Even when the streets of downtown Beirut were the exclusive preserve of those demanding a Syrian withdrawal, I was never optimistic about Lebanon’s so-called Cedar Revolutionbut hopeful, yes. Last month’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni, gave the predominantly Christian opposition movement a multiconfessional flavor it has for the most part lacked. Moreover, Washington, which less than 15 years ago quietly acquiesced to Syrian control of Lebanon in return for its support in the first Persian Gulf War, had joined with France to pass U.N. Resolution 1559 calling for a Syrian withdrawal. Syria’s traditional allies, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have indicated they would not oppose sanctions on Syria if its troops remained in Lebanon. Perhaps, then, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s promise to redeploy its 14,000 troops to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by April 1 and to meet shortly after that with Lebanese leaders to plan a complete withdrawal heralds a new era in Lebanese history.
Or perhaps not. After all, in setting the terms for the end of Lebanon’s civil war, the 1989 Taif Accord called on Damascus and Beirut to negotiate a Syrian pullout by 1992. During the four years I lived in Lebanon, from 1998 to 2002, Syria announced several troop withdrawals. On these occasions, the Syrian positions in Beirutmostly cheap, wooden booths in strategic locationswere abandoned, only to be reoccupied a week or so later. And while there is unprecedented international pressure on Damascus, recent events in Lebanon have undermined the notion of multi-confessional solidarity. Hezbollah marshaled 500,000 Shiites to attend a pro-Syria rally in downtown Beirut. And after succumbing to public pressure and resigning, Omar Karami, a crony of the Syrians, was reappointed prime minister of Lebanon.
So, I am pessimistic about the internationally backed opposition’s ability to extract promises from Damascus and even more pessimistic about Damascus’s willingness to honor such agreements. But my pessimism is also more fundamental. As the media track each contortion in the Lebanese drama, the question of what sort of Lebanon would emerge from Syria’s yoke has been largely ignored. The opposition has yet to articulate its vision of a free Lebanonwith good reason. To do so would threaten its multiconfessional makeup. For today, 15 years after Lebanon’s civil war ended, many of the issues, ambitions and rivalries that fueled the conflict remain unresolved.
When Syria leaves Lebanon, the challenge then falls squarely on Lebanese shoulders, said Nizar Hamzeh, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. The Lebanese must show that they can deal with their differences and reach an agreement on how to run the country. In Lebanese history, however, such an agreement has proved elusive. The 1975-90 war, which killed more than 100,000 people, was only the bloodiest chapter in the country’s internal struggles, which often, but not always, fall along confessional lines.
It is no surprise that Christians (mainly Maronites) form the bulk of the Lebanese opposition. When the British and French divided the spoils of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the Maronites prodded the French to create the State of Greater Lebanon in 1920 and to include in its borders not only the Maronites’ traditional homeland of Mount Lebanon but also the Muslim-dominated coastline. Thus, Lebanon was born of outsized Christian ambitions, ambitions the country’s Muslims, with closer ties to their coreligionists in Syria, never shared. Even as demographics have shifted, Christian ambitions have not. In 1932, the year of the last official census, Christians represented 54 percent of the population; today, most experts believe 30 percent is a sounder estimate.
The Christian community has a long list of grievances. While warlords like the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and the Shiite leader Nabih Berri remain in political life, Christian leaders have been shunted aside. Michelle Aoun, whose unsuccessful campaign against Syria marked the end of the civil war, is in exile in France but remains popular with local and diaspora Christian communities. Samir Geagea, another Maronite leader, is in a Lebanese prison, the only warlord to have been so punished. Most of the Christian leaders who hold office in Lebanon today, including President Emile Lahoud, do so as Syrian cronies. Lahoud is a joke, said Nabil Sahlani, the Maronite chairman of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations, a U.S.-based opposition group. The only constituency he represents is in Damascus.
Ironically, the Christians’ main ally in the opposition movement is Jumblatt, who represents the Druze community, which has traditionally fought the Christians. In 1860, years of feuding culminated in a massacre by Druze of 11,000 Maronites; more than 100 years later, the same Shouf Mountains saw some of the fiercest fighting of the civil war. And while Lebanon’s Sunnis have been prominent among the demonstrations following the assassination of their billionaire leader, it is unclear whether their vision for a free Lebanon is consistent with Christian and Druze notions. Historically, the Sunnis, strongly represented in the port cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli, resented the Christian control of the country and were sympathetic to the Arab nationalism championed by Nasser and Syrian Baathists. (Any notions of pan-Arabism are anathema to Lebanon’s Maronites, many of whom deny an Arab heritage and trace their lineage, despite little historical evidence, to the ancient Phoenecians.)
And of course there are the Shiites, estimated to make up about 40 percent of Lebanon’s population. Impoverished and disenfranchised throughout much of Lebanese history, they have found a champion in Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, who alone among Arab leaders can boast of victory against Israel. Supported by both Iran and Syria, Nasrallah balances his anti-Israeli rhetoric with calls for Lebanese unity. But as Hezbollah’s armed struggle against Israel peters out, Nasrallah’s domestic ambitions remain unclear. I doubt, however, they are similar to Aoun’s.
Add to these home-grown sectarian tendencies a liberal sprinkling of foreign interference and you have a combustible mix. In the 1950’s, the spark of Arab nationalism ignited in Egypt, Syria and Iraq caught fire in Lebanon, culminating in a landing by U.S. Marines (at the Maronite president’s invitation) and a quick restoration of order. In the 1970’s, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict moved to south Lebanon, and soon Syrian and Israeli troops entered the country, followed briefly, and tragically, by more Marines. It’s always been that way for Lebanon, unfortunately, said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle East history at Columbia University. A lot will depend on to what degree outside forcesSyria, the United States, Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabiainfluence events.
No matter the outcome of the announced Syrian withdrawal, the experts on Lebanon I spoke with were confident that there would not be a repeat of Lebanon’s civil war. Even as the emboldened opposition presses Damascus and its government stooges in Lebanon, it has been careful to acknowledge that Lebanon and Syria must remain close allies. The countries’ economies are intertwined. Though Syria benefits most from this relationship, sending its workers across the border and skimming money from Lebanese industries, Lebanon depends on Syrian roads to export its goods to the outside world.
So far, both the opposition and Syrian loyalists have played down their sectarian affiliations. The posters of Christian leaders and the Hezbollah banners, long waved tauntingly at sporting events between Lebanon’s sectarian-affiliated clubs, have been replaced by the national flag. But in the absence of a national conversation about what the flag means, it is hard to tell whether this gesture of solidarity will reveal itself to be empty or another kind of taunt.
During the dark days of the civil war, Kamal Salibi published A House of Many Mansions, a magisterial study of different views of Lebanese history. If the various factions are to lay down their arms and live in peace and full co-operation as citizens of one country, he wrote, the Lebanese will first have to reach a consensus on what makes of them a nation or political community, and this can only be achieved if they manage to agree on a common vision of their past.
Sadly, no such agreement has been reached, and today the odds seem even longer. The Lebanese people must not only reconcile dueling interpretations of their shared history; they must also forge a common vision of their future.