Testimony Of The American Lebanese Institute, A member group of
The Council of Lebanese American Organizations (CLAO)
BeforeThe House Appropriations Committee
The Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export, Financing and Related Programs
March 30, 2000

My name is David Epperly and I am testifying on behalf of the American Lebanese Institute, a member group of the Council of Lebanese American Organizations (CLAO). The Institute reflects the interests and sentiments of three million Americans of Lebanese descent. The Institute and CLAO work to further the cause of freedom and sovereignty in Lebanon commencing with the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all foreign forces, particularly those of Syria. Both the Institute and the Council act to promote ties of friendship and cooperation between the United States and Lebanon based on the principles of democracy and human rights.

With this brief background information, please allow me to outline our concerns and suggestions for this subcommittee. We understand that it is not the task of this subcommittee to involve itself in the complicated internal politics of Lebanon, but we hope that the honorable Representatives on it will factor in this complexity when making decisions regarding Lebanon.

Since our last testimony before you, the situation in Lebanon has unfortunately continued to deteriorate. The country remains subjugated to Syrian hegemony. Instead of bringing much desired stability and prosperity - reasons put forth by the Syrians for their continued occupation of Lebanon - human rights abuses, political intrigue, economic exploitation, violence in the south, and the continued usage of Lebanon as a haven for international terrorism are more defining characteristics. The presidential "elections" in the fall of 1998 changed nothing and was more like a changing of the pro-Syrian guard. Unfortunately, the world remains oblivious to this reality, and consequently Syrian hegemony over Lebanon continues to be open-ended.

Were the Middle East peace process to resume in earnest, a free Lebanon would most certainly have a constructive role to play in any eventual settlement. However, that could only be possible if Lebanon were released from Syrian control and allowed to determine its own destiny through a government and parliament that truly represent the will of the Lebanese people. If genuine stability and security in the region are to be Lebanon’s expected contribution to a revived peace process, the country should be allowed to negotiate peace with Israel free from the obstructive influence of Syria.

Some forty thousand Syrian soldiers and an untold number of clandestine Syrian operatives and agents presently control at least ninety-percent of Lebanese territory. All politics, domestic and foreign, emanating from the Beirut "government" cater to Syrian goals instead of serving the needs of the Lebanese people and Lebanon’s national interest. To a man, the Beirut puppet government is subservient to the wishes of Damascus. The hitherto pathetic spectacle of Lebanese "officials" scurrying across the border to Damascus or to Anjar, in East Lebanon, (site of the headquarters of the Syrian intelligence services) to seek favor and approval from their Syrian masters, is by now embarrassingly well known around the world.

As concerned American Lebanese living in the freest nation on earth, we continue to feel it is our moral duty to speak out on behalf of those in Lebanon or in exile, both past and present, whose voices have been muted or forever silenced by Syrian oppression. We would like to submit the following items of concern for your subcommittee’s consideration:

Syrian Occupation of Lebanon:
For years the State Department has emphasized linkage between progress in the Middle East peace process and the eventual de-coupling of Lebanon from Syria. With the peace process between Israel and Syria approaching a critical juncture without Lebanon’s participation, the general feeling of the Lebanese that the country is not "at the table, but on the table," is causing a continued decline of the well being and morale of the population. A progressively worsening economic situation compounded by the weight of the Syrian occupation is the direct cause of an insidious and prolonged attrition of the country’s assets both human and capital. There is no real international focus on Syria’s debilitating occupation of Lebanon, much less on its breach of a pledge to re-deploy its forces to the Bekaa Valley as stated in the so-called Taif agreement. Instead, the people of Lebanon are beginning to acquiesce to the notion that there indeed exists a double standard in the world today regarding human rights, freedom, democracy and self-determination.

