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    01 March 2005

    Syria

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    Here is a good piece at Juan Cole's blog re. Syria (here is a lil snip):

    When the French conquered Syria in 1920, they decided to make it easier to rule by dividing it. They carved off what is now Lebanon and gerrymandered it so that it had a Christian majority. In 1920, Maronite Catholics were probably 40 percent of the population, and with Greek Orthodox and others the Christian population came to 51 percent. The Shiites were probably only about 18 percent of the population then. Both under the French Mandate (1920-1946) and in the early years of the Lebanese Republic, the Maronites were the dominant political force. When Lebanon became independent in 1943, the system was set up so that Christians always had a 6 to 5 majority in parliament.

    Lebanon had a relatively free parliamentary democracy 1943-1956. In 1957, I have been told by a former US government official, the US CIA intervened covertly in the Lebanese elections to ensure that the Lebanese constitution would be amended to allow far-right Maronite President Camille Chamoun (1952-1958) to have a second term.

    (...)

    The Christian-dominated system of Lebanon fell apart for a number of reasons. The Israelis expelled 100,000 or so Palestinians north to Lebanon in 1948. The Christians of Lebanon refused to give the Palestinians Lebanese citizenship, since the Palestinians were 80 to 85 percent Muslim and their becoming Lebanese would have endangered Christian dominance. Over time the stateless Palestinians living in wretched camps grew to 300,000. (In contrast, the Maronite elite gave the Armenians who immigrated citizenship so fast it would make your head spin.)

    In the second half of the 20th century, the Lebanese Shiites grew much faster, being poor tobacco farmers with large families, than did the increasingly urban and middle class Maronites. Maronites emigrated on a large scale (it is said that there are 6 million Lebanese outside Lebanon and only 3 million inside), to North America (think Danny Thomas and Salma Hayek) and to South America (think Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina and Shakira of Columbia).

    By 1975 the Maronites were no longer the dominant force in Lebanon. Of a 3 million population, the Shiites had grown to be 35 percent (and may now be 40 percent), and the Maronites had shrunk to a quarter, and are probably now 20 percent. The Shiites were mobilizing both politically and militarily. So, too, were the Palestinians.

    (...)

    In 1982 the Israelis mounted an unprovoked invasion of Lebanon as Ariel Sharon sought to destroy the remnants of the weakened PLO in Beirut. He failed, but the war killed nearly 20,000 persons, about half of them innocent civilians. Ziad Jarrah had a long-term grudge about that. The Israelis militarily occupied southern Lebanon, refusing to relinquish sovereign Lebanese territory.

    The Shiites of the south were radicalized by the Israeli occupation and threw up the Hizbullah party-militia, which pioneered suicide bombs and roadside bombs, and forced the Israeli occupiers out in 2000.

    One foreign occupation had been ended, but the Syrians retained about 14,000 troops in the Biqa Valley. The Israeli withdrawal weakened the Syrians in Lebanon, since many Lebanese had seen the Syrians as a bulwark against Israeli expansionism, but now Damascus appeared less needed.

    (...)

    The Syrians made a big mistake in growing attached to Gen. Emile Lahoud, their favorite Lebanese president. When his 6-year term was about to expire last fall, the Syrians intervened to have the Lebanese constitution amended to allow him to remain for another 3 years. Across the board, the Lebanese public was angered and appalled at this foreign tinkering with their constitution.

    Rafiq al-Hariri resigned over the constitutional change. He was replaced as prime minister by another Sunni, Omar Karami of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

    The assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the popular multi-billionnaire Sunni prime minister (1992-1998 and 2000-2004), angered a broad swathe of the Sunni community, convincing them it was time for the Syrians to go. Despite the lack of any real evidence for the identity of the assassin, the Lebanese public fixed on the Syrians as the most likely culprit. The Sunnis, the Druze and the Maronites have seldom agreed in history. The last time they all did, it was about the need to end the French Mandate, which they made happen in 1943. This cross-confessional unity helps explain how the crowds managed to precipitate the downfall of the government of PM Omar Karami.

    If Lebanese people power can force a Syrian withdrawal, the public relations implications may be ambiguous for Tel Aviv. After the US withdrawal from Iraq, Israeli dominance of the West Bank and Gaza will be the last military occupation of major territory in the Middle East. People in the region, in Europe, and in the US itself may begin asking why, if Syria had to leave Lebanon, Israel should not have to leave the West Bank and Gaza.

    I don't think Bush had anything much to do with the current Lebanese national movement except at the margins. Walid Jumblatt, the embittered son of Kamal whom the Syrians defeated in 1976 at the American behest, said he was inspired by the fall of Saddam. But this sort of statement from a Druze warlord strikes me as just as manipulative as the news conferences of Ahmad Chalabi, who is also inspired by Saddam's fall. Jumblatt has a long history of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment that makes his sudden conversion to neoconism likely a mirage. He has wanted the Syrians back out since 1976, so it is not plausible that anything changed for him in 2003.

    (...)

    Much of the authoritarianism in the Middle East since 1945 had actually been supported (sometimes imposed) by Washington for Cold War purposes. The good thing about the democratization rhetoric coming out of Washington (which apparently does not apply to Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Uzbekistan, and other allies against al-Qaeda) is that it encourages the people to believe they have an ally if they take to the streets to end the legacy of authoritarianism.

    But Washington will be sorely tested if Islamist crowds gather in Tunis to demand the ouster of Bin Ali. We'll see then how serious the rhetoric about people power really is.

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