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This is the original English version of an Italian article in "Pax Euroislamica," Aspenia (Aspen Institute Italia Review). No. 30, October 2005.

On June 28, 2005, Lebanon's parliament selected Fuad Siniora to be prime minister. Siniora was a close associate of Rafiq al-Hariri, a former prime minister and Sunni powerbroker who was assassinated on February 14, 2005 as his motorcade drove down a Beirut street. Like Hariri in his later years, Siniora has taken an increasingly defiant stance in opposition to Syrian domination of Lebanon.

While Lebanon's Cedar Revolution has already reverberated throughout the region, the transformation it sought to unveil is tenuous. Syria's nearly three-decade occupation of Lebanon may have ended, but the country remains susceptible to Syrian domination. During the years of occupation, Syrian proxies altered the Lebanese legal system to undercut the ability of political society to transform through elections. Syrian intelligence operatives continue to permeate Lebanon, killing and intimidating dissidents and independent-minded politicians. Syrian interests continue to dominate Lebanon's black market. Lebanon's political position remains precarious. Hizbullah remains a Syrian proxy and, flouting U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, has refused to disarm. While many Lebanese officials privately say they would like the group to lay down its weapons, the Lebanese government remains too weak to broach the subject publicly.

The triumph of democratic liberalism in Lebanon will depend not only upon continued European and American assistance to Lebanese democrats, but also upon the ability of Western governments to identify and direct pressure upon mechanisms of continued Syrian control. At stake is more than freedom for Lebanon, but rather the ability of the Arab world to reform itself. The evaporation of the Cedar Revolution would embolden autocrats in countries Egypt and Yemen that they can outlast reformist demands.


Syrian troops entered Lebanon in 1976, a year after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war. While the 1989 Ta‘if Accords called for the withdrawal foreign forces from Lebanon, the Syrian occupation continued with the tacit approval of the George H.W. Bush administration which saw the Syrian presence as stabilizing.[1]

While the United States and European countries valued stability, the Syrian government sought to prolong its involvement in Lebanon in order to fulfill a historical ambition. The French government created modern Lebanon in 1920 as Paris and London divided up former Ottoman domains. While France was Mandatory power for both Syria and Lebanon, the latter's separate identity helped protect and empower Mount Lebanon's large Christian population. Syrian nationalists, though, never forfeited their claim to Lebanon nor, in some cases, to Transjordan and Palestine, also considered by some in Damascus to be part of Greater Syria.[2] In 1946, a Syrian diplomat declared Syria's borders with Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan to be "artificial." In August 1972, Syrian president Hafez al-Assad said, "Syria and Lebanon are a single country." Syrian ambition undercut diplomatic formalities. The Syrian regime does not maintain an embassy in Beirut; exchange of ambassadors would indicate recognition of Lebanese independence.

After dispatching the Syrian army into Lebanon, Assad treated Lebanon as a colony. The late Ghazi Kana‘an, chief of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon between 1982 and 2002, and his deputy and successor Rustum Ghazali, acted as if they were colonial high commissioners. In many ways, they were. Officials in Damascus determined which Lebanese politicians could run for office and who could hold ministerial portfolios. Judicial and legal officials picked for their loyalty to the Syrian regime could silence independent-minded Lebanese parliamentarians and lawyers by threatening to have their professional immunity lifted. In 1994, for example, Lebanese parliamentarian Yahya Shamas had his immunity stripped and was imprisoned on trumped-up drug charges after a business deal gone bad with Kana‘an.. Likewise, after the Lebanese human rights lawyer Muhamad Mugraby criticized the Supreme Judicial Council's lack of independence, the Beirut Bar Association lifted his immunity. Lebanese security forces subsequently arrested him.

In August 2004, Syrian disdain for Lebanese sovereignty culminated when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad ordered the Lebanese constitution to be amended in order to enable Syrian client Emile Lahoud to serve a third term as president. According to the United Nations fact-finder dispatched sent in the wake of Hariri's assassination, when Hariri balked, Assad told him that opposition to Lahoud "is tantamount to opposing Assad himself."

