Bush continued his effort to isolate and weaken Syria, and sought to head off what appears to be an effort by Syria to play for time by specifying what he meant by his previous demand that Syria withdraw from Lebanon immediately and completely.

“Syria has so far agreed only to move its forces in Lebanon toward Bekaa, near the Syrian border, by the end of March. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, said in a joint statement on Monday with his Lebanese counterpart and ally, Émile Lahoud, that full withdrawal would have to wait for negotiations with a future Lebanese government. In his speech, Mr. Bush rejected that timetable, saying he wanted Syria to have its military and intelligence forces out before Lebanon holds parliamentary elections in May so the vote can proceed free of foreign influence.”

Pro-Syrian protests

With the international community pressuring Syria to get out, Lebanon’s Hezbollah party countered with a rally of their own. As reported on March 9, 2005, by the New York Times: “The enormous crowd, in which many had been bused in from the Shiite slums of southern Beirut, was far larger than the anti-Syrian demonstrations of recent weeks that have drawn broad international support. It offered a defiant challenge to the Lebanese opposition forces that have insisted on Syrian withdrawal and exposed fault lines of class and ideology.”

“Today, you decide the future of your nation and your country; today, you answer the world,” the Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a rare and surprise appearance. Banners held aloft read: “No to American-Zionist intervention. Yes to Lebanese-Syrian brotherhood.”

Syria behind Hezbollah

Do the Lebanese people want the Syrians to stay or leave? If they do leave, will peace come to the Middle East?

These questions can best be answered by understanding that Syria has funded terrorism and in particular, the Hezbollah (Party of God) organization for the past decade. Since Syria provides funding, Hezbollah terrorizes Israel. By allowing the Hezbollah to operate out of Lebanon, Syria manages to remain arm’s length from the terrorist activities of Hezbollah.

Quite possibly, if the United Nations is successful in forcing Syria out of Lebanon, the Hezbollah may become an organization without funding and without a home. If this should happen, further dramatic changes could occur in the Middle East. More about this topic is considered in this month’s editorial.

George Rayner

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