Human Rights Violations:
The body of documentation of human rights violations in Lebanon at the hands of the Beirut "authorities" and their Syrian masters is growing daily. A number of local and international human rights organizations actively monitor these mounting abuses that include abduction, illegal detention, torture, and mock trials. The disappearance and imprisonment in Syrian jails of persons opposed to Syrian occupation and the policies of its puppet government are regular occurrences. The Lebanese judiciary system in recent years has been appallingly militarized meaning that military personnel have replaced civilian judges in presiding over most trials. Furthermore, and contrary to the deceptive impression of calm and security presented by the "authorities" to the outside world, a general state of lawlessness increasingly prevails in Lebanon. To add to an already repressive climate, murders, rapes and robberies (especially auto theft and household break-ins) are on the increase. The 1999 State Department annual report on human rights amplified on some of these abuses. To date, the U.S. government has done little to pressure the Beirut "authorities" into reversing this disturbing trend of violations which are transforming a once free, open and civil society into a repressed, closed and barbarous one.

Press Freedom and Censorship :
In November 1996, a new law was passed creating government regulations banning broadcasts by all television stations except those privately owned by key members of the Beirut regime. This can only be interpreted as a blatant disregard of world opinion and an ominous threat to Lebanon’s strong tradition of free expression through the media. Press censorship today makes a mockery of a once thriving liberal journalistic tradition, which made Beirut the freest and most creative capital in the Arab world. A general atmosphere of intimidation prevails reaching at times physical violence against targeted journalists. The Lebanese press is being stood-up before a mirror held by Damascus and forced to recognize an image not of itself but of long subjugated counterparts in Syria. Once again the 1999 Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties considered Lebanon not free.

Economic Mismanagement:
The economic policies of the various post-Taif governments, including the present one, have been dismal failures. Lebanon’s national debt today hovers around the $24 billion (USD) level and is rising exponentially. It has overtaken the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) which stands at less than $15 billion. Most question whether the out-going Hariri government’s accomplishments and misplaced priorities - the grandiose new sports stadium and lavish palaces built for the three top figures of the Beirut regime – have taken precedence over such basic needs as providing the country with a first rate infrastructure. Basic necessities such as clean drinking water, reliable electricity and a modern telecommunications system, not to speak of the vital productive sectors of the economy such as agriculture and industry, have taken a backseat to projects designed to enrich a select few while creating a false impression of progress.

Leading credit rating organizations in the world such as Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service, Fitch IBCA, and Thompson Bank Watch continue to grade Lebanon’s rating outlook negatively as a consequence of the regime’s mismanagement of the country’s economy. Lebanon’s budget deficit is currently running at more than fifty percent of government revenues. An astounding 42% of the 1999 budget was used to service the public debt. By the summer of 1999, talk was no longer of economic recession but of depression. A key Lebanese financial institution, Banque Audi, recently announced that the country’s economic growth rate had slipped into negative figures for the first time since the outbreak of war in 1975. Another bank, Fransabank, said that most economic indicators in 1999 had shown a "drastic drop" compared with 1998.

Lebanon’s history of a vibrant middle class, which created an ambitious private sector, characterized by small and medium sized businesses, is on its way to extinction. The country is increasingly polarized between a corrupt class of rich and super-rich plutocrats and a swelling mass of impoverished individuals and families. The much-talked about cronyism in countries like Indonesia pales in comparison to the unabashed and blatant exploitation of Lebanon’s insensitive moguls and their Syrian partners. Indicative of the middle class erosion are the dwindling purchasing power brought on by spiraling prices and bloated direct and indirect taxation. New taxes have been slapped on everything from motor vehicles to real estate transactions to local cement production, custom duties and even the price of obtaining a passport. The increases sometimes reach as much as 250 per cent.

An already rotten situation is made worse by rampant corruption in high places, which has surpassed past levels by a quantum leap. Bribery, kickbacks, unlawful revenues, skimming of profits, hush money and much more define the daily state of affairs in Syrian occupied Lebanon. There are an estimated 1.5 million illegal Syrian workers now in the country. This alarming number is nearly equivalent to fifty percent of the overall Lebanese population. The money they siphon out daily - plus the revenues reaped by ubiquitous Syrian partners in every major and lucrative business transaction in Lebanon, constitute a drain on the country’s meager financial resources.

In light of the above, we strongly recommend that not a single cent of U.S. taxpayer’s money be allocated by Congress to the present regime in Beirut. All appropriations should be channeled directly to credible individuals and institutions in the Lebanese private sector. For example: the American University of Beirut, still the greatest American educational institution outside the United States, and other private universities and colleges in the country, to the many hospitals and other medical facilities that make Lebanon a leading medical hub in the region, and to the scores of hard-working NGO’s whose missions support human rights, environmental issues, or charitable causes.

