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Dispatches From a Small Planet: Lebanon/Syria, April 2005

FRONTLINE/World dispatches: Lebanon/Syria

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May 3, 2005
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April 26, 2005
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Quick Facts
Lebanon - Muslims and Christians share political power in Lebanon, according to a system called "confessional democracy."
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Syria - Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, was elected in a referendum in which he was the only candidate.
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Learn more about Syria's relationship with Lebanon, including its support of Hezbollah.
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"Party of God," an examination of the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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Bullets To Ballot Box
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Lebanon's History of Occupation
In one form or another, Syria has exerted its influence over Lebanon for nearly a century.

By Kate Seelye

Kate Seelye

FRONTLINE/World reporter Kate Seelye covering the mass demonstrations in Beirut.
To the political opposition in Lebanon, the current independence movement is an existential battle - a fight to make Lebanon a sovereign nation once and for all. When demonstrators cry, "Enough!" -- one of the most popular slogans to emerge from recent events -- they mean that Syrian power in Lebanon has long since worn out its welcome.

Syria has, in one way or another, exerted its influence over Lebanon for nearly a century. Under the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon was once part of a region known as "Greater Syria." After World War I, a French mandate proclaimed the Lebanese Republic, but for years Syrian and Lebanese Arab nationalists still pushed to reunite the countries. Neither country has maintained an embassy in their respective capitals because, as Syria has claimed, there's no need for formal ties between such close friends.

Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976, as peacekeepers during Lebanon's bloody civil war. Under the 1989 Taef Agreement, which ended the war a year later, Syrian forces were to remain in Lebanon to stabilize the situation before withdrawing to Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley and ultimately pulling out.

But Syrian troops never left, even after peace came. Syria long justified its presence in Lebanon by pointing to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon and the country's unstable domestic political scene. But once Israeli troops withdrew in 2000 and Lebanon began to re-emerge as a regional tourism and banking hub, more and more Lebanese began to question why Syrian troops remained.

Many Lebanese maintain that Syria's domination of Lebanese political affairs is even more troubling than the presence of its troops. Political leaders in Damascus have determined who is president of Lebanon, and Syrian control over local elections has ensured a predominantly pro-Syrian parliament. The country's top security chiefs and the head of its judiciary branch have been Syrian allies who have carried out the will of Damascus.

Lebanese critics also argue that Syria has also profited financially from its privileged position in the smaller nation, reportedly making hundreds of millions of dollars annually through its influence over Lebanon's ports, telecommunications industry, casino and other economic sectors.

Until recently, Damascus kept a tight lid on anti-Syrian criticism. Working with its allies in Lebanon's secret service agencies, it intimidated politicians and civilians for decades. It has also been alleged that Lebanese detainees suffered years of torture in Syria's most brutal prisons.

For some Lebanese politicians who dared to challenge the status quo, the price was even higher. Former Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt questioned Syria's role in Lebanon as early as 1977, and he was assassinated several months later. In 1989, when President Renee Moawad sought dialogue with a renegade anti-Syrian general, against the wishes of the Damascus government, he too was assassinated. And in the minds of many here, Rafik Hariri was just the latest in a long line of independent-minded politicians Damascus felt the need to silence.

Opposition leaders in Lebanon are now calling to put an end to decades, even centuries, of domination of their country by Syria; they argue that political leaders in Damascus have never recognized Lebanon as an independent country. Resignation of Lebanon's pro-Syrian security chiefs, withdrawal of Syrian troops, and the establishment of a neutral government to oversee free and fair elections in May 2005 are paramount to the vision of a peaceful and sovereign Lebanon.

NEXT: Lebanon's Religious Mix - Hariri's assassination has united some sects and divided others.

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