25 May, 2008

What do I mean by "Syrian hegemony"?

An initially anonymous commenter took exception to my describing the period following the end of Lebanon's civil war as one of Syrian hegemony. Hegemony is a loaded term to some, but it is also descriptive, and I think it is merited in this case.

Just to recap, the Lebanese civil war ended largely because everyone was fed up with it. Lebanese leaders agreed a peace-deal in the Saudi Arabian town of Taif that tinkered with Lebanon's confessional power distribution, without demolishing it. Taif led to the disarmament of party militias, but those groups continuing resistance against the Israeli occupiers of South Lebanon were allowed to keep their weapons.

The period following the Taif agreement is often characterised as one in which Syria enjoyed unprecedented influence over its smaller neighbour. The last act in the civil war was, symbolically enough, the removal by Syrian forces of a self-declared president of Lebanon who had, from his little enclave in East Beirut, promised to liberate the country from the Syrian scourge. That this man is now one of the major players in the pro-Syrian opposition is one of Lebanon's great conundrums.

Beyond that, a number of factors point to the influence Syria exercised over post-Taif Lebanon. Another interesting factor of both symbolic and practical effect was the 1991 signing of a treaty of of "Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination" between Lebanon and Syria. Although criticised in somewhat exaggerated terms for being a virtual Syrian annexation of the country, it did enmesh Lebanon so closely to the wishes of Damascus as to severely limit its independent room for manoeuvre.

At a less symbolic level, the post-Taif period saw Syria in a position to project hard power over the country. The presence of Syrian troops throughout most of Lebanon underscored its dependent status. While Taif and the Lebanese-Syrian treaty had envisaged the withdrawal of Syrian troops, they proved remarkably slow to leave. The Syrians were also able to maintain an extensive intelligence apparatus in Lebanon that could be used selectively against its local enemies. Now, of course, half the world runs intelligence networks in Lebanon, but the Syrians had the advantage of being able to run theirs overtly, without having to worry about the local cops or counter-intelligence feeling their collars.

The disarmament of Lebanese militias at the end of the civil war also increased the relative power position of the Syrians. This eliminated Christian militas that had occasionally caused trouble for Syrian interests (and played footsie with Syria's enemies in Israel). Syria's most reliable allies within Lebanon were able to retain their weapons. As groups engaging in resistance against the Israeli occupiers in the south, Amal and, particularly, Hezbollah remained in arms. These groups received their arms either directly from the Syrian state, or from its Iranian allies.

Throughout the 1990s, Syria reaped the benefits of its Lebanese hegemony. Hezbollah fighters continued to punish Israel in south Lebanon, eroding the Zionist enemy's reputation for invincibility in a way that allowed Syria to reap the benefits while remaining at arms length from any untoward consequences. Lebanese political leaders, meanwhile, were careful to remain in step with Syrian interests, perhaps motivated by the long-standing tendency of anti-Syrian politicians to die in mysterious car bomb explosions. It is striking that even when Syrian influence over Lebanon was unwinding, Damascus was still able to dictate a constitutional amendment to Beirut that would allow its preferred candidate to remain in office as Lebanese president.

That was the situation until recently. The turnaround of the last few years was striking and relatively abrupt. Under Hafez Assad, Syria had basically won the great game, thwarting Israeli efforts to extend influence into Lebanon and instead made the country its own client. Under Bashar Assad, Syria saw its troops and intelligence officials hounded out of the country; worse, Beirut now hosts a government no longer willing to bind itself to Syrian concerns, with Syria's local allies now all consigned to the opposition. Quite how this happened is something to which I will return.

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