Syrian-Imposed Bilateral Agreements with Lebanon


Habib C. Malik   (Courtesy of USCFL)


September 1997

One noteworthy feature of Lebanese civil society is an emerging populism that manifested itself throughout 1989-90 in the form of a spontaneous outpouring of patriotic protest against Syrian occupation. Christian political sullenness and the general boycott of the 1992 parliamentary elections both resulted directly or indirectly from this populist awakening. Lebanon's populist tradition has roots going back at least to the nineteenth century when it existed among the Christians as a mountain populism directed usually against the excesses of Ottoman rule. As in those earlier days, the populist defiance of foreign pressure in 1989 required a figure around whom to rally and found one in the charismatic—and somewhat erratic—commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army, General Michel Aoun. The anti-Syrian populism associated with the Aoun phenomenon was not confined to the Christians, spilling over significantly into other communities, mainly the Shi'a. Whatever untainted opposition to Syrian domination currently exists in Lebanon derives mainly from the Aoun-inspired popular current and includes some prominent political personalities who opposed the Taif process.

Populism alone is not enough to dislodge foreign domination, however, particularly if the former remains fluid and unstructured and lacks proper institutional points of reference. Lebanon's patriotic surge has at times been too diffuse and ambiguous to be effective. Its key inspirational leader, Gen. Aoun, has been in exile for over six years and his reading of regional and international politics is often woefully deficient. The populist grounds well is characterized by a variety of internal strands which are not always in harmony with one another, often resulting in divisiveness and lack of coordination. As with every example of populist display, the calmer voices of intellectuals and theoreticians are invariably drowned in a sea of genuine passion and emotional outpouring. Unlike a tightly knit political party, sustained planning for contingencies in the context of an amorphous populist movement is very difficult, no matter how well-meaning and authentic it might be.

Despite the severe limitations of raw populism, however, it has had some tangible beneficial effects in staving off or at least slowing down Lebanon's absorption by Syria. Though disorganized, the mass of people opposed to Syrian hegemony have acted as a solid, inert bulwark against assimilation. Their mere existence and conscious rejection of "Syrianization" allows them to resist absorption and even hamper attempts at neutralization. Syria may have subjugated "official" Lebanon and made significant strides in intimidation and domestication in other areas; but Lebanon's battered yet still pulsating civil society is evidence that Damascus still has a long way to go in these efforts. Aware of this obstacle, the Syrians and their surrogates in the Beirut government have been trying to create the impression that the latter does indeed enjoy popular support. The local media accord maximum coverage to public appearances by officials, and in the days following the forced extension of Hrawi's tenure in office, displays were staged for the cameras of "popular" delegations flocking to the presidential palace from all around the country to offer their congratulations. The artificial and contrived nature of these attempts, however, was lost on very few among the Lebanese.

But perhaps the Syrians' greatest success against this latent populist hostility has been in fragmenting the opposition, which in turn led to the dissolution of the elections boycott in summer 1996. Those "opposition" candidates who did finally win remain securely within the Syrian orbit on all vital matters, both Lebanese and regional. In an attempt to provide a deceptive appearance of democratic debate, the Beirut government's propagandists have gone out of their way since the parliamentary elections to portray this fabricated and ultimately captive opposition inside the legislative assembly as the "true" opposition, supplanting the leaders of the boycott.

Despite these efforts, however, Syria's chief handicap in Lebanon remains its near-universal lack of admirers across Lebanon's communal spectrum. In fact, resentment among Muslims has at times been greater than among Christians, simply because on a day-to-day basis the Syrian presence in Muslim areas has been much more intrusive and invasive. The difference is that the Muslims have tended to be far less vocal about their real sentiments regarding Syrian occupation than their Christian counterparts. The lack of existential urgency in Muslim fears, combined with a high level of intimidation (the anticipation that Syrian retribution would be swift and brutal), generally mutes Muslim complaints. Beyond Syria's high profile operatives in the Lebanese government and those in the Muslim community who instinctively turn to outside regional support to prevent a resurgence of Christian prominence, there is little genuine affection for Syria in Lebanon. In short, Syria's allies in Lebanon are in a decided minority.

