JERUSALEM, Israel, 22 June 2000 (Newsroom) — Maronite Christians are openly challenging Syriaâ€™s presence in Lebanon in protests that are unprecedented since their Arab neighbor crushed the Lebanese Forces Christian militia at the end of Lebanonâ€™s civil war in 1989.
Israeli troops began withdrawing from South Lebanon on May 24. Two weeks later Maronite Patriarch Nasrâ€™allah Sfeir declared that Syriaâ€™s 35,000 troops also should leave his country after a presence that dates back a quarter century to Lebanonâ€™s civil war.
The death of Syrian ruler Hafez Assad on June 10 further encouraged Lebanese Christians to demand that Bashar Assad, the heir of the late dictator, start withdrawing troops. The Christian newspaper An-Nahar broke the taboo on the subject by calling Syria to recognize the sovereignty of Lebanon.
"Our country is not considered to be totally independent or sovereign," Patriarch Sfeir, an outspoken critic of the Syrian presence, told the French newspaper La Croix. "Decision-making is not in our hands but in Syrian hands. If this country wants to control its future … and for the Lebanese to regain their liberty, the Syrian troops must leave."
Little is expected to change while Bashar Assad consolidates his power in Syria or until there is a peace agreement between Syria and Israel. In numerous public statements Syria has claimed to have no ambitions in Lebanon other than to achieve stability. However, it is widely known that Syria sees Lebanon as an integral part of Greater Syria, cut off by the French Mandate after World War I.
Syria officially entered Lebanon in 1976, during the civil war, on the side of Christian forces who were then losing to militant Palestinian refugees. After Egypt made peace with Israel and Lebanese Christians softened on Jerusalem, the Syrians allied with the Palestinians and Islamists. The rise of the latter and the threat to the Christians in power contributed to Israel's decision to invade Lebanon in 1982.
In the weeks after the Israeli withdrawal last month anti-Syrian protests have been lead in Beirut by Maronite Christians, who constitute between 10 and 15 percent of Lebanon's population of roughly 4 million. The countryâ€™s last census was conducted in 1932; allowing a new count today would lead to demands for a realignment of power in the fractured, multi-religious Lebanese society, authorities fear.
Even before Israel began pulling its troops out of Lebanon, thousands of mainly Christian students took to the streets of Beirut for several days in April demanding that the Syrian army leave Lebanon. They distributed leaflets urging the implementation of U.N. Resolution 520, which calls for all foreign forces to leave Lebanon. Students clashed with Lebanese Army and Security forces. Several were beaten, arrested, and sentenced by a military court to sentences ranging from 10 days to three months.
Since then, Christian students have chosen a new form of protest: they sell Lebanese-grown fruit on street corners with banners over the stalls demanding, "Buy Lebanese." The action highlights the plight of farmers who complain of unfair competition resulting from an illegal flood of Syrian workers and goods into the Lebanese market.
Maronite Christians are not alone in calling for a Syrian troop withdrawal. The United States and some Lebanese politicians who are not Christians have called on Syria to leave the country as well. However, officials in the pro-Damascus government in Beirut have said repeatedly that Lebanon needs the Syrian presence and would ask its army to leave at the appropriate time. Patriarch Sfeir said it is essential that Syria withdraw if Lebanon is to be free and independent, however.
"Without the unity of the Lebanese, Israel would not have withdrawn from our land. The Lebanese must show the same unity for the Syrians to withdraw," he said. "The case of the Syrians is different from the Israelis, in that they are regarded as friends and allies. But that does not mean that they donâ€™t control everything."
Syria supports the Hezbollah terrorists who took control of the south after Israelâ€™s retreat. Lebanese Christians say they are especially concerned about Hezbollahâ€™s imminent ascent to political power in Lebanon. Analysts expect Hezbollah to add three to five parliamentary seats to its current nine in elections in August. Claiming that their leadership in freeing Lebanon from Israeli occupation, Hezbollah also may be able to demand a cabinet seat in the next government.
Sfeir condemns the Beirut government for saying it could not decide whether to deploy its own forces in the south until U.N. experts verify Israelâ€™s withdrawal.
"France, the United States, and the majority of Lebanese want the army to be deployed to give confidence to the people," he argued. "Until now, the state has refused to deploy the army, saying it is waiting for the United Nations … that is a pretext."
Copyright Â© 2000 Newsroom.
Used with permission.