Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 6 Table of Contents
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June 2003 

Can Syria Deregulate Lebanon?
by Ziad K. Abdelnour and Gary C. Gambill

Emile Lahoud

After months of "untreatable paralysis" (falij la ta'alij)[1] in the cabinet and escalating tensions between Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and President Emile Lahoud, Syrian intervention has once again brought calm to the Lebanese political scene. It is unlikely to last, however. With eighteen months left in Lahoud's term in office, the "great game" of Lebanese post-war politics has just begun. In spite of Lahoud's unswerving loyalty to Damascus, Syria has not yet decided whether to extend his term in office and there are at least half a dozen other presidential aspirants - four of them cabinet ministers - who could conceivably earn its blessing (commonly dubbed the "password" in the Lebanese media).

With Syria coming under increasing American pressure to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon, the stakes in this traditionally raucous competition for the "password" are very high for Damascus, which hopes to find a way to leave behind a self-regulating satellite regime capable of preserving Syrian economic and strategic interests in Lebanon.


Although the powers of the presidency are strictly limited under the 1989 Taif Accord, which transferred most executive power to the prime minister (who by law is a Sunni Muslim), constitutional prerogatives have meant little in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. Until Lahoud's election by Lebanon's rubber-stamp parliament in 1998, Damascus granted Prime Minister Hariri pride of place over the president and speaker of parliament (an office reserved for Shiite Muslims). Following Lahoud's ascension, however, the Syrians decided to shift power within the ruling troika in favor of the president, who was given absolute control over the military and state security apparatus. The rational for this was that Lahoud, unlike Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, had no support base within his own sectarian community and would therefore be less susceptible to domestic political pressures. It was also hoped that a strong president would be able to mobilize Christian support for continued Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

Hariri, who left office for two years after Lahoud's ascension and returned in 2000, has chafed under the new rules of the game. The prime minister has been excluded entirely from security-related decisions, a limitation most evident in August 2001, when Lahoud ordered the security forces to carry out a massive crackdown against nationalist dissidents without his approval (Hariri was out of the country at the time). Although Hariri was ostensibly given control of economic policies, his decisions have remained subject to Syrian veto. This did not prevent acrimony between Hariri and Lahoud, however, and Damascus was frequently obliged to settle disputes over policy by fiat.

In the aftermath of the Syrian-US crisis over Iraq in early April, which resulted in a less tolerant American policy regarding the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Damascus appointed a new cabinet, which cut the number of Hariri's supporters and strengthened Lahoud - thereby minimizing the need for direct Syrian mediation in cabinet disputes and giving its client state a self-governing faŤade. Whereas major policy decisions previously were handed down by Damascus and rubber-stamped by the cabinet, ministers were now expected to deliberate and vote on the issues.

By mid-May, however, disagreements between Hariri and Lahoud on a number of key issues had virtually paralyzed the government. The most contentious quarrel concerned a plan introduced by Hariri for the construction of public schools in Lebanon, which the Lahoud camp rejected, claiming that it disproportionately benefited the capital (Hariri's electoral stronghold) at the expense of other regions of the country - and that the predominantly Sunni western half of the city would benefit more than the mostly Christian eastern half. The dispute had nothing to do with where the schools were needed most - Lahoud and his allies blocked the proposal because a large share of government funds used to expropriate the land would go to landowners beholden to Hariri - bolstering his support base. "If schools are not built in Beirut, no schools will be built in Lebanon," an irate Hariri told reporters after a May 22 cabinet meeting.[2]

Other disputes concerned appointments to high level positions in the administration - another form of patronage used by both sides to bolster their political support. The appointment of a new board for the National Social Security Fund, a government-run agency that provides health insurance and end-of-service indemnities to private sector employees, has been long overdue because of disagreement over how the spoils should be divided. Diplomatic appointments to five ambassadorships (Italy, Germany, the United States, the United Nations and UNESCO) have been held up for the same reason. Most recently, Hariri's proposal to name Economy Minister Marwan Hamade Lebanon's liaison with the World Bank during a June 5 cabinet meeting touched off a storm of protest from the Lahoud camp.