Supporting the Lebanese Army, not as a tool of government repression, but as a true patriotic institution, remains in our view, a worthy American goal. However, close and direct supervision by Washington on how this money is spent is vital. No aid should be given to Lebanon through government controlled agencies until free and fair elections are allowed to take place. The 1998 "election" of Emile Lahoud to the presidency had significance beyond Lebanon. It was the direct result of political changes inside the Syrian regime in Damascus. The Lebanon file was effectively wrenched away from the hands of Hikmat Shihabi and Abdel Halim Khaddam and placed squarely in the hands of Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar. This development coincided with the fall of power of Rafic Hariri, a close ally of Shihabi and Khaddam. (Hariri’s departure shows no one, no matter how wealthy and influential, is indispensable in Syrian calculations). The Lahoud team, riding to power on a platform of combating the corruption of their predecessors, is comprised of individuals who have firm – in some cases familial – ties to high ranking members of Bashar’s group in the Syrian regime.

In regard to any eventual aid to Syria, as part of a Middle East peace agreement, it should be required to exit Lebanon before Congress allocates any taxpayer funds to Damascus. Ending occupation is part of what real peace ought to be about. The Israelis are in the process of gradually and painfully ending the occupation of Palestinian territories. This they see as an integral part of any lasting peace in the Middle East. Iraq was forced out of Kuwait in 1991 by an international coalition because the international community could not tolerate the occupation of one country by another. At the same time, Syria hid behind the fig leaf of the anti-Iraq coalition in order to be rewarded with the benign international neglect of its own occupation of Lebanon, which has gone on for far too long. There cannot be real and lasting peace in the Middle East while Syria persists in occupying Lebanon, as Israel, for its part, quits Lebanon and allows the Palestinians a significant measure of self-determination.

When Israel leaves Lebanon this summer, what remaining justification will there be for Syria to continue its occupation of its neighbor to the West? None whatsoever. Alleged Syrian "brotherhood" is nothing but a euphemism for expansion, hegemony, and foreign control. The day of satellite states has passed with the ending of the Cold War. Annexation of a smaller and weaker, yet freer, society by a larger and more dominant totalitarian neighbor is a vestige of the Cold War era and can be found nowhere else in today's world than in Syria and Lebanon.

Any future Congressional funds, which might be earmarked for Damascus, would be tantamount to complicity in Syria's occupation of Lebanon, its human rights violations there, and the atrocities it has sponsored as a direct result of its hegemony over the country.

The implementation of several Congressional and UN resolutions calling for the immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon must be the prerequisites for releasing any Congressional funds to Damascus.

A real, just, and principled peace in the Middle East, must mean full sovereignty for all states in the region, Lebanon included. This signifies Israeli as well as Syrian departure from Lebanon. Otherwise, anything short of this will, for the occupied, be equivalent to the "peace of the grave." Any future American aid package to Syria as part of a final overall peace settlement must be conditional on Syria exiting Lebanon completely.

As long as Syria sponsors international terrorism, protects narcotics cultivation and trafficking, maintains questionable allies like Iran and North Korea, seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery systems, violates treaties and agreements (e.g. Taif), invades and occupies Lebanon, supports several violent surrogate sub-national radical groups and rejectionist Palestinian organizations, it should not remotely hope to qualify for US financial or military help in any shape or form.

As gloomy as the picture may appear today, Lebanon’s embattled but still resilient civil society will undoubtedly be the ultimate salvation of the country. All it needs is the continued support of the outside world, especially the United States. Lebanese Americans were heartened recently by a letter from several key members of Congress to President Clinton, on the eve of his meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva to discuss the peace process. These members strongly urged President Clinton "to impress upon President Assad the need to re-deploy and withdraw Syrian armed forces and security personnel out of Lebanon."

The Institute, the Council and I appreciate the opportunity to express our concerns and suggestions before this subcommittee. We strongly urge you to consider and incorporate them in your appropriations decisions and in other deliberations regarding U.S. policy towards Lebanon and we remain hopeful that in the end democracy and justice will prevail. Thank you.