Taming Lebanese civil society was initially a daunting task for the Syrians. The nature of the Assad regime and the absence of a vibrant civil society inside Syria itself did not help the authorities in Damascus to grasp adequately the convoluted intricacies of Lebanese society. Though adept at "divide and rule" tactics and displaying a remarkable ability to play various Lebanese factions against one another, the Syrians required a more subtle and incremental approach to achieve their goal of the eventual total annexation and assimilation of Lebanon. History shows that complex, multi-communal societies with extended experience of free expression and demonstrated entrepreneurial initiative—no matter how beleaguered— outlast totalitarian, hegemonic regimes possessing antiquated militaries and vestiges of an obsolete command economy, no matter how seemingly stable and secure these regimes may be at any given time. Perhaps the best contemporary analogy was Eastern Europe under Soviet domination: If Ba'thist Syria represents the last Brezhnev state, Lebanon is the last "captive nation," resembling the countries of East Europe and the Baltic in the 1980s.

Yet Syria's domination and absorption of Lebanon is a problem not of the state (except incidentally), but rather an urgent problem of the community and the individual. It is in the schools, trade and labor unions, professional associations and syndicates, student groups, non governmental organizations, ecclesiastical institutions, and a variety of similar local bodies (not to mention countless households) that ongoing resistance is taking place—often quite impressively. Once again, these fronts of resistance are not confined to any single religious community in the country, although clearly a Lebanon without free Christians would quickly turn into a version of Syria. This has not yet happened, but Syrian dominated Lebanon is in many respects becoming increasingly frightening precisely because the Syrians are learning to practice incremental absorption with increasing skill.

From the start, the Syrians sought to buttress their military and political control over Lebanon by imposing a string of special bilateral "agreements" on the Beirut government. They forced these so-called agreements through the Lebanese executive branch and parliament, in part as a compensation for not being able to fully penetrate and transform Lebanese civil society into something more pliable. In fact, the general public knew nothing of these agreements until they were published in local newspapers, by which time they had become faits accomplis. The ultimate intention behind these agreements is nothing short of complete merger between Lebanon and Syria on a number of vital levels—the forced legislation of Lebanon's full absorption by Syria.

In 1990 and early 1991 the Syrians conducted some preliminary explorations of fertile areas for bilateral agreements. Visits by hand-picked Lebanese delegations to Damascus resulted in the rudiments of a trade deal and media cooperation between the two countries." In late 1990, the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Hayat ran a lengthy article reviewing Lebanese-Syrian economic relations since their independence and emphasizing the historical intimacy of these relations. The article concluded that despite the obvious difference in the economic systems of the two states (Lebanese free enterprise vs. Syrian centralized socialism), there was room for close cooperation leading eventually to integration.' In February 1991 trade negotiations between Lebanon and Syria resulted in draft agreements on overland transportation and customs duties at the borders,' and by March a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee had produced the outlines of an agreement for agricultural cooperation.

In May 1991 came the "bombshell" announcement that Lebanon and Syria were going to sign a "Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination between the Lebanese Republic and the Syrian Arab Republic" in Damascus. The treaty was signed amid audible protests from Christian leaders, principally Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, exiled Gen. Aoun, and token American and French "warnings" about Lebanon "falling under Syrian control."' Initial Israeli reactions were mixed, with one official view being that the treaty made Syria directly responsible in the eyes of the world for security on the Israeli-Lebanese border, and therefore it would now be in Syria's interest for the border to become quiet like the Golan Heights had been for years. This proved to be an erroneous assessment based on wishful thinking, as recurrent flare-ups have shown.

The language of the "Treaty of Brotherhood" contains ideological expressions intended to bolster the Ba'th claim of the "privileged brotherly ties" and "oneness" of the two states and their peoples. According to the preamble, for example, common historical roots, shared interests, and an intertwined destiny define and distinguish the special relationship between Syria and Lebanon. These vital organic links in turn pave the way for "the highest levels of cooperation and coordination between the two states in the political, economic, security, cultural, scientific, and other areas."' The treaty mentions a range of agreements it presages and which are slated to follow in its wake—on economics, agriculture, industry, commerce, transportation, communications, and customs—along with future joint projects and coordinated development schemes. It also stresses that neither country should at any time become a source of security threats to the other, specifically stating that "Lebanon ought under no circumstances to allow itself to become a passageway or a haven for any power or state or organization aiming to undermine its, or Syria's, security."

