Free Lebanon Now!


By Ariel Natan Pasko

If there were one thing that PM Ariel Sharon gets done before his term of office ends in 2003, that could have long-term positive significance for Israel and the region, it would be to start seriously promoting a Free Democratic Lebanon. A Lebanon free of Syrian occupation. A Lebanon where militia groups like Amal, the Druze, the Christians, and Hizbollah are de-armed and returned to purely civilian activities. A Lebanon where the central government rules supreme. Ariel Sharon has an opportunity to finish what he started in 1982, before Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel’s life was so rudely ended. A Free Democratic Lebanon, with Syria forced back to its ‘natural’ size and influence, and a democratic reform process in the Palestinian Authority (without Yasser Arafat); these would be major accomplishments for PM Sharon, resonating throughout the region for decades.

Imagine Syria ‘defanged’. Without its ability to attack Israel through its proxy, Hizbollah, Israelis would begin to heal and recover from the ‘Syrian Syndrome’ they’ve suffered since the Yom Kippur War. Israelis would finally see Syria for what it is today, a ‘paper tiger’. Militarily weak and an economic basket case. For example, the average college graduate makes only $200 a month.

Syria without the drug money from the Bekka Valley; Syria without the million plus citizens in Lebanon sending money home; will be forced to deal with its real problems; a backward economy and lack of the most basic economic and political freedoms for its citizens. Forced with democratic reforms at home, and without its ability to ‘plausibly deny’ involvement in terrorist activity (whether from Hizbollah in Lebanon or any of the 10 other terror groups based in Damascus), Syria would be de-linked from Iran and Iraq. Without its support for Hizbollah, Syria’s relationship with Iran would decline. Undergoing ‘democratization’, Syria would be forced to break from the radical rejectionism of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Today there is much talk in the US about the need for regime changes in Iran and Iraq, but I haven’t heard enough about the need to change Syria. And for Syria, ‘the Road to Damascus’ runs from Beirut. A push for a Free Democratic Lebanon can lead the way to regional change. The Israeli government can give the US, EU, UN, Russia, and the rest of the interested world, just that push. By conditioning their further involvement in the ‘peace process’ to support for a Free Democratic Lebanon and stressing the need to change the Syrian regime.

Let me remind you that Syria has been occupying Lebanon since 1976 and has been in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 520 (calling on them to leave) since 1982. Syria under Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad massacred 20,000 of its own citizens in Hama, in 1982, and has systematically been killing Lebanese leaders throughout its occupation. Syria also continues to violate the Taif Agreement of 1989, where they agreed to leave Lebanon. Syria is a serious violator of human rights at home and abroad, and has been on the State Department’s list of Terror supporting countries, since its inception in 1979.

Yet recently, when President Bush declared a ‘War on Terrorism’, Syria hurriedly signed-up. Syria has been trying to rebuild its image. Using its place on the UN Security Council (of which it just finished the presidency), Syria is trying hard to gain greater international legitimacy. For example, George Jabbour, a Syrian intellectual and advisor to Hafez al-Assad from 1970 to 1989 (during the Hama massacre), in a letter dated July 7th, asked UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, to consider him as a candidate for the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He wants to succeed Mary Robinson, who is retiring in September.

At the same time, Ha’aretz on July 15th reported that Syria is violating the UN arms embargo on Iraq. They’re sending weapons and military equipment from Eastern European countries (like Bulgaria, Belarus, Hungary, and Serbia), delivered to Syrian ports, to Iraq via trucks and rail. Russian-made jet engines & rebuilt tank engines, Czech anti-aircraft cannons, Ukrainian engines and radar systems for MIG 29’s, and spare parts for MIG 21’s, 23’s and 25’s, are among the items according to Ha’aretz. While Syria deepens its relationship with Iran and Iraq, Bashar al-Assad is torn between the radicalism of his father’s regime ideology (‘Greater Syria’ and hatred toward Israel), and acceptance in the West. He wants to present a moderate face for the regime; he needs western aid badly. Now is the time to demand that Syria leave Lebanon and make a clean break from Iran and Iraq.

Since the September 11 attacks that sparked the anti-terror campaign, US ties with Lebanon and Syria have been tense over Hizbollah, which Washington labels a ''terrorist'' group behind suicide bombings of US targets in the Lebanese civil war. The US is also concerned that al-Qaeda operatives might have come to re-group in Lebanon. A group of Senators from the US recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Syria and Lebanon, concerned about terror training centers in the Palestinian refugee camps and in the Bekka Valley.

Speaking on Meet the Press (NBC) July 7th, US Senator Bob Graham (Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee) said the US War on Terror could extend to Hizbollah, which he called ''the most vicious and effective terrorist organization in the world.'' The US must "deal with these training camps that have developed particularly in Syria and Lebanon where the next generation of terrorists are being prepared." Asked if the US should "now go into Syria and Lebanon and eliminate those training camps?" Senator Graham responded, "I think we should first give the Syrians and the Lebanese an opportunity to clean up their own house, but then I think that is a much more immediate threat to the security of the United States of America in my judgment than Saddam Hussein."

Interviewed also on CNN, Senator Graham said the US should "have a serious discussion with Syria," which controls areas in its own country and Lebanon where groups like Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad train. When asked if the US should use airpower to destroy the camps, Senator Graham said that if Syria refuses to close the camps, "then I think the international community, led by the United States, has a priority to do so."