Syrian penetration of Lebanon permeated all aspects of state. On May 20, 1991, the Syrian government and its proxy in Lebanon signed a Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination charging both countries "to achieve the highest level of cooperation and coordination in all political, economic, security, cultural, scientific, and other fields... [and to] expand and strengthen their common interests as an affirmation of the brotherly relations and guarantee of their common destiny." In effect, the treaty made Syria suzerain.

The September 1, 1991 "Lebanon-Syria Defense and Security Agreement" formalized the domination of Syria's military and security services in Lebanon. Two years later, an "Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination" outlined a program of economic integration which, in practice, made Lebanon an outlet for Syrian goods and labor.

While Siniora's government or that of some future successor might abrogate the more parasitic treaties, it will be far more difficult to overcome mechanisms of informal control which the Syrian government made to Lebanese society. In August 1999, for example, the director-general of the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment and his Lebanese counterpart agreed to route Lebanon's fiber optic network through Syria, enabling Syrian intelligence to more easily monitor telephone and internet traffic. Such routing allowed Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies to bypass embarrassment over revelations that Lahoud had illegally tapped the phones of Hariri and more than a dozen parliamentarians.

Electoral Damage

Undoing the damage caused by past Syrian manipulation of the Lebanese electoral system will be a far greater challenge for renewed democracy in Lebanon.[3] The 1989 Ta'if Accords stipulated that the governorate should be the base unit for national elections in Lebanon. In effect, this split the country into five electoral districts in which voters could select from slates of parliamentary candidates. At the urging of Damascus, and in contravention to the Ta ‘if Accord, the Lebanese parliament divided the Mount Lebanon governorate into six separate electoral districts. The narrowing of pro-Syrian officials' constituencies facilitated their re-election by undercutting the formation of opposition coalitions across wider swaths of territory.

In the 1998 municipal elections, 40 percent of the candidates backed by the pro-Syrian Lebanese government lost. In the aftermath, Kana‘an and Bashar al-Assad, then his father's trusted aide, met with the Lebanese prime minister, parliamentary speaker, and other pro-Syrian ministers to further gerrymander districts in order to divide the opposition's support base. The new law subdivided Northern Lebanon into two electoral districts. The gerrymandering combined the largely Maronite Christian town of Bsharre with Muslim towns to which it was not contiguous, making victory by an independent Christian candidate impossible. Likewise, the government divided Beirut into three districts calculated to reduce Hariri's power. Bolstering the number of seats in parliament from 108 to 128 seats enabled Damascus to ensure a pro-Syrian majority. Unable to break an impasse over a new electoral law, the Lebanese government held its June 2005 parliamentary elections under the 2000 electoral law.

Gerrymandering has amplified the power of pro-Syrian politicians because, under the Lebanese confessional system, voters cast ballots for multi-sectarian slates of candidates. While the political characteristics of the parliament may be in doubt, its sectarian components are not: Sixty-four seats are reserved for Christian representatives (34 Maronites, 14 Greek Orthodox, eight Greek Catholic, five Armenian Orthodox, one seat each for Armenian Catholics, Evangelical groups, and other minorities), 56 seats are for Muslim representatives (27 Sunnis, 27 Shi‘ites, two Alawites), and eight seats are slated for Druze candidates.

By placing Maronite communities into more populous Muslim districts, Muslim voters could determine which slates—and therefore which Christian representatives—entered parliament. On May 12, 2005, the League of Maronite Bishops complained that, as the districts were drawn, "the Christians can elect only 15 MPs out of 64 while the others, almost 50 MPs, are elected by Muslims."

The electoral system undercut independent Shi‘ites for a different reason. Lebanese law requires citizens to vote in their ancestral districts, effectively disenfranchising thousands of elderly war refugees who fled southern Lebanon more than two decades previously and subsequently settled in Beirut. Unable to cast their ballots, a slate dominated by Hizbullah won the southern district elections, ensuring Damascus a strong voice in the Lebanese parliament.

