Last week, while being driven through Chicago, I heard one Flynt Leverett speaking in a news report aired on National Public Radio. Leverett, a former National Security Council official who now plies his trade at the New America Foundation, has long been an advocate of U.S. collaboration with Syria—and it's probably fair to add he would like to be a middleman in that collaboration. That's perhaps why he was quoted in his interview as saying that the Bush administration had "romanticized" the 2005 "Cedar Revolution", in which hundreds of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets demanding an end to 29 years of Syrian hegemony.
Rare are those today in the United States who look at Lebanon and remember that bracing year. That's not surprising given the heavy fighting this week in the north of the country between the Lebanese army and a group calling itself Fatah al-Islam, the detonation of bombs in Beirut on Sunday and Monday and in a mountain resort on Wednesday, and a persistent domestic political crisis as the pro-Syrian opposition continues to demand the resignation of the Lebanese government, which is backed by the parliamentary majority hostile to Syria. Lebanon's reputation is again that of a place cursed by chronic instability.
The interpretation is tendentious. Instability does not just materialize from the ether. It's always a mistake to oversimplify Lebanese politics, but it would be fair to say that what is under threat today is Lebanon's liberal future. And that future is threatened mainly by Syria, which never accepted its forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2003, after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The fighting in the north, the bomb blasts, and the political crisis are almost certainly the direct results of Syrian policy, despite what Damascus and its proliferating promoters are saying in Washington, as they try to peddle the idea that Syria holds a key to stability in Iraq. The explicit or implicit message of many of those worthies is that the U.S. is better off dealing with Syria over Iraq, even if it means surrendering to the Syrian regime "influence" in Lebanon.
However, the Syrians don't "do" influence. What they understand is unquestioned domination. On top of that, today they see an existential threat to their regime from the creation by the United Nations of a tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri killing. Syria is the only serious suspect in the crime, something that has been indirectly affirmed by U.N. investigators. The regime of President Bashar Assad fears that any accusation directed against it could be a fatal blow. The mixed Lebanese-international tribunal was to have been set up through constitutional Lebanese channels, but Syria's allies in Beirut blocked the process. In the coming weeks, unless developments in Lebanon encourage Russia and China to undermine the effort, the Security Council will establish the tribunal under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.
That's why the bombs continue to go off, and why there is fighting in north Lebanon. The international media have underlined that Fatah al-Islam is a group with ties to Al-Qaeda. That may be the case when it comes to specific militants, but the top leadership is most likely acting today on behalf of the Syrian security services, which have allowed the group access to Lebanon through Syria's borders. The group claims to be an Islamist offshoot of a pro-Syrian Palestinian group called Fatah al-Intifada. For many observers, however, that rift was probably contrived by Syria to provide it with deniability as it uses the group to destabilize Lebanon. Fatah al-Islam may indeed include Islamists, its funding may come from sources not necessarily Syrian, it may operate in collaboration with rather than as an extension of the Syrians, and its advanced weaponry may have been bought on the market, but its decision to launch attacks against the Lebanese army on Sunday was also very clearly a Syrian effort to show both Lebanon and the international community that a Chapter VII tribunal would have nefarious consequences.
If there was any doubt, in separate statements both Syria's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, and its ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, linked stability in Lebanon to what happened on the tribunal. Assad himself is said to have recently issued a threat (which he did not deny) to U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. Syrian determination seemed plain in that the bomb that exploded on Monday evening was placed near, among other places, the Russian cultural center. It's unlikely that this was a coincidence. Russia is already hesitant about passing the tribunal under Chapter VII, although it is unlikely to veto the step. One of the objectives of the bombing could have been to make Moscow think again on that front.
Can anyone take Lebanese liberalism seriously, given that the country, at least to outsiders, seems perennially divided? The Lebanese are undeniably divided, but not as much on Syria as you might think. The only powerful ally Syria still has in Lebanon is Hezbollah. Take away Hezbollah, and Syria's other comrades would shrivel away. Given that a vast majority of Sunnis, Christians, and Druze are opposed to the return of Syrian rule, with many Shiites themselves little enthusiastic about Syria, although they will not or cannot oppose Hezbollah in the polarized sectarian atmosphere today, the constituency for a Syrian restoration is small. However, Syria still has friends in high places. Lebanon's president and speaker of parliament are on Syria's side; Syria and its friends still have sway in the Lebanese army's officer corps; and Hezbollah is the best armed and cohesive military force in the country.
What is being described here may seem more like Lebanese factional politics than a liberal struggle. Perhaps, but Lebanon, precisely because of its factionalism, is a country that has long rested on an imperfectly liberal, sometimes even libertarian, social contract: the state remains fairly weak amid strong religious communities that are allowed to develop as they see fit. Factionalism has meant that no one side, least of all the state, can dominate the country's disparate groups. That's why Lebanon, unlike most Arab countries, has been unkind to budding dictators. The fractured political structure has also led to the growth of a fairly free and pluralistic media. The weakness at the center has left much space for a free-market economy–despite the persistence of oligopolies in some sectors–as well as openness to private investment and a carefree embrace of the benefits of globalization.
What lies on the other side? A Syrian state governed by a family propped up by intelligence services that have imprisoned thousands of political prisoners. This has prompted even "friends" of Syria to protest. The country is afflicted by an archaic economy, often a kleptocracy, dominated by those with ties to the regime. All media are controlled by the state or members of the