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Lebanon and Syria in a New Era
Colonel Charbel Barakat, former deputy commander of the South Lebanon Army, and Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, addressed a Middle East Briefing in New York on June 15, 2000.
I would like to clarify some misperceptions about the South Lebanon enclave and the South Lebanon Army (SLA). The SLA and the South Lebanese community were neither mercenaries of Israel nor traitors to Lebanon. Rather, we were the last defenders of a free Lebanon. We were freedom fighters liberating our homeland from the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian occupation. We fought for peace and lived in peace with our neighbors, yet we were uprooted from our country and thousands left in an exodus to Israel.
Origins of the SLA:
In the mid-1970s, residents of southern Lebanon resisted the invasion of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrians. While civilians-in-arms gathered to defend their area, officers and soldiers of the Lebanese army native to the area - myself among them - were ordered by the Lebanese government to form a military unit to defend ourselves, thus giving birth to the Free Lebanon Army.
Henceforth, the South Lebanese were cut off from Beirut and denied basic supplies, including food and water. Our people then decided to ask help from the Israelis across the border, who became the only country to grant us assistance. The "good fence" was established and twenty-three years of peaceful relations and friendship with Israel began. It is important to note that while Israel gave us military support, it did not create us; we went to Israel and asked for help, not the other way around. I am proud that my community chose to defend its homeland even as other militias allied themselves with a Syrian dictatorship eager to absorb Lebanon, or with an Iranian theocracy bent on imposing an Islamic republic.
The Good Years:
When Israel moved into Lebanon in 1982, we were finally able to travel to our capital and communicate with the rest of the country. In 1985 Israel pulled out and established the security zone. The South Lebanese resistance agreed to form the SLA in alliance with Israel and succeeded in repelling attempts by Hizbullah terrorists and other pro-Syrian forces to march against our enclave.
After the Syrian invasion of East Beirut in 1990, Damascus formed a so-called National Reconciliation Government supposed to be representative of all Lebanese; yet we Southern Lebanese were not invited to take part. Hizbullah was allowed to retain its weapons and waged war on our enclave, killing and kidnapping our civilians under the slogan of fighting Israel.
The Israeli Withdrawal:
When, in mid-1999, the Israeli government announced it would withdraw from the security zone, our people in South Lebanon opted to stay in our homeland and continue to resist, regardless of Hizbullah's threats to slaughter us. We asked the United Nations (U.N.) for diplomatic and military assistance, but our appeals fell on deaf ears.
Worse, U.N. envoy Terje Roed Larsen exerted pressure on Israel to dismantle the SLA, so that Israel would have no lingering presence in Lebanon, thereby denying Hizbullah any excuse to attack northern Israel. This had the effect of denying us our right to resist, so we were forced to leave our homes and become refugees. Great injustice was done to the people of South Lebanon, and we were sacrificed to satisfy Syria and accommodate Hizbullah.
It is very important to understand that the SLA did not fall apart last month; it was dismantled by the Israelis. Our soldiers were told that the border with Israel would be permanently shut - and that they had a choice to remain isolated in South Lebanon or take refuge in Israel. At that point, given this choice, they had no choice but to flee.
Israel could and should pressure the United States and the United Nations to help find a solution to the plight of the South Lebanese by providing for a safe haven and assisting Lebanon to achieve national reconciliation. The Lebanese government should be pressured to allow the refugees to return their villages without having to fear trials and sentences. The South Lebanese, now fearful of Hizbullah's ravages (or whiling away time as refugees in Israel), are in dire need of both material and psychological support, in order for them not to feel abandoned.
In stark contrast to the last static decade of President Hafiz al-Asad's rule, during which predictions could be made with unusual ease, we know little about the present, volatile situation in Syria. In this situation, one can only raise issues, without trying to say which way things will go.
Will Bashshar al-Asad be able to turn his formal power into real power? We know very little about Bashshar al-Asad. He seems like a nice enough young man, all the more so that he tried to escape the family business so long as his older brother Basil was the one being groomed to lead Syria. Whether Bashshar has - to use the words of Eyal Zisser, an Israeli expert on Syria - the "killer instinct" needed to lead Syria remains to be seen. Much depends on that.
The Syrian succession involves the unusual marriage of a revolutionary regime and a monarchy. To the best of my knowledge, this combination has only one precedent, namely the ascension of Kim Jong Il in North Korea. And as we saw just yesterday, as he sang a song of national unity hand-in-hand with his South Korean counterpart, things are much more open to change when a prince - and not a hardened apparatchik - takes over. Similarly, the succession in Syria could bring about many, many changes.
The 'Alawi Minority:
Benjamin Franklin's famous utterance about "all hanging together or hanging separately" very much applies to the 'Alawis - the small religious sect that has dominated Syria since 1966. It is impossible for the 'Alawis, who comprise but one-eight of the Syrian population, indefinitely to dominate Syria. Their best hope is for a soft landing; their nightmare is a violent upheaval. The first means bringing in the Muslim majority in a gradual way; the second results from continuing to exclude them. Will Bashshar understand that he needs to cede power in a gradual way? Again, much depends on this.
Will the Syrian regime turn inwards or turn adventurous? It is premature to speculate on this except to say that both are possible. History is full of examples of unstable governments providing themselves with credentials by engaging in foreign adventures; think of Argentina in 1982.
Relations with three of Syria's neighbors deserve note.
Turkey: For Turkey, the consequences of Asad's death are rather minor. The new Turkish president, Ahmet Sezer, rather surprisingly attended Asad's funeral in Damascus, being only one of two European heads of state (the other being Chirac of France) to do so. This symbolizes the fact that, however dire Turkey's troubles were with Syria that persisted until September 1998, they are basically healed, with the Turks professing themselves satisfied with Syrian behavior.
Lebanon: Should Hafiz al-Asad's death lead to the loosening of Syria's iron grip on Lebanon, that country has a good chance to emerge from the occupation and become independent and sovereign, again. This can be seen already by events of the past three months, when the Lebanese took initial steps, such as through editorials critical of Syria and street demonstrations (by students and labor unions). This reflects two facts: the deep and widespread resistance to the Syrianization of Lebanon among all Lebanese communities; and that, despite twenty-five years of war and occupation, a civil society in Lebanon remains intact. Similar to the Baltic states during fifty years of Soviet occupation, Lebanon has managed to maintain its integrity.
Israel: Until Hafiz al-Asad's recent death, I repeatedly insisted that there was no chance of a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, for reasons related to Asad's fear of this loosening his totalitarian grip over Syria. (He was known to have watched the Romanian events of 1989 with special horror.) His death now confirms my prediction for all time. As for the future, the new rulers will not have the same fearful calculus of the elder Asad and this might translate into a receptivity to accept the Golan Heights that Israel is offering, the foreign aid offered by the West, and so on.
Summary Account by Assaf Moghadam