The treaty further stipulates that, following the full implementation of "political reforms" outlined in the Taif agreement, the two governments will jointly decide on the re-deployment of Syrian forces to the Bekaa and other locations, the precise size of these forces, and their relationship with Lebanese authorities. In addition, there is a clause stating that Lebanon and Syria are both Arab countries that are members of the Arab League, the United Nations, and the Non-Aligned Movement, and as such must closely coordinate their foreign policies to reflect "the shared destiny and interests of the two countries." Finally, in a disturbing bid for greater institutional integration, the treaty creates a Higher Council composed of the leaders of the two countries, and a number of satellite committees intended to shepherd a gradual and comprehensive strategy of merger. There is a Follow-up and Coordination Committee, a Foreign Affairs Committee, a Committee for Economic and Social Affairs, and a Defense and Security Committee. The specific tasks of each are clearly spelled out in the body of the treaty.

Aside from continued "rumblings by the Maronite Patriarch, some demonstrations by Lebanese expatriates and exiles in Paris, and a U.S. rhetorical resolve to "follow closely" the implementation of the Syrian Lebanese treaty, the international community hardly took notice of how firmly ensconced Lebanon had become in the Syrian sphere of influence. With the "Treaty of Brotherhood" serving as the baseline and point of reference the Syrians intended, the floodgates of "special agreements" were opened. First came the August 1991 "Defense and Security Agreement Between Lebanon and Syria," which set the stage for persistent Syrian intervention in Lebanon's internal affairs and infringement on its sovereignty. Predicated on "a common conception of the perils" facing the two countries, it requires that all organized activity in the military, security, political, and media realms of one country aimed at harming the other must be prevented, and that any individual or group seeking refuge in that country must, if deemed subversive, be arrested and handed over to the other country upon request. Thus, as the stronger of the two states, Syria can in theory invoke this provision of the treaty at will to seize, extradite, and imprison anyone or any group in Lebanon it alleges (however tenuously) is a security threat. In fact, Syria has done exactly this on a number of occasions since 1991, as confirmed by independent human rights organizations within and outside of Lebanon.

Other agreements followed soon thereafter. In early October, restrictions on overland travel were removed and duties on goods crossing the already porous Syria-Lebanon border were lowered. This led to a steadily rising influx into Lebanon of cheap and usually inferior Syrian products (which saturated the Lebanese market and forced many indigenous farmers and merchants out of business), and cheap Syrian labor, which led to Lebanese unemployment and ominous demographic changes. Next came the draft of a health agreement that eventually paved the way for Syrian physicians trained in East Europe (not up to Western standards) to practice in Lebanon.

The avalanche of agreements imposed on Lebanon subsided briefly in 1992, only to resume with vigor the following year. In March 1993 Syria and Lebanon signed an agreement to modernize telephone and other links and develop their telecommunications sectors. In May they finalized a tourism agreement creating a coordinated policy involving package tours and other joint approaches. Completing the work done two years earlier, an agreement was announced in June regulating land, sea, and air transportation between the two countries. To coincide with the Israel PLO Declaration of Principles (DoP) and the historic White House signing ceremony, in mid-September the Syrians unveiled four new agreements with Lebanon on agriculture and veterinary medicine, health care and pharmaceuticals, a socio-economic agreement aiming to create a common market for the two countries, and an agreement that further facilitated the movement of Syrian workers into Lebanon and their access to work permits under very favorable conditions once there.

Syria's interest in solidifying its control over Lebanon focused on four areas: dismantling remaining border barriers and facilitating further transit of Syrians to and from Lebanon, strengthening educational and cultural integration, regulating the appropriation of portions of Lebanon's water resources, and completing the integration of the two countries' agricultural sectors. In December 1993 a Lebanese-Syrian committee was set up to streamline and unify border tariffs and customs duties. At a meeting in March 1994, the Lebanese-Syrian Security Committee (created by the Defense and Security Agreement) discussed ways to simplify bureaucratic procedures at border entry points and residency requirements for Syrians wishing to live and work in Lebanon. By June, the committee had drawn up specific recommendations on these issues for consideration by the Higher Council. Meanwhile, the respective Lebanese and Syrian ministers of tourism signed a special document on increased tourism cooperation.

