Syria's Role in Lebanon
By Mona Yacoubian
Recent days have witnessed increasing tensions between the United States and Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian backers. Citing "mounting evidence," the United States accused Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran of seeking to destabilize the current Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. The White House also singled out the Syrian government for condemnation, stating there were "indications" that Damascus is attempting to obstruct the creation of an international tribunal to try those involved in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria has denied all accusations. As the political situation in Lebanon grows increasingly volatile, the nature of Syria's role in Lebanon and, in particular, its alliance with Hezbollah, warrants closer examination.
An Intricate Web of Ties
Supporters of prominent Lebanese politician Pierre Gemayel react to news of his assassination on Nov 21. The assassination came amid a political showdown in Lebanon that threatens to topple the U.S.-backed government. (AP Photo)
Syria's geostrategic interests in Lebanon are longstanding. During the Ottoman era, Lebanon was part of Greater Syria. To date, the Syrian government steadfastly refuses to formally demarcate the border or agree to the establishment of diplomatic relations, claiming the two countries share an organic bond. Following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 which ended hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah, the Syrians refused to accept the deployment of foreign troops along the border, claiming it would be a "hostile" act against Syria. Lebanon has also served as a battleground for a number of proxy wars, including one between Syria and Israel. The Syrians have often used surrogates in Lebanon, in particular Hezbollah, in order to maintain pressure on Israel.
Furthermore, as Syria's "soft underbelly," Lebanon holds significant strategic value to Syria as a potential invasion route. Indeed, some observers speculate that Israel's return of the Golan Heights to Syria is a sine quo non for the Syrians to cease meddling in Lebanese affairs. In the meanwhile, Syrian hegemony over Lebanon was cemented following the 1989 Ta'if Accord which eventually ended the 15-year Lebanese civil war, and confirmed Syria's role as the primary powerbroker. The 1990s were marked by Syria's dominance of Lebanese affairs, bolstered by between 15,000 and 40,000 troops and a pervasive intelligence apparatus, with vast corruption networks enriching Syria's political elite.
Indeed, to fully understand Syria's role in Lebanon, it is essential to grasp how deeply enmeshed the two economies are. Both economies are characterized by sizeable informal sectors, by some estimates representing as much as 25 to 50 percent of GDP. It is in this informal realm that entrenched networks of patronage and corruption operate, linking the two countries through a complex web of informal business connections and family ties. In addition, a variety of statistics (e.g., labor, trade, and financial) attests to a mutual dependence that shows no sign of diminishing.
Diminished Syrian Hegemony
Despite these longstanding ties, Syrian dominance in Lebanon has diminished following its military withdrawal last year. At the same time, Hezbollah's relative power and independence have steadily increased beginning with the 2000 Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Gone are the days of Syrian rule by virtual diktat. No longer buttressed by a substantial military presence on the ground, Damascus has been forced to resort to a variety of less coercive tactics to insure that its interests are preserved. Indeed, Syrian influence, while still significant, no longer completely dominates the Lebanese political scene.
Evolving Alliance with Hezbollah
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a speech to supporters during a rally in Beirut's suburbs on Sept. 22, 2006. (AP Photo)
Syria's alliance with Hezbollah has evolved significantly over time, reflecting the ebb and flow of Syria's projection of power into Lebanon more broadly. During the era of Syria's outright dominance in Lebanon in the nineties, Hezbollah acted very much as the "junior partner" in the strategic relationship. In those years, Damascus held significant sway over the Shiite militia. Nonetheless, it is important to note that Hezbollah's ties to its Iranian patrons were much deeper, based on a shared religious identity and ideology.
Beginning in 2000, with the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad, Hezbollah gained greater standing in the alliance as its strength and influence increased within the Lebanese political arena and the new Syrian president struggled to gain his footing. Today, the alliance appears to be more akin to an equal partnership, with the Syrians seeking to exploit Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's burgeoning popularity on the Arab street to shore up domestic support.
Syrian ties to Hezbollah are best understood through the prism of Syria's strategic alliance with Iran. Mutual support for Hezbollah is one of the key elements that define Syrian-Iranian relations. Syria's role as a transshipment point for arms from Iran constitutes the critical element of its cooperation with Hezbollah. Damascus likely does not wield significant influence with regard to Hezbollah's strategic decision-making.
"Crony capitalism"an informal power system that derives significant benefits from corrupt practices such as bribery and smugglingcharacterizes both Syria and Lebanon. Control over these activities by a network of power brokers has perpetuated the weakening of state institutions, contributing to a status quo that favors corruption and rent-seeking over the establishment of strong state institutions. Ironically, Hezbollah's ascendance in Lebanon marks the first occasion that an alternate center of power that is not vested in these corrupt networks has gained traction in Lebanon. A decision by Hezbollah to redirect its attention to internal Lebanese issues and focus on corruption could disrupt its alliance with Syria.
Meanwhile, the vast network of patronage and corruption that characterized Syria's role in Lebanon prior to its military withdrawal may be somewhat altered, but it will not disappear. This past summer's war has created more opportunities for corruption as new reconstruction efforts get under way. Cronyism on both sides of the border will continue to militate against the establishment of transparent democracies in either Syria or Lebanon. Indeed, shifts toward a stronger state in either country will necessarily endanger the informal "crony capitalism" that dominates the other, resulting in a powerful tendency to preserve the status quo on both sides.
Two key factors are reshaping Syria's role in Lebanon: the Syrian military withdrawal and the political ascendance of Hezbollah, its key ally. Taken together, these developments have redefined the relationship, placing Hezbollah on more equal footing with Syria and transforming the alliance into more of an equal partnership. Lacking forces on the ground, Syria will likely rely increasingly on Hezbollah to guarantee that Syrian interests are protected.
Despite these changes, certain constants--mutually dependent economies, strong family ties, and murky corruption networks enriching elites on both sides of the border--form the bedrock of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. As Lebanon's internal situation grows more volatile, Syrian meddling likely will intensify as Damascus moves to insure that its interests are preserved in the ensuing political turmoil. The Syrians will likely work against the establishment of a strong, democratic government in Lebanon, which would threaten its vast networks of corruption and patronage. Ultimately, while the contours of Syria's role in Lebanon may be changing, its essence, borne of deeply entrenched political, economic, and social interests, remains the same.
Of Related Interest
This USIPeace Briefing was written by Mona Yacoubian, special adviser in the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Institute, which does not advocate specific policies.
The United States Institute of Peace is an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress. Its goals are to help prevent and resolve violent international conflicts, promote post-conflict stability and development, and increase conflict management capacity, tools, and intellectual capital worldwide. The Institute does this by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by directly engaging in peacebuilding efforts around the globe.
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