Lebanon's satellite status is barrier to peace


Habib C. Malik (Courtesy of USCFL)


January 1998  (Washington Times)

The Syrian President Hafez Assad regime has always regarded control over Lebanon as second in importance only to its own survival, and any incentive to be forthcoming in negotiations with Israel remains severely curtailed as long as Damascus feels secure in Lebanon.

Whereas Israel's security requirements vis--vis Lebanon are finite, defined by Lebanon's strategic location and role as a continuing source of terrorism, Syria's aims in Lebanon are theoretically limitless. Although Syria undoubtedly has legitimate interests in Lebanon and a stake in the country's political orientation, the depths of its intrusiveness in recent years have made a mockery of this justifiable degree of influence. Lebanon's effective status as Syria's hostage has prevented rather than facilitated a peace agreement with Israel.

For its part, Israel's policies in Lebanon underwent a three-phase evolution: from an alliance of non-Muslim minorities (ending in 1983) to a series of pragmatic "deals" with a variety of Lebanese factions (ending in 1990) to a search for a lasting bilateral arrangement with Syria. If one discounts the likelihood of the two diametric scenarios - a full and durable peace or deterioration leading to war - it becomes apparent that any kind of a partial peace of perpetuation of the status quo between Syria and Israel would readily sacrifice Lebanon's independence and sovereignty.

At a time when dictatorships and their "captive nations" are on the decline around the world, Lebanon finds itself being forced to march against the tide of history: Lebanon's satellite status with respect to Syria is one of the Middle East's most arresting anachronisms.

No matter how the current situation and the near term are assessed, it is not in Washington's long-term interests for Lebanon to remain subjugated by Syria. There can be no real or lasting Middle East peace with the perpetuation of such circumstances of occupation.

Despite Lebanon's bleak current predicament, the country's eclipsed freedoms and defining characteristics can be salvaged through an incremental and multi-pronged approach. A sincere, serious, and sustained U.S. policy designed for the long term would do much to catalyze the eventual restoration of Lebanese sovereignty and communal well-being.

 If the intention exists, U.S. policy-makers can walk a thin line that would facilitate the emergence of conditions for this restoration without impinging upon Syria's legitimate vital interests in Lebanon.

The key is to bolster Lebanon's civil society in every way possible. This would entail encouraging the gradual rise of a credible, responsible and free opposition within the Lebanese body politic; helping to avoid a repeat of the flagrant parliamentary election farces of 1992 and 1996; continuing to call attention to human rights violations in Lebanon and making further aid contingent upon tangible improvements in the record; lending support to the autonomy of rooted institutional components of Lebanese civil society, such as the free-enterprise economy, the free press, the strong educational sector, the many active and independent unions and associations; building up the Lebanese armed forces, not as a tool of state repression, but as an independent and patriotic institution demonstrating effective security capabilities; encouraging normalization between Lebanon and Israel once a formal peace treaty has been signed; and modifying the official American attitude to the Tai’f agreement to allow for substantive amendments leading toward political decentralization and a post-peace, communally grounded, federal formula for Lebanon.