Another major issue of contention is control over the agenda of cabinet meetings. Although the prime minister has the undisputed right to set the agenda under the Lebanese constitution,[3] in practice the topics discussed at weekly cabinet meetings have been jointly agreed upon by Hariri and Lahoud, often through Syrian mediation. The prime minister's allies have recently begun demanding that his constitutional prerogative be recognized in practice, arguing that Lahoud has blocked matters of vital economic concern from being decided by keeping them off the agenda. In early June, Post and Telecommunications Minister Jean-Louis Qordahi (a Lahoud ally) proposed that the agenda be decided by the council of ministers as a whole, an idea that Hariri's allies called constitutional heresy. Since Lahoud's ascension, Hariri has come under pressure from some in the Sunni community to stand his ground and protect the office of prime minister from such encroachments.

Hariri has also been irate that Lahoud has provided protection to Tahsin Khayat, the owner of New Television (NTV), a leftist station that is very critical of the prime minister. Security censors, who are controlled by Lahoud, have turned a blind eye to its programming. In January, taking advantage of Lahoud's absence from the country on holiday, Hariri shut down its satellite link, ostensibly to prevent the network from broadcasting a much-publicized program critical of Saudi Arabia - Hariri's principal international backer. Lahoud promptly overruled the decision after his return.

The Question of the Presidency

Underlying all of these petty quarrels is Lahoud's undeclared (but universally recognized) ambition to serve another presidential term after the end of his tenure in November 2004.[4] Although the Constitution bars an incumbent president from serving a second consecutive six-year term, this is not an obstacle if Damascus decides that his continuation in office serves its interests - in 1995, Syria pressured the Lebanese cabinet and parliament into approving a one-time constitutional amendment to extend Elias Hrawi's term by three years.

While Hariri has been equally close-lipped on the subject in public, he is fiercely committed to ensuring that Lahoud leaves office in 2004 and has been quietly exploring possible alliances against his arch-nemesis. Although Damascus has the final say on whether Lahoud's term is extended, political alignments in Lebanon often affect Syrian decision-making. In light of prime minister's formidable financial resources (he is a multi-billionaire), Lahoud's poor standing within the Christian community, and the willingness of most pro-Syrian Maronite politicians to accept the presidency if it were offered to them, Hariri may get his way. Although Lahoud enjoys the support of Lebanon's military and security apparatus, as well as Hezbollah (which needs Lahoud's blessing in order to operate), there are few influential politicians willing to back him unconditionally.

At the insistence of Damascus, the issue of Lahoud's term extension was not publicly debated among prominent pro-Syrian elites until recently, though it clearly influenced their political maneuvering. During his May 25 Liberation Day speech, however, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah urged the government to postpone presidential, parliamentary, and even municipal elections in order to cope with external pressure from the United States.[5] Most independent media outlets interpreted the remark as an endorsement of Lahoud's term extension. Three days later, Deputy Parliament Speaker Elie Ferzli, a close Hariri ally, openly declared his opposition to an extension of Lahoud's term: "The current status quo is utterly miserable. An extension of the president's term would effectively mean an extension of the dreadful state of affairs that currently prevails in Lebanon. Lebanon does not deserve such a punishment."[6] Naturally, Ferzli's remarks were widely interpreted as an expression of the prime minister's position.

Hariri's ventriloquism was not well received by the Syrians. Adding to Syrian displeasure were reports that Hariri was coordinating with Lahoud's Christian opponents. According to the pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir, former Chief of Army Intelligence Johhny Abdo, an ally of Hariri who later served as ambassador to France, met with a political group that is "unfriendly" to Syria (presumably the Qornet Shehwan Gathering) and discussed the political implications of American pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.[7] If such an encounter between mainstream Christian opposition figures and Abdo (widely believed to be Hariri's "dream president") did in fact take place, it must have sparked outrage in Damascus.

For the Syrians, the final straw may have come during Hariri's trip to Brazil on June 10, when he told an audience, "We should sit together and solve the problems between Arabs and Israelis. We believe in dialogue, we believe in trusting the US, we are not looking for a confrontation."[8] The prime minister's remarks, which appeared supportive of the US-backed "road map" to peace and dismissive of Hezbollah's "resistance" campaign against Israel, raised eyebrows in Damascus, as the Bush administration had recently begun pressuring Lebanon to deploy its military in south Lebanon - a move that Damascus has adamantly vetoed. The danger that Hariri, who has long enjoyed good relations with the American officials, might conspire with the United States to bolster his position at home could not be ignored.

