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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004

Syria/Lebanon - August 3, 2004

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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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Lebanon - Muslims and Christians share political power in Lebanon, according to a system called "confessional democracy."
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Nearly 70 percent of people in Lebanon say it is not accurate to describe their country as having honest elections, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
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Moderator Comment: Does Syria's continued presence in Lebanon help or harm the stability of the Middle East?
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Untitled Document

Dispatches From a Small Planet: Election 2004

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By the People - Election 2004 PBS

Syria/Lebanon: The Occupier and the Occupied
FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot with Yaser Abun-Nasr

Beirut architect Yaser Abun-Nasr points out damage in the old Jewish cemetery in central Beirut to FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot.

By Stephen Talbot

Read our special report from inside Syria and Lebanon.

Did the Syrians murder Lebanon's billionaire developer and former prime minister Rafiq Hariri?

Lebanon's opposition leaders think so and are calling for an "uprising" against the Syrian-backed government and an end to Syria's military occupation of the country. The Bush administration has recalled its ambassador to Syria and is threatening further action. Syrian leaders have condemned the assassination and denied any involvement, though they had clashed politically with Hariri who was planning on leading an opposition slate in this spring's parliamentary elections.


See FRONTLINE/World's "Party of God," an examination of the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
An outpouring of grief and anger has erupted in Lebanon in the wake of the Valentine's Day massive bomb explosion on Beirut's fashionable waterfront that killed the popular businessman and politician who had presided over the post-civil war reconstruction of downtown Beirut. At least sixteen others died in the bombing and more than a hundred were wounded. Hariri, 60, resigned as prime minister last fall under pressure from the Syrians, who forced a change in the Lebanese constitution to allow the Syrian-backed president, Emile Lahoud, to remain in office past his term limit.

Following Hariri's murder, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the militant group Hezbollah (backed by Syria and Iran), cautioned Lebanese opposition leaders that an uprising now against Syrian control could plunge the country back into civil war. "God forbid, if the roof collapses, it collapses on all of us," Nasrallah told thousands of Shiite Muslims gathered recently for the holy event of Ashura. "We must not repeat the mistakes of the past," he warned, and urged meetings and discussions to replace the current tension and anger.

Syria maintains some 14,000 troops in Lebanon and is the godfather of Lebanese politics. Although Syria's relatively new president, Bashar al-Assad, has promised reforms in his regime, he made it clear to me in a rare interview last year with an American journalist that Syria has no intention of withdrawing any time soon from Lebanon.

Nearly 15 years after Lebanon's vicious civil war finally ended in 1990, the Syrians are still an occupying army. As I traveled last May through Lebanon's agricultural heartland, the Bekaa Valley, I saw Syrian forces in barracks and at roadblocks along the main highway. Syria's armed surrogates, Hezbollah, who are also sponsored by Iran, are the dominant political party in the Bekaa, œdisplaying their clout in recent local elections. Hezbollah (not the Lebanese army) also controls Lebanon's border with Israel, and Hezbollah is now the largest single party in the Lebanese parliament.

All the behind-the-scenes maneuvering last year in preparation for Lebanon's presidential race proved irrelevant when Syria insisted that their man, Emile Lahoud, remain in office. But even if Syria had not intervened so brazenly, it was certain that the president would be a Maronite Christian. That's because in Lebanon's "confessional" or faith-based system of politics, the presidency is always reserved for a Maronite, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shiite. It's an unwritten national pact designed to allow Muslims and Christians (17 religions and denominations in all, including the Druze) to coexist in a country about the size of Connecticut. It doesn't always work. Witness the 1976-1990 civil war that made Beirut, the capital, synonymous with urban chaos and sectarian slaughter.

Bombed out building in Beirut

One of the many buildings destroyed in downtown Beirut during the country's civil war. (photo: Robert Zayed)
But Beirut is back, as I witnessed during a fact-finding visit to Lebanon and Syria last May sponsored by the Washington-based International Reporting Project. Pockmarked buildings, bearing the wounds of gunfire and rocket shells, still marred the beauty of this Mediterranean city once known as the Paris of the Middle East. But the downtown debris of war had been shoved into the sea as landfill, and a luxurious new city center, the Solidere development, had risen from the ashes, championed by [the then] Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon's billionaire businessman. The cobblestone streets, elegant architecture and expensive shops may be too exclusive and sterile for local critics, but the open-air cafes were packed at night. And for the young and adventurous, the twisting streets of Beirut's Monot district pulsed with alcohol, drugs, hormones, and the latest techno.

