Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 2-3 Table of Contents
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February-March 2003 


Implications of the Syrian Redeployment
by Ziad K. Abdelnour

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Syria's withdrawal of nearly 4,000 soldiers from north Lebanon in February was preceded by weeks of quiet speculation. Mainstream Christian opposition politicians had, with few exceptions (such as former President Amine Gemayel), stopped or toned down their criticism of the Syrian occupation and several decided to visit Damascus for the first time in years. Attendance of Christian politicians at rallies against war in Iraq shot way up, while media reports alluded to meetings between some Christian opposition figures and Syrian intelligence officials or their Lebanese intermediaries. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir suddenly cancelled a visit to the United States. A Syrian gesture to the opposition was in the offing, and no one in Lebanon - not even those who are most cynical about prospects for a "negotiated" solution to Lebanon's sovereignty problem - wanted to screw it up by talking about it.

The "surprise" came on February 18, when the government officially announced that Syrian forces in Lebanon would be departing from positions in north Lebanon "under the framework of the implementation of the Taif Accord,"[1] a 1989 agreement, signed under American pressure by the surviving members of Lebanon's 1972-76 parliament, that called for the withdrawal of all Syrian forces in the unspecified (and thus presumably distant) future. The next day, truckloads of Syrian soldiers and military equipment began pulling out of bases in north Lebanon en route to the Akkar border region. By February 25, the Syrians had abandoned 10 positions in the Batroun region, 55 km (34 miles) north of Beirut, and four positions in the Koura region, 70 km (44 miles) north of the capital, while five other outposts in the Koura region were downsized.

According to Lebanese military officials, the redeployment brought the total number of Syrian soldiers in Lebanon to below 20,000, reducing the scope and size of Syria's military presence to the lowest level in decades. But Syria's grip on the country remains as strong as ever, as its coercive capacity in Lebanon derives not from uniformed soldiers, but from plainclothes intelligence personnel said to number in the thousands, while its political control over the country has become so institutionalized as to demand little military support. Damascus continues to dictate the selection of Lebanon's president, prime minister, and cabinet, while exerting undue influence over the electoral process and interfering in the daily operations of the Lebanese government.

Why Now?

Lebanese government officials insisted that the decision to undertake the redeployment was merely a reflection of the Lebanese military's improved capacity to maintain security in the country. However, the timing of the redeployment suggested other motivations.

Like the partial withdrawal of Syrian troops from Beirut to eastern and northern Lebanon in June 2001 and from Mount Lebanon in April 2002, the redeployment was primarily intended to serve political objectives. However, its timing and the specific determination of which positions to abandon suggest that the intent was not merely to reduce the visibility of Syrian forces to Lebanese civilians (the main intent of the previous two redeployments), but also to reduce their exposure to Israeli air attack. Israeli surveillance flights deep into Lebanese airspace and threats by Israeli officials to bomb Syrian targets in Lebanon in response to a renewal of Hezbollah attacks into the disputed Shebaa Farms area or northern Israel clearly unsettled Damascus. The removal of most Syrian tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons from northern Lebanon leaves Syria's forces less exposed to Israeli air attacks, as most of its easy-to-target military assets are now concentrated in the Beqaa Valley of eastern Lebanon, where Syrian air defenses are strongest. Some have suggested that the pullout of heavy weaponry was also related to the reinforcement of Syrian troops along the border with Iraq.

However, the redeployment was intended first and foremost to be a quid pro quo in return for a major shift by mainstream Christian opposition figures since the beginning of the year. Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, who had begun openly calling for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in recent years, postponed a visit to the United States, which, owing to the vocal anti-Syrian sentiments of American-Lebanese groups, would have made the Syrians uneasy. On February 10, the Qornet Shehwan Gathering - a coalition of mainstream Christian opposition figures - issued a statement calling for "maintaining Lebanese-Syrian relations at the current level" and accused the United States of "impeding nonmilitary solutions to the Iraqi standoff."[2] The group also officially participated in several demonstrations against war in Iraq. Jean Aziz, a Qornet Shehwan member affiliated with the Lebanese Forces (LF), canceled his participation in a Washington DC panel discussion with Free National Current (FNC) leader Michel Aoun and leading Lebanese-American figures opposed to the Syrian presence.

Since his ascension in mid-2000, Syrian President Bashar Assad has tried to undermine popular support for the Lebanese nationalist movement within the Christian community by offering to give mainstream Christian political elites a greater voice in politics in return for their acceptance of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon. The Syrian dictator's eagerness to strike such a deal, which led him to visit Beirut twice last year, is driven less by the desire to stem rising anti-Syrian sentiments within the Christian community (which Syrian and Lebanese officials can simply attribute to sectarianism) than by the desire to undercut Muslim opposition to the Syrian presence (which is much more threatening to a regime dominated by Alawites - a heretical sect of Islam in the eyes of many Muslims - and more disruptive to Syria's position in the Arab world). Undercutting the nationalist movement's center of gravity in the Christian community is seen as the best way to ensure quietism among all Lebanese. However, even those Christian politicians who are the most eager to strike such a deal in principle have insisted that they cannot justify cooperation with Syria to their constituents (the vast majority of whom strongly oppose the occupation) until observable signs of Syrian political hegemony (e.g. Syrian military checkpoints) are reduced.

Recent meetings between Sfeir and Beirut MP Nasser Qandil (considered to be Syria's unofficial "messenger" in Lebanon), and between Sfeir and President Lahoud (who had been refusing to meet with the patriarch for months), suggest that a dialogue of sorts is underway, but where it will go from here is not clear. If the turnabout of mainstream Christian opposition is a temporary initiative motivated primarily by the desire to encourage Syrian disengagement from Lebanon, then the redeployment may be a promising sign. However, many in the nationalist camp worry that the turnabout is motivated by the desire to achieve political rewards from Syria - such as appointments to the new cabinet expected to be unveiled this spring. Recent media reports that MP Boutros Harb, an outspoken member of the Qornet Shehwan Gathering, met with the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazali, suggest that these worries may be justified.

By muting mainstream Christian opposition to the occupation, the redeployment has also strengthened pro-Syrian elites - especially "moderates" who are most sensitive to public accusations of selling out to Damascus. This has led to some obsequious expressions of support for Syria that would have been unthinkable a few months ago. Just 24 hours after Syria began the pullout, Beirut MP Walid Eido, an ally of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, declared "we are one nation with them."[3]

Notes

  [1] Agence France Presse, 18 February 2003.
  [2] The Daily Star (Beirut), 11 February 2003.
  [3] The Daily Star (Beirut), 20 February 2003.


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