The Middle East Forum published in May 2000 a study group report1 surveying the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and making suggestions for U.S. policy. It landed at precisely the right moment – as Israeli troops withdrew from south Lebanon and as Hafiz al-Asad died – and received considerable attention in the U.S. and Middle Eastern press.2 We provide the summary of the study here.3
The Syrian occupation of Lebanon began nearly a quarter-century ago; its implications continue adversely to affect what is the world's only satellite state. At the same time, Lebanon policy has atrophied in Washington. The Lebanon Study Group was formed to analyze this situation and recommend measures in the interests of the United States, Lebanon, and the Middle East at large.
Lebanon has a number of abiding features that make it a significant place worthy and requiring of American attention. First, the United States and Lebanon have mutually benefited from a longstanding friendship. Ties between the two countries have seen American businesses and academic institutions flourish in Lebanon and Lebanese immigrants establish a strong community of close to three million in the United States. Second, the economic, personal and political freedoms found in Lebanon offer a model for the wider region that complements American strategic interests. To preserve Lebanon is to promote free market enterprise and democratic ideals. Third, Lebanon occupies an important place in a strategically vital corner of the world. This fact is cause for great alarm when considered with Syria's current domination as Lebanon has unwittingly become a breeding ground for various threats to the stability of the Middle East.
Not surprisingly, Syria holds a very different view of its western neighbor. It never truly reconciled itself to an independent Lebanese republic and seized the opportunity to involve itself in Lebanese affairs with the outbreak of war in 1975 and then, to impose forceful occupation when the world's attention was focussed on the crisis in Kuwait some years later.
Syrian hegemony has served Damascus well. It fortified a totalitarian regime by eliminating the perceived subversive influences. It has gained international leverage in foreign policy and military strategy. Syria has taken to economic exploitation through such tactics as dumping its labor surplus and products on Lebanese markets, tapping Lebanon's precious water supply, and by other more disguised and boldly illegitimate business practices. Each of these excesses helps to mask Syria's own potential instability. It is saddled with the heavy burdens of a backward economy showing negative growth, a population explosion, internal discontent, and unfriendly rivals among its immediate neighbors. As opposed to addressing these problems, in effect, Damascus is exporting them.
Each benefit reaped by Syrian occupation is balanced by a heavy price levied on Lebanon, devastating many aspects of Lebanese society and the lives of its citizens. Foremost on the list of damages are human rights abuses, ranging from illegal wire tapping to torture and disappearance. Syria has methodically gone about enforcing control over what were once respected government bodies and societal institutions. Lebanon's democratic foundations and its diverse political landscape have all but crumbled as a result of Syrian tampering with parliamentary elections and other rampant forms of corruption. The Lebanese military is gradually becoming relegated to an appendage of its Syrian counterpart stripped of both its patriotism and ability to effectively stand alone. The independent media in Beirut was a rarity in the Arab world and so its downfall is particularly disheartening. Other subjugated institutions include the Lebanese judiciary, schools and labor unions which are all shadows of their former selves having been forced to bow to Syrian manipulation.
Syria's impact on Lebanon does not bode well for American efforts in the Middle East. Lebanon is a significant and forceful presence in the Arab world and a beacon capable of leading its fellow Arab nations in the direction of religious tolerance, democracy and greater economic and social freedoms. Instead, Syrian ascendancy has brought about just the opposite. Syria's systematic alteration of Lebanon's character deprives the Arab world of the single, even if flawed, indigenous example of religious coexistence as well as political and personal freedom. Until Damascus removes its heavy-handed influence re-deploying its forces in accordance with the Ta'if agreement, endorsed by Syria in 1989, there will be no real and lasting peace in the region.
U.S. foreign policy has demonstrated signs of recognizing this reality. With the outbreak of war in 1975 that set the stage for Lebanon's current situation, Washington officially supported "the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Lebanon" and even went so far as to call for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon's borders. When Syria failed to live up to its repeated promises to comply, the U.S. government refrained from backing its policy with tangible operational measures. On the contrary, American officials indicated their tacit acquiescence to continued Syrian rule in Lebanon.
Accordingly, U.S. policy has been soft on Damascus despite the latter's excesses in Lebanon, its official rogue status, and its troubling history with the United States (evidenced by its direct or indirect involvement in probably more American deaths than any other adversary since the Vietnam war). Both the United States and Israel have turned a blind eye to these offenses in an attempt to seduce Syria into a peace treaty. Addressing Syrian hegemony in this context has instilled Asad with the hope that he might not only avoid reprisal but achieve the tangible gains of Western aid, Israel's departure from Lebanon and the Golan Heights, and even possible approval of his regime and occupation of Lebanon.