While in the short-term, the electoral law might undercut independent Lebanese voices, it is in the longer-term in which the danger of the Syrian-imposed system lies. By seeking to disenfranchise certain groups based on their ethnicity, the gerrymandered districts amplify differences and favor either unrepresentative or more extreme voices. Lebanese surveyed during the June 2005 campaign said that sectarianism has never been so high and voiced fear that the relative calm following the Syrian withdrawal might foreshadow renewed sectarian strife. The gerrymandered districts are geared to prevent coalition-building, and the inability of many Beirut residents to vote in the districts in which they reside means gradual migration and mixing of populations cannot alone mitigate problems.

How the West can help Lebanon

Lebanon's transformation is far from complete. Western governments can help the Lebanese people solidify their gains in two ways: First, they should target mechanisms of Syrian control and second, they should assist judicial and electoral reform. Weakening Syrian power in Lebanon will facilitate ability to make the electoral changes necessary to enable the Lebanese people to translate democratic will into more permanent political reformation.

Gary Gambill, editor of the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, identified several mechanisms of Syrian control in Lebanon which have continued beyond the military withdrawal.[4] Damascus' economic grasp is significant, and may siphon from the Lebanese economy more than ten billion U.S. dollars annually. While the Lebanese drug trade declined under international pressure in the early 1990s, drug cultivation has rebounded since 1997 when, more for diplomatic than objective reasons, the U.S. State Department removed both Lebanon and Syria from its list of drug producing and trafficking countries. Narco-traffic has provided an independent revenue stream for Hizbullah and other Syrian-backed interests. This undercuts the Lebanese government's ability to exert full control over its territory.

Corruption also cripples Lebanon. A 2001 United Nation-commission report estimated that Lebanon loses nearly ten percent of its gross domestic product to corruption. The Administration for Tenders vetted and approved less than three percent of the Lebanese government's reconstruction and development expenditures. Eighty percent of Lebanese companies acknowledge paying bribes. Many Lebanese politicians and Syrian security officials enter into silent partnerships with Lebanese companies. Security services have arrested parliamentarians and other Lebanese officials who have questioned or exposed corruption. While the Syrian military has withdrawn from Lebanon, Assad's reliance on Lebanese capital to keep the Syrian economy afloat suggests that Damascus will continue to intervene to preserve its own interest at the expense of the Lebanese electorate.

There are remedies. On June 30, 2005, the U.S. Treasury Department announced its decision to freeze the assets of Kena‘an and Ghazali. Any action to undercut Syrian officials' business interests erodes their power. Such targeted sanctions should be applied not only upon Syrian officials, but also on pro-Syrian Lebanese figures who accumulated wealth in an illegal manner.

Hizbullah will remain a major impediment to Lebanon's democratization. A unified American and European approach is needed. In a March 15, 2005 interview with Beirut's Daily Star, a senior Hizbullah official described the group as both "a resistance group and political party." Western officials should not accept such rhetoric. The United Nations certified Israel's complete withdrawal from Lebanese territory, Hizbullah's claims notwithstanding. To accept the group's claim to legitimate resistance undercuts the European Union claim to champion international law and undermines the moral legitimacy of the United Nations in the region.

The State Department and European foreign ministries should instead insist that the Lebanese government adhere to Security Council Resolution 1559's call for "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias." While Hizbullah's leadership claims that 1559 does not apply because they define Hizbullah as a political party and not a militia, such distinctions are disingenuous. Political parties do not maintain armed wings. Foreign and Defense policy should be the solitary domain of the Lebanese central government. While Hizbullah might claim an electoral mandate, its legitimacy as a force for Lebanese sovereignty ended when it sponsored a March 8, 2005 rally in Beirut endorsing Syrian occupation. Its showing is as much an artifact of Syrian gerrymandering as a sign of true popularity. If Lebanon is to become a stable, multi-confessional democracy, neither Europe nor the United States should legitimize Hizbullah.

