Syria's Little Buddies


Reason contributing editor Michael Young parses the reshuffling of Lebanon's cabinet last week, and comes up with few reasons to be hopeful:

Reform is the last thing on the Syrians' mind. The new government serves more vital functions for them. It suffocates the Lahoud-Hariri rivalry, but also creates a veneer of broad political representation. What Syria has produced is a double paradox: a government that seems all-encompassing, when in fact it is largely made up of Syrian apprentices; and a disjointed group of politicized middleweights mandated to enforce the status quo, when such Cabinets usually tend to bicker.

The government also provides the Syrians with several options. It has the ideological coloring necessary to allow them to stifle Hizbullah if that becomes imperative, but also to cover for a full or partial Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon if Damascus deems this necessary to protect its eastern flank.

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  1. Well there are no minders or anything like that. In private conversation, anything goes-without, in my experience, any concern for who might be listening. (Obviously I wouldn’t claim Mohammed was a terrorist in the slums of Beirut or start talking down the Syrians at a Syrian checkpoint.) The media are not free, but it’s not clear to me where the red zones are. If you read the Daily Star you’ll get a sense of the tone which as far as I can tell is reproduced in the Arabic media: It’s indirect in a way that you’d get impatient with in the western media, but people generally get their points across.

    One big problem that I didn’t even know about until last year: You need a license to do political journalism. The licenses are closely kept enough that basically you can’t put out a paper or a news channel unless you’ve pleased the proper people in power. The government justifies this on the grounds that there are still so many exremists left over from the civil war that they can’t be allowed to incite people. Obviously a restraint on free expression like this is totally unacceptable and should be done away with.

    The Syrian presence in Lebanon is bad and is holding down the economic and cultural genius of Lebanon (and probably of Syria as well), but it’s not nearly as universal (or as universally unwelcome) as the Beltway information machine would have you believe. I can attest (and I make no claim for having talked to any sort of representative cross section) that people get much more exercised about Israel’s being in the Shebaa Farms (a miserable few hundred acres that even the UN has determined do not belong to Lebanon) than about Syria’s being everywhere else in the country. That having been said, it’s a smart move for the U.S. to press the “Syria occupies Lebanon” theme as hard as possible.

    Anyway, Michael has forgotten more about Lebanon than I’ll ever know, and he’d probably be a better guy to be speaking to these matters.

  2. A question: Is it awkward for a Lebanese politician to say he’d like the Syrians to leave…in somewhat the same way it was awkward for CNN to report the truth out of Baghdad?

  3. It’s awkward, but not that awkward. There are pro- and less-pro-Syrian leaders in Lebanon. I’d go so far as to say there are some more or less anti-Syrian leaders, though the folks at the USCFL believe all political officials in Lebanon are Syrian puppets, and to the degree that anything in the Middle East can be said to be wholly true or false, there is some truth to that. Suleiman Franjieh, for example, who is mentioned in Michael’s story as one of the new cabinet and a strong bet for the presidency next year, is a fairly dutiful Syrian client, as has generally been his family over the years. So is the president he looks set to replace–Emile Lahoud. Ironically, Lahoud, the Maronite president, is more pro-Syrian than Rafiq Hariri, the Muslim prime minister, who has the singular virtue of just wanting to make money.

    Basically, if you take any politician in Lebanon, he will probably have said at some point that it would be “constructive” for Syria to reduce its presence in Lebanon and at another point that Lebanon and Syria are more than brothers, one nation at heart, etc etc. There may even be some truth in both statements. Some student demonstrations against the Syrian presence have gone off without violence–though there may have been violence at others.

  4. Interesting. My question wasn’t sarcastic– I’m not so judgemental about CNN…I think they were worried about lives, and vexed with the issue of some access, versus none.
    Are there the same concerns across the spectrum in Lebanon? Are some questions too unsafe to broach? I don’t know that much about the situation.

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