Humbling Hariri

Rafiq Hariri

Hariri received a serious blow on June 13, when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt declared in an interview that he was ending his long-standing political alliance with the prime minister. "Hariri has lost me and I am [now] with Lahoud," he said. The former militia chieftain, who is represented by three Druze ministers in the cabinet, lambasted Hariri's opposition to a term extension for Lahoud. "It is not Hariri who decides whether or not there should be an extension. The possibility may emerge that we would want an extension even if it is unpopular."[9] The fact that Jumblatt's stunning declaration came shortly after he met with Gen. Rustom Ghazali, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, at his headquarters in Anjar left little doubt as to why he had switched sides.[10]

On June 15, two 107-mm rockets slammed into the studios of Hariri's Future Television station, causing extensive damage to equipment, but no casualties. Although it is not clear who was responsible for the attack, Hariri got the message. "I don't want any problems, I don't want any crisis," the subdued prime minister reportedly said during a private dinner on June 16.[11] The next day, the cabinet convened in a special session and Hariri's allies made concessions on several of the disputed issues.

According to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, the Syrians had told Hariri that he would be replaced if he did not back down in his quarrel with Lahoud.[12] Minister of State Ali Qanso, who heads the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) in Lebanon, offered a similar, though more delicately stated, appraisal. The Syrians grew concerned that "sensitive" regional developments might be complicated by political infighting in Lebanon and "advised" Hariri to establish a working relationship with Lahoud. "To give Prime Minister Hariri credit, he heeded the advice," said Qanso, adding that Syria would have backed Lahoud had there been a continued standoff.[13]

Syria's Dilemma

Over the last two months Syria has come under unprecedented pressure from the United States to allow its satellite state to extend its authority to all of Lebanon (i.e. send military forces to the southern border, establish order in Ain al-Hilweh and other refugee camps, and disarm terrorist groups openly training in the country) and to begin reducing its military presence in the country with an eye toward an eventual withdrawal. At the same time, American diplomats are seeking to directly engage the Lebanese government and nudge it into pursuing an independent policy regarding the peace process and the war on terror.

While it is not yet clear how far Damascus is willing to go to accommodate American demands (which still remain secondary to US demands regarding Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations and involvement in Iraq), Syrian President Bashar Assad faces a difficult challenge - finding a way to eventually withdraw Syrian military forces from Lebanon, while preserving his political hegemony in the country. In short, he must leave behind a self-regulating satellite state that will not crumble when Syrian forces depart.

This imperative raises a host of questions. Are Syrian interests best served by empowering Lebanese politicians who have, like Lahoud, no indigenous base of support and therefore nothing to gain by one day pulling Lebanon out of Syria's orbit? Or should Syria seek to forge a coalition of powerful elites, like Hariri, who can stand on their own? "The presidential question is vital for the future of Syria's influence," notes Al-Nahar analyst Ali Hamadeh. "This is why Damascus is cautious to maintain a balance of power among its allies, while it weighs the pros and cons of any verdict on Lebanon's presidency."[14]


  [1] This term was used by Health Minister Suleiman Franjieh.
  [2] The Daily Star (Beirut), 23 May 2003.
  [3] According to Article 64 of the Lebanese Constitution, the prime minister "calls the Council of Ministers into session and sets its agenda."
  [4] Although Lahoud recently claimed that he has "never thought" of an extended term, he has conspicuously declined to give any assurances that he will leave office at the end of his mandate. See Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), 5 June 2003.
  [5] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 27 May 2003.
  [6] Al-Rai Al-Aam (Kuwait), 28 May 2003. The paper made the interview available to most Lebanese dailies for simultaneous publication.
  [7] Al-Safir (Beirut), 29 May 2003.
  [8] The Daily Star (Beirut), 11 June 2003.
  [9] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 13 June 2003.
  [10] Even more surprising was Jumblatt's announcement that he now favors direct election of the president. Under the current system, the president is selected by the parliament, which the Taif Accord divides equally between Christians and Muslims. Under a system in which the president is elected by direct public vote, the Druze community would have less of a voice, since its share of seats in parliament exceeds its demographic weight. Moreover, direct elections would make the president less accountable to parliament.
  [11] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 17 June 2003.
  [12] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 19 June 2003.
  [13] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 28 June 2003.
  [14] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 22 June 2003.

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