Lebanon’s Tenuous Transformation

The Middle East Forum – Promoting American Interests
Jan 28 2007

Lebanon’s Tenuous Transformation
by Michael Rubin
October 2005

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

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

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