In addition to signing three detailed follow-up protocols to the September 1993 agreement on agricultural and veterinary cooperation in the Bekaa city of Chtaura, a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee on electrical power took significant steps toward integrating the two countries' electricity systems by presenting a number of proposals including the construction of a joint power plant to be located just inside the Lebanese border. Similarly, Syrian interest in Lebanese water resources dates back at least to the duly 1991 meeting in Chtaura to discuss joint exploitation of the Orontes River—which originates in Lebanon and flows into Syria—and the Nahr Al-Kabir, which delineates Lebanon's northern border with Syria. Three years later, an agreement was concluded to erect a dam on the Orontes inside Lebanon and allot Lebanon 80 million cubic meters of the water to irrigate 6,000 hectares of fallow land in the Hirmel region.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this artificial and enforced rapprochement is the Lebanese-Syrian cultural agreement. Apart from references to scientific and technical cooperation that appear alongside romanticized appeals to a presumed common folkloric heritage, the agreement contains specific provisions whose sole purpose is to accelerate Syria's absorption of Lebanon by obliterating the country's cultural distinctiveness. For example, the Syrians want a voice in the Lebanese government's policy plans for higher education, and the agreement speaks of forging closer ties between the government-run Lebanese University and Syrian universities, as well as similar Syrian links to Lebanon's private—and usually superior—universities. These steps would appear harmless were it not for accompanying calls to facilitate access for Syrian students to Lebanese institutions of higher learning and to officially recognize Syrian university degrees in Lebanon. The agreement also encourages joint productions of films, plays, and other endeavors in the performing arts "with a view to serving the common cultural, civilizational, and national aspirations" of the two states.

On the heels of the cultural agreement, Lebanon and Syria signed a postal protocol with three arresting points: the Syrian postal administration was put in charge of distributing the mail between the two countries; new Lebanese postage stamps would be printed in Syrian government printing facilities; and employees of the Lebanese postal service would attend regular training sessions in Syria at the special school run by the Syrian postal administration.

A pattern appears to have been established whereby a spurt of bilateral agreements designed to legislate Lebanese subservience is timed to coincide with turns in the peace negotiations and other regional developments not necessarily to Syria's liking. In January 1996, for example, a series of agreements whose details remained shrouded in secrecy were revealed during delicate negotiations between Syria and Israel at the Wye Plantation in Maryland which apparently included the issue of future water rights on the Golan Heights. (They also coincided with renewed Syrian complaints about the dwindling downstream flow of the Euphrates River, due to the building of the Ataturk dam in Turkey.) Not surprisingly, the secret Syria-Lebanon agreements focused on solidifying economic ties (particularly in the areas of mutual investments and eliminating double taxation), establishing more joint processing centers at border crossings, and the sharing of water resources including for the first time specific references to the Litani River.

Finally, to add insult to injury, the Syrian and Lebanese ministers of justice signed a September 1996 addendum to the 1951 Syrian-Lebanese judiciary agreement that tightened Damascus' official links with Lebanon's legal system by devising new mechanisms for extradition of criminals, exchange of information and legal publications, exchanging visits by judges and lawyers, and mutual recognition and application of the two countries' civil and commercial laws.

Though much of what is in these treaties and agreements is seemingly innocuous, their sheer volume and the speed with which they were devised and legislated—coupled with the complete absence of Lebanese sovereignty as the process was unfolding—offers tangible cause for concern. Although news accounts occasionally suggest that the Syrian economy, and Syrian society in general, are gradually opening up and that the Lebanese-Syrian agreements ought to be understood in this context, little comfort should be derived from such misplaced optimism. With a new, pro-Syria parliament in Lebanon, more binding agreements can be expected, the cumulative effect of which will be to further erode Lebanon's special distinguishing features and contributions and increasingly mold it into a dull appendage of its larger neighbor.