We believe that American foreign policy strategy must be refined to reflect a commitment to affecting a profound change in Lebanon. U.S. actions taken on behalf of Lebanon must aim to salvage the country's precious freedoms and anchor its regained sovereignty instead of continuing the course of recent decisions — to send an ambassador, to lift the travel ban, to have Secretary of State Albright visit — that have been small in scope and only designed to alleviate its suffering. Instead, the U.S. government must make the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon a top priority.
Toward this goal, we present several specific policy recommendations in graduated order of severity:
* Statement of policy. It is time for the Executive Branch openly and unambiguously to call on Damascus to end the occupation of Lebanon, perhaps with the following six words: "All Syrian forces must leave Lebanon." Such a declaration would hardly break new ground but would only catch up with numerous congressional resolutions. It would also underscore the spirit of U.N. Resolution 425 as well as the letter of U.N. Resolution 520.
* Press Damascus on promises made. The Syrian government has, on three occasions, concurred with decisions made by others that Syrian troops should leave Lebanon. First, as part of the Riyadh-Cairo accords, it agreed to leave Lebanon in October 1976. Second, it signed the Fez Declaration in September 1982. Third, it in October 1989 accepted a provision that Syrian troops would be re-deployed from their positions in Beirut to the Bekaa Valley two years after four conditions had been met. U.S. officials need forcefully to remind the Syrian government and the world of these multiple promises.
* Aid for Syria. Not a penny to Damascus until it has completed the evacuation of its forces (uniformed and not, intelligence agents, too) from every square inch of Lebanon. This applies even should it conclude an agreement with Israel that allows Syrian forces to remain in Lebanon.
* Aid for Lebanon. All appropriations for Lebanon should be directed away from the Syrian-controlled government and in favor of credible private organizations and institutions — universities, schools, hospitals, and groups working in the areas of human rights, environmental issues, and so forth.
* South Lebanon. A solution for the festering sore in south Lebanon requires a level of seriousness equal to that afforded to Sinai and the Golan — ideally an international resolution within the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement.
* Lebanese sovereignty. Considering that the Ta'if agreement, initially launched as an "Arab solution" for Lebanon, was subsequently Syrianized, the United States should work to reengage independent participation by moderate Arab regimes in restoring Lebanese sovereignty, accelerating political reconciliation, and promoting peaceful communal coexistence.
* Encourage Israel to include Lebanon in negotiations with Syria. The Israeli authorities need to be reminded of the dangers Lebanon presents to them, in terms of Katyusha rockets raining down on their northern towns and more, unless the Syrians fully disengage their forces from Lebanon.
* Tighten the screws. Should the above steps prove futile in budging Syria from Lebanon, the U.S. government can avail itself of a battery of steps to increase the pressure on Damascus: recall the U.S. ambassador and freeze diplomatic relations; suspend whatever trade exists between the two countries; terminate other forms of bilateral dealings. It can seek to oust Syria from international fora, prevent Syrian officials or students from coming to the United States; reach out to Lebanese democrats and other figures (such as the Maronite patriarch), and convene an international conference of free Lebanese.
* Congressional action. If the administration is unwilling to take these steps, Congress ought to close the existing "national interest" loopholes that the Executive Branch usually invokes in order to disregard regulations. For example, it can extend to Syria the sanctions in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (which prohibits any investment of over $20 million a year in Iran's or Libya's petrochemicals sectors). It can take other steps, too, such as funding a Radio Free Lebanon.
* Military force. Finally, the use of force needs to be considered. The Gulf War of 1991 and the war over Kosovo of 1999 demonstrated that the United States can act to defend its interests and its principles without the specter of huge casualties. But this opportunity may not wait, for as weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities spread, the risks of such action will rapidly grow. If there is to be decisive action, it will have to be sooner rather than later.
1 Daniel Pipes and Ziad Abdelnour, co-chairs Ending Syria's Occupation of Lebanon: The U.S. Role (Philadelphia: Middle East Forum, 2000). Ending Syr The report has thirty-two signatories.
2 For example, An-Nahar, June 6, 2000; Al-Hayat, June 6, 2000; The Forward, June 9, 2000; The Palestinian Information Center, June 12, 2000, at http://www.palestine-infor.net/daily_news/prev_editions/2000/June2000/12June.htm#2; The New York Daily News, June 16, 2000; Ha'aretz, June 16, 2000; The Boston Globe, June 19, 2000.
3 A complete text is available at www.meforum.org.