Lebanon still staggers under the burden of a $33 billion public debt, but Beirut is once again a banking and real estate center, and a tourist destination for Lebanese expatriates and Gulf Arabs wary of visiting Europe or the U.S. In that sense, September 11 was a boon to the Lebanese economy. "We are a Western environment with Arab subtitles," said economist and member of parliament Basil Fuleihan. "We are the most socially permissive country in the region. There's something for everyone here." Fuleihan was critically wounded in the explosion that killed Hariri.

As I climbed through the skeletal remains of a bombed out Holiday Inn -- a reminder of Beirut's brutal "hotel wars" when rival militias seized downtown high-rises and blasted away at each other -- I met representatives of a Kuwaiti sheik who had just purchased the 26-floor building and promised to reopen it in 2 to 3 years.

Sunset over Beirut

Sunset over Beirut, Lebanon.
Preserving peace in Beirut and attracting investment depend on Lebanon's delicately balanced, if artificial, democracy. Carved out of Syria by the French after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon is like a gerrymandered election district. The French created a colony with just enough Christians to outnumber the Muslims. But demographics have changed since the 1932 census on which modern Lebanese politics is based. It's been decades since Christians were the majority -- in fact, after years of war and emigration, and a higher Muslim birthrate, Christians are probably no more than one-third of Lebanon's 4.4 million people. But no one dares to upset the balance of power, so there hasn't been an official census in 72 years.

The arrival in Lebanon of the PLO and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the early 1970s after they were expelled from Jordan upset the already strained balance of power between Muslims and Christians, and led to 15 years of civil war, a disastrous Israeli invasion, and a bungled U.S. intervention during Reagan's first term in which terrorists -- Hezbollah -- attacked the U.S. embassy twice, kidnapped and assassinated American officials and journalists, and bombed the U.S. marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 servicemen.

Lebanon's current president with his wife

Lebanon's current president, Emile Lahoud, pictured at a celebration of Lebanon's Independence Day.
Today, Syria presides over a Lebanon in which President Lahoud is their obliging host; Christians and Muslims have papered over their differences; and disenfranchised Palestinians still live on the margins of Lebanese society in the poor, sprawling southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah has its offices and its satellite TV network, Al Manar.

In times of peace, Beirut has thrived as a commercial crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, but Lebanon lives precariously, a small nation prey to the whims of its more powerful neighbors. As the publisher of Beirut's leading English language newspaper, the Daily Star, puts it, "Lebanon is a piece of real estate that is permeable to other people's interests."

Many Lebanese Christians would like to see President Lahoud retire and his Syrian patrons withdraw -- all the more so now that they suspect the Syrians and/or their Lebanese surrogates of killing Hariri. They would prefer a more independent Lebanon. Some Muslim factions agree, especially Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. So does the Bush administration, which recently imposed economic sanctions against Syria, in part because Syria still occupies Lebanon and because Bush regards Syria as a kind of "junior varsity axis of evil," allegedly developing weapons of mass destruction and meddling in Iraq.


Just as Bush was ordering the sanctions -- banning all U.S. exports to Syria, except for food and medicine -- I was traveling on the road to Damascus. I had an opportunity to meet Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who rarely speaks with American reporters. I was hoping to gauge his intentions in Lebanon and his response to U.S. pressure to reform the regime he inherited from his father, the late dictator, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years.

A bronze statute of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad

A bronze statute of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for nearly 30 years until his death in 2000. Syria, a supporter of Hezbollah, has occupied Lebanon since 1976.
Unlike St. Paul, I did not experience a blinding conversion on my journey to Damascus. That's hard to come by in a tour bus full of American foreign news editors. But I did have a minor revelation: Damascus, that ancient capital, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, is really close to Beirut, less than 55 miles away. Even crossing two modest mountain ranges, and allowing for delays at the border, it only takes a few hours to drive from Beirut to Damascus. Yet another reason why Syria perhaps feels proprietary about its more prosperous former territory. It's so close at hand.

Descending from the crisp mountain air into dusty, smoggy Damascus was a let down. The city has the look of a drab communist capital down on its luck. But as I wandered around, I quickly discovered what all the guidebooks talk about: the souk, the famous market with its twisting passageways, antique carpets and piles of spices; the courtyard restaurants, where customers smoke hookahs and dine on fatteh, a local dish of chicken and yogurt; and the historic Omayyad Mosque built during the golden age of rule by Islamic caliphs in the 7th and 8th Centuries. Inside the mosque, the atmosphere was calm: children played, men and women chatted quietly, prayed, even slept. I was startled by one group who looked like Druids, but they turned out to be the women news editors on our tour who were taken aside and covered in what looked like hooded, full-length raincoats.