Assisting Reform

In the wake of the Ta‘if Accord, U.S. and European policymakers made an implied bargain with Damascus: In exchange for stability in Lebanon, the West would turn a blind eye toward Syrian ambitions in Lebanon. For fifteen years, the Syrian regime eviscerated Lebanese institutions in order to better control Lebanese society and exploit its resources. If Western governments wish to solidify Lebanon's transformation, then they need to help Lebanon restore the transparency of government.

Syrian authorities and their Lebanese proxies eviscerated the Lebanese judiciary. An October 2004 incident symbolized the subservience of the judiciary to Syrian intelligence when Lebanese television broadcast the visit of Ghazali to Marwan Hamade, an opposition parliamentarian who had just survived an assassination attempt for which many Lebanese believed the Syrians responsible. The Lebanese Justice Minister trailed behind Ghazali, symbolically affiliating himself as the Syrian official's subordinate.

The European Union has already offered to advise and finance judicial reform through its Neighborhood Program. Such aid should become a priority so that Lebanon's judiciary can begin to tackle the country's corruption and abuse-of-power problems.

Both Washington and European foreign ministries should also push for comprehensive electoral reform. While Lebanon's confessional system makes tinkering sensitive, Western diplomats should encourage the repeal of Syrian-sponsored gerrymandering by, for example, reverting to the governorate-based system agreed to under the Ta‘if Accord. Western governments might support Lebanese reformers who seek to allow residency-based rather than ancestry-based voting.

In April 2005, the State Department called for the Syrian government to establish an embassy in Beirut. This demand should be echoed by European foreign ministries. The refusal of the Syrian government to recognize the right of Lebanon to exist as a fully independent state is a problem that should be directly addressed. Diplomatic obfuscation will fail. There is precedent. After the Iraqi prime minister recognized Kuwait in 1963, the international community claimed diplomatic victory and ignored the Iraqi government' subsequent refusal to ratify the treaty. Twenty-seven years later, Iraq revived its claims, declared Kuwait an Iraqi province, and invaded. Neither the United States nor European Union should for short-term convenience accept anything less than unambiguous Syrian recognition of Lebanon's independence.

In the wake of Hariri's assassination, the Lebanese people demonstrated their desire for reform. At great danger to themselves, they demanded a Syrian withdrawal. While the impetus for democracy was internal, international community pressure was vital to the Lebanese freedom movement's success.

The reverberations of the Cedar Revolution extend beyond Lebanon's borders. Lebanon is a trend-setter: Racy Lebanese videos and television shows promote a vision of openness and worldliness which competes culturally with the resurgence of political Islam. Ideas spread across social strata. Lebanon's greatest export is its people. Among the greatest advocates for reform in Saudi Arabia, for example, are Lebanese businessmen, long resident in Jeddah and Riyadh. Their agitation for democracy makes reform an Arab issue, less easily dismissed as an import from the West.

While the potential of Lebanese transformation is large, the withdrawal of Syrian troops is not enough to guarantee success. The Assad regime has ideological and economic motivations to deny Lebanon its freedom. If the United States and Europe wish the Cedar Revolution to succeed, they must work together to undercut Syrian obstructionism and bolster Lebanese reformers.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

[1] For greater background on the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, see: William Harris. Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1997), pp. 261-2; and William Harris. "Bashar al-Assad's Lebanon Gamble." Middle East Quarterly. Summer 2005. pp.33-44.
[2] Daniel Pipes traces pan-Syrian ideology in Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). He makes a summary of his argument in "Greater Syria: Another Lion Roars in the Middle East." The Washington Post. October 21, 1990.
[3] Gary C. Gambill provides excellent analysis on this issue in various Middle East Intelligence Bulletin articles on the subject from 1999 and 2000.
[4] Gary Gambill. "Hooked on Lebanon." Middle East Quarterly. Autumn 2005.