What happens in Lebanon depends on what Syria makes happen
David Hirst, Guardian News Service, Damascus
A velvet revolution, Ukrainian style, that will set an example for the whole Middle East? That is how Lebanon's so far peaceful "democratic uprising" likes to see itself. Certainly, something new and profound is under way.
Lebanon's strength -- and weakness -- was always the multiplicity of religious sects on which its whole political system is based. When the system worked, it did so far better than any of its neighbors'; when it broke down, it did so disastrously. During its 16-year civil war Walid Jumblatt, the same Druze chieftain who now leads the opposition, warned the interfering Arabs: "One day the fire will spread to you." It didn't. What he leads today has a better chance of doing so.
It is, if anything, a triumph over confessionalism. Not complete, not invulnerable. Thanks in part to Hizbullah, Syrian- backed but domestically popular, it is the country's Shias who are chiefly reticent. Yet, in impressive measure, the people now stand in one trench, the regime in another. And that, not sectarian antagonism, is the faultline that will principally define the course of events.
If assassinations sometimes accelerate history, Rafiq Hariri's brutal, spectacular but popularly unifying demise is surely one of those. Many Syrians just don't believe their government was behind it: It couldn't be so stupid. But diabolical plot, or massive self- inflicted injury, the outcome is the same. For the Lebanese, their Syrian overlord was instantly guilty until it proved itself innocent.
At a stroke the assassination unleashed, in a great and public torrent, all the anti-Syrian sentiment that had been surreptitiously building down the years. "Our Lebanese brothers have come to hate us," lamented a dissident intellectual. "Our government never consulted us when, 29 years ago, it took the fateful step of going in. It won't consult us when it leaves. And leave it must."
But leaving is precisely what the Ba'athist regime is likely to resist to the very end. Quite simply, because it fears that to do so would be its own end, too. "Total defeat in Lebanon," said another dissident, "is total defeat at home." First, that is because of Lebanon the strategic asset. For historical, geographical and political reasons Syria instinctively strives to be a regional power greater than its own resources alone can make it.
And today it is in a Syrian-controlled Lebanon that the last major cards lie -- such as Hizbullah -- in an eroding regional hand, cards by which its current rulers seek to secure their very survival in any new, American-dominated Middle Eastern order. Their ultimate trump is, perhaps, to withdraw. For if they did that, an intelligence chief once explained, Lebanon would become a hotbed of assorted militants, Islamic and Palestinian, in effect a kind of Iraq. And the Americans and Israelis would soon come begging them to return.
Second, there is the potential domino effect inside Syria itself, of Lebanese "people power". After the example of elections, however flawed, in occupied Iraq and Palestine, has come this new, unscheduled outbreak of popular self-assertion in a country where a sister Arab state, not an alien occupier, is in charge. It is a manifestly authentic movement, greatly encouraged, no doubt, by America and the west, but far from being inspired or engineered by it.
It is a fundamental blow to all that historic Syria, as the "beating heart" of Arabism, and all that Ba'athism and its pan- Arab nationalist credo have ever stood for. For the leading Lebanese columnist Samir Qassir, it means that "the Arab nationalist cause has shrunk into the single aim of getting rid of the regimes of terrorism and coups, and regaining the people's freedom as a prelude to the new Arab renaissance. It buries the lie that despotic systems can be the shield of nationalism. Beirut has become the beating heart of a new Arab nationalism".
The Syrians aren't going to rise up like the Lebanese -- not yet anyway. Long repressed, they don't have the organized opposition, the strong residue of democratic traditions that the "Syrianisation" of Lebanon was gradually stifling.
What Lebanon has done is to add a whole new dimension to popular discontent with all those long accumulating domestic woes -- the fruits of a decadent, outmoded, sclerotic ruling order -- which they have endured for the past 40 years. It has added to the pressure for reform and democratization, reform that is surely the only way the regime can hope to survive. For Syria, indeed, Lebanon is so intimate a neighbor that what happens there is hardly a "foreign" issue at all. And everyone knows that those who block reform in Syria -- the so-called "old guard", shadowy centers of power in the army and intelligence services -- are the same people who brought the Syrian presence in Lebanon to its current pass.
It is a pass now suddenly made all the more threatening in that the Lebanese "uprising" dovetails so nicely with President Bush's crusade to bring "freedom and democracy" to the Middle East. This is not to mention the fact that Syria has always loomed large in the long-standing designs of the administration's pro-Israeli, neoconservative hawks for "regime change" in the Middle East. Hariri's murder could hardly have rendered them a greater service.
What now for a badly shaken regime? As graceful a retreat from Lebanon as possible? Or more defiance, of both the Lebanese opposition and its international friends? To President Assad it must look like a choice between Scylla and Charybdis. He has hinted at withdrawal in a few months. This is a far cry from the immediate one the opposition demands, and even that would depend, he said, on what happens in Lebanon. But what happens in Lebanon still very much depends on what Syria -- or those power centers possibly beyond presidential control -- make happen. Their last trump: another Iraq?
David Hirst reported from the Middle East for the London-based Guardian from 1963 to 2001