Oddly enough, the head of St. John the Baptist is said to lie within the Omayyad Mosque, which was once a church, and before that a Roman temple. In these back streets, surrounding the Mosque, Damascus lived up to its reputation -- it felt Biblical -- or, to the more secular-minded, like stepping into a Monty Python movie in which all market sellers want to haggle. `

Strolling around the city center, speaking to people in English, I never once felt threatened, even though the war in Iraq raged on TV screens and in newspaper headlines. "That's one advantage of visiting a police state," a jaded diplomat said. "It's even safe for a woman to walk around Damascus."

My dowdy hotel advertised itself as a place "Where Exclusive People Gather to Whisper with Pleasure" -- unfortunately, I did not experience this myself. The call to prayer over loudspeakers woke me early in the morning and a few hours later a convoy of cars arrived to take us to our interview with President Assad.


Arriving at the immense presidential palace on a hill overlooking Damascus was like entering the Emerald City of Oz, as remodeled by the North Koreans. There were soaring fountains and cavernous marble rooms. It was a cold and intimidating fortress, empty except for scurrying aides. We were ushered into a vast hall and seated in armchairs -- with the president, his ambassador to Washington, and a translator at the far end of the room. It reminded me of those old photos of Nixon meeting Mao.

Talbot shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a trip to the Presidential Palace in Syria's capital, Damascus.
Except that Bashar al-Assad is no Chairman Mao. On the contrary, he's a tall, 39-year-old former opthamologist in a well-tailored suit. And he doesn't reside in the palace. He, his wife, and two small children live downtown and are often spotted in local restaurants. Friendly and clearly eager to meet with this delegation of American journalists, al-Assad -- with his receding chin and polite manner -- displayed none of his father's ruthlessness.

He began by apologizing, unnecessarily, for his rusty English, though he spoke clearly and colloquially and rarely relied on a translator in our 90-minute interview.

The first thing I discovered is that Bashar al-Assad is a computer geek. He used to be chairman of the Syrian Computer Society and has surrounded himself with a number of techies, including his U.S. Ambassador, Imad Moustapha, who was dean of the computer department at Damascus University. When we started the group interview by asking Assad to comment on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he launched into a computer analogy, comparing the Arabs and Israelis to PC and Mac users who are sometimes "not compatible" and need help communicating.

Bashar al-Assad's story is that he wasn't supposed to rule Syria. "I never cared about this position," he told us. "I'd be comfortable not being here." His older brother was the heir apparent, but was killed in a car crash. So, when Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, the mantle fell to Bashar al-Assad, who was "elected" in a referendum in which he was the only candidate. The ruling Alawite clan, a minority group in Syria, and the Soviet-style Ba'ath Party don't like to take chances. They prefer to keep things in the family.

Suddenly, an unassuming man, who had been studying medicine in London, was president of a regime that ruled Syria under martial law. His marriage soon after to a London-born, English-educated Syrian woman, Asma, who worked for JP Morgan as an investment analyst, encouraged those who longed for Western-style economic and political reforms. There was a brief "Damascus Spring" in which he released political prisoners and eased press restrictions. But it didn't last. Some question whether Bashar al-Assad has the clout to change his father's old order. They call Syria "a dictatorship without a dictator."

Western diplomats and reform-minded Syrians agree that a well-entrenched "mafiaocracy"-- built up over many years -- still controls Syria's stagnant economy, and that any challenge to Bashar al-Assad will come from hard-liners inside the regime -- "the thugs," as one diplomat put it. Washington doubts Assad's good intentions, but others, especially in the Arab world, see Assad as a genuine reformer who deserves all the help he can get from the outside world.

"Definitely, we're going to change," Assad insisted, but added it will take time. "There is a long road ahead for us."

"In the past," Assad acknowledged, "this law [the state of emergency] has been used frequently in the wrong ways." Now, he claimed, "The emergency law is not used to suppress freedoms, but to suppress terrorism, and there is a huge difference."

Human rights activists we met in Syria, including two former political prisoners, insisted there was still "a wall of fear" in the country, though they said some "space for civil society" had begun to open up. Assad had authorized the opening of a private bank and private universities. In July he released more than 250 political prisoners under a general amnesty.

The war in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict tend to overshadow the debate about domestic reform. The Bush administration blames Syria for supporting terrorist groups like Hamas, for developing weapons of mass destruction, and for failing to stop foreign fighters from crossing the border into Iraq. But Assad downplayed Syrian support for Hamas, denied possessing WMDs, and said Syria was doing what it could to control its 400-mile desert frontier with Iraq, a remote border infamous for smuggling. Assad countered, "You can't even control your border with Mexico."

On the matter of WMDs, Assad stressed that Syria had no nuclear capability: "We do not even have a nuclear reactor for peaceful means." The International Atomic Energy Agency announced recently that there was no evidence Syria was trying to develop nuclear weapons. Assad also denied U.S. accusations that Syria has an advanced chemical weapons capability and a stockpile of the nerve gas sarin.

Assad made the case that U.N. inspectors had uncovered all of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. "Of course, you don't need much [of a biological agent]," he added, "You can put toxin in a glass. Anyone can do it." Throughout the interview I had been enjoying the fruit juice we had all been served. I was lifting my glass for another sip as President Assad mimicked the act of dropping poison into his own glass. I wasn't the only one in the room who decided, in a moment of paranoia, not to take another drink.

Syria opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but privately the Syrians were not particularly sorry to see Saddam ousted. He was an unstable neighbor and a rival in the region. For a while, in the first flush of American victory, there was talk among neo-conservatives in Washington that "Syria may be next." That hawkish talk ceased after post-war Iraq turned ugly, but the threats have returned since Hariri's assassination. What Assad fears is chaos in Iraq, which could enflame Islamic radicals in Syria. A secular regime, the government in Damascus has in the past violently suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Syria has no interest in Iraq becoming a center for radical Islamic terrorists.

Assad also worries that the U.S. has opened a Pandora's Box in Iraq which it cannot control, and he scoffed at the idea that the Bush administration acted out of a desire to bring democracy to Baghdad: "Is it the democracy of the Abu Ghraib prison?"

Assad also blamed Bush for making Iraq his priority rather than trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of Syria's principal foreign policy goals is to regain the Golan Heights it lost to Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, but Assad argued that Syria has little or no ability to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock. "We do not have relations with the Israelis, and our relations with the Palestinian Authority is quite weak." Only the U.S. has the power to push for a comprehensive Middle East settlement, he said.

Asked to comment on the U.S. presidential election, Assad said he'd never met George Bush nor John Kerry, just spoken with Bush on the phone. "We're not looking for changing presidents," he said, "we're looking for changing policy."

Finally, I asked Assad about those Syrian troops in Lebanon. "We started a withdrawal four years ago," he said, "because the Lebanese army is stronger and can maintain the peace." But Assad made it clear that the remaining Syrian soldiers would not be leaving Lebanon any time soon. "In the media we hear they [Lebanese] want us to withdraw, but that's not what they tell us in private." With a straight face, Assad declared, "The Syrian army does not interfere in Lebanese politics," but I left the presidential palace with the clear impression that Syria has no intention of abandoning what it sees as vital interests in Lebanon and will continue to be the political powerbroker there.

Barring a radical shift in Lebanese and Mideast politics, the president of Lebanon will still be anointed in Damascus.

As we filed out of the hall, I shook hands with the Syrian leader and told him I was from San Francisco near Silicon Valley. He smiled broadly and assured me, "I am an Apple user!"

I promised to let the Apple people know and walked out of the palace trying to imagine Bashar al-Assad on one of those Apple billboards with the slogan, "Think Different." No Apple exec would ever put him up there alongside Einstein, Ghandi or Martin Luther King. Then again, what if Bashar al-Assad decides to fulfill the promise of his "Damascus Spring," withdraws his army from Lebanon, or decides, like Anwar Sadat, to make peace with Israel?


Back in Beirut, I found locals obsessed with the Miss Lebanon contest, which had been turned into a "reality" TV show. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation had gathered 16 contestants in one studio where they were videotaped nonstop for the next month -- preening, strutting, pouting, putting on make-up, confiding to the camera, practicing dance routines, learning martial arts, brushing their teeth -- as viewers voted them off the air. Apparently, it was a ratings success -- and a welcome distraction for citizens beleaguered by war and politics on Al-Jazeera. The winner, 20-year-old Nadine Njeim, was crowned June 18.

A Hezbollah billboard

A Hezbollah billboard, featuring at left the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 inspired Hezbollah, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current head of Iran. At right is Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's General Secretary.
Hezbollah had been declared the big winner in municipal elections around the country -- more evidence that this terrorist organization (or, as people in Lebanon prefer to say, resistance movement) has successfully morphed into a political party with a reputation for not being corrupt (unusual in Lebanon) and for making sure the garbage gets picked up. Respected in Lebanon, even among many Christians, for pressuring Israeli troops to finally withdraw from southern Lebanon in May 2000, after 18 years, Hezbollah militants are proving they can also run a social welfare agency and be effective ward heelers, too, especially in the poor, neglected Muslim neighborhoods. (See FRONTLINE/World, "Party of God")

In Beirut, a newspaper reported that one lone Jewish voter cast his ballot in the elections. Perhaps wisely, he asked to remain anonymous. Five thousand Jews remain on a list of registered voters, but nearly all have long since died or fled the country. A couple conducting a kind of truth and reconciliation tour of Beirut took our group to a dilapidated Jewish cemetery now cared for by an elderly Shiite woman. The inscriptions on the tombs in Hebrew and French bore testimony to a Jewish community that once took its place here among all the other religious groups.

Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah

Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a senior Shiite religious leader and spiritual advisor to Hezbollah, discusses politics, religion and the war in Iraq with editors from the International Reporting Project's [2004] Gatekeeper Editors Tour.
In the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Hezbollah holds sway, we visited Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the Shiite cleric usually described as Hezbollah's spiritual leader. But Fadlallah fends off queries about Hezbollah, saying, "Direct your questions to them. I am not their official spokesman." Now 69, with a full grey beard and the waxy pallor of a religious scholar, Fadlallah appears to have mellowed, if that word can ever be applied to one who has sanctioned Hezbollah and Palestinian suicide bombers. These days, Fadlallah was quick to remind us that he immediately condemned the September 11th terrorists and issued a fatwa against those who carried out the Madrid train bombings. Once a fervent believer in Iran's theocratic regime, Fadlallah has even suggested there may be some advantages to separation of mosque and state.

Asked what he thought of the U.S. presidential race, Fadlallah expressed concern that President Bush believes God called him to lead. "I don't believe he [Bush] deals with things in an objective and rational fashion," Fadlallah said. Then clearly enjoying himself, the cleric added, "I think we should send him to a psychiatrist before the election."

Outside Fadlallah's compound, the guards seemed at ease. But in late July a car bomb on a main commercial artery in these southern suburbs killed a leading Hezbollah military commander. At first an underground Sunni Muslim group claimed credit, but Hezbollah blamed Israel. The next day, two Israeli soldiers and one Hezbollah guerrilla died in clashes along the Lebanese-Israeli border. In response, Israeli fighter jets buzzed Beirut, causing loud sonic booms over the jittery capital. An Israeli military commander threatened to strike Hezbollah's sponsors, Iran and Syria.

At the time the Bush administration appealed for calm, reminding Israel, Lebanon, and Syria that no one needed another war just now. But with U.S. troops still battling a fierce insurgency in Iraq, Washington's role as peacekeeper in the Middle East is badly tattered.

Even so, many people I met in Lebanon desperately wanted the U.S. to aggressively pursue a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. "It is time for the United States to impose a two-state solution," said Jamil Mroue, the worldly, silver-haired publisher of Beirut's Daily Star. "Lay down a border and say, 'That's it, this fighting has gone on long enough.' "

My last evening in Lebanon I attended a reception and dinner under the stars on the beautiful campus of the American University of Beirut. Widely respected across the political spectrum, AUB prides itself on the fact that it never closed during Lebanon's civil war, although its President Malcolm Kerr was assassinated in 1984. Founded in the 19th Century by Presbyterian missionaries, AUB is now a secular institution, serving 6,900 students from all faiths. It's the finest university in the country and an outpost of America's best intentions in the region.

But that night, the president of the university, John Waterbury, a Middle East scholar with the look of a New England prep school dean, warned us that he was profoundly worried. In all his years in the Arab world, Waterbury observed, he'd never known the reputation of the United States to be lower. It was, the president said, a very dangerous time.

Waterbury was right about the approaching danger and Beirut is once again a scene of murder and terror. Whoever carried out the shocking assassination of Rafiq Hariri -- a man known as "Mr. Lebanon" and mourned by thousands on the streets -- has made this dangerous corner of the world where Israel, Lebanon, and Syria collide a place that could explode.


This story has been updated and was originally reported for the Election Dispatches 2004.


Stephen Talbot is series editor for FRONTLINE/World. A veteran documentary filmmaker, he covered the last three presidential elections for FRONTLINE and produced "Spying on Saddam" about the U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq.

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Some photos courtesy of the International Reporting Project, The John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, 2004 Gatekeeper Editors trip to Syria and Lebanon

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