But Hizbollah hasn’t just been involved in terrorist activities. A court in North Carolina (June 21) found 2 Lebanese brothers guilty of immigration fraud, money laundering, credit card fraud, cigarette smuggling, and providing material support for a designated terrorist organization, Hizbollah. Their involvement on American soil runs deep. So, Members of Congress understand the negative impact of Syria on Lebanon, Lebanon’s freewheeling sanctuary for terror groups and its eventual impact on the US Homefront. They should be increasingly open to forceful Israeli demands of Syrian compliance with UN520, that is, withdrawal from Lebanon. And shouldn’t the UN itself?

The Syrian government knows of the presence of Saudi-financed Wahhabi groups in the north of Lebanon, as well as other fundamentalist groups and Islamic schools, the now famous madrassas that stoke radical anti-Western attitudes among their young charges. Through a combination of monetary support and threats of imprisonment, Syria has managed to keep loose control over these factions along its border.

In Syria itself, because of the ruthless grip Syrian internal police have on the country, the mosques are careful to preach hatred against America rather than fundamentalist revolt against Syria. Syria’s own hatred for Islamic militants is well established. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, kept an iron grip on internal security and brutally suppressed any vestiges of Islamic militancy, killing 20,000 people in his suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama (1982). Bashar al-Assad took office vowing to bring some measure of modernity to Syria, but this does not extend to allowing militant Islam to get a foothold in his country. In fact, Bashar has used the events of Sept. 11 to recast the Hama massacre as Syria’s ‘successful experience’ in dealing with terrorists.

There exists a fundamental contradiction between Syria’s friendship with Iran, its support for Hizbollah, and its desire to keep Islamic militancy out of its own country. If the US is right and al-Qaeda is transplanting to Lebanon and Saudi-backed Islamic militants are growing in Lebanon, then its really in the Syrian’s long term interests to leave Lebanon. So that Lebanon can be Free and Democratic, and not a hothouse for Islamic Extremism that might spill over into Syria itself. Syria has to choose will it side with the West and leave Lebanon, or stay in bed with the Iranians. This might be its last chance at democracy.

And what about Lebanon itself? In the last couple of years there’s been an increasingly outspoken Christian opposition to Syrian occupation, predominantly among university students and Christian clergy. At pain of death, protests have grown, calling on Syria to get out of Lebanon. Pro-freedom activists even visited Israel in June 1999 (before our withdrawal from S. Lebanon), urging Israel to call for the implementation of UN520, to help get Syria out of Lebanon. But on July 10th of this year, both the BBC & CNN reported a worrying event; the Phalangist Party expelled former Lebanese President and son of the party founder, Amin Gemayel. Gemayel returned from 8 years of self-imposed exile to France in July 2000. His supporters are in opposition to the Lebanese pro-Syrian government. The Phalange leadership is pro-government and has taken a moderate line on relations with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon. The Phalangist Party’s base of support is among the Christians. While they don’t represent all the Christians (there are more radical nationalists, such as the Guardians of the Cedars), if such a mainstream party is falling sway to Syrian domination, this can’t bode well for a Free Democratic Lebanon.

Lebanon, might I remind you, used to be the combined Riviera and Switzerland of the Arab world. It flourished both as a vacation/resort area and banking/financial center for Europe and the Middle East. With many well-educated Lebanese at home and abroad, and especially the wealthy business oriented Lebanese of the Diaspora (for example in America & France), a Free Democratic Lebanon has great hope and promise. Many Diaspora Lebanese have been fighting for years on the political front to expel Syria. They deserve our help.

And finally, what about the UN? Until now they’ve been amazingly quiet all these years in regards to Syria’s violation of UN520 and occupation of a member state, Lebanon. Since January 2002, Syria has been sitting on the Security Council, while violating one of its resolutions. Still quiet! But, as reported in the July 11th issue of the Lebanese news-site, The Daily Star, the UN Secretary-General’s report on UNIFIL (released July 17th), contains its harshest criticism yet over Lebanon’s perceived failure to assert its authority over the South. The report criticizes the Lebanese government for ignoring the socio-economic well being of those living in S. Lebanon, and for tensions along the UN-delineated Blue Line. A UN source said, “Patience is wearing thin” with Lebanon at UN headquarters in NY.

Maybe those guys at UN headquarters will finally get it. As long as Syria occupies Lebanon, Syria calls the shots. They want the Lebanese government to leave the southern border district alone, so that Hizbollah can build-up there. In agreement with Iran, Hizbollah is fighting the ‘Jihad to Jerusalem’ from South Lebanon. But Syria has to watch out. Bashar as a political neophyte might find the ‘Jihad’ extending into his own territory, against his own ‘godless’ Bathist regime.

Which brings us back to PM Sharon and the Israeli government. Calling on Syria to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 520 and leave Lebanon, is a no-lose situation. It puts Israel on the side of right and International Law, undisputed, for a change. Israel will be seen as a protector of an occupied Arab state whose citizens are yearning to be free and democratic. Shades of Kuwait. Syria once it withdraws from Lebanon will begin the transformation to its ‘natural’ importance. Israelis will finally overcome their ‘Syrian Syndrome’. No longer a supporter of terrorism, Syria will not provide cover for Islamic extremism (neither Sunni al-Qaeda nor Shiite Hizbollah and Iran). It will no longer house Palestinian terror groups in Damascus. No longer involved in the drug trade and receiving expatriate financial infusions, Syria will be forced to reform its economy and political system. Like I said at the beginning, this is an all-win situation that could have long-term positive significance for Israel and the region. And it all begins with calling for a Free Democratic Lebanon!

(c) 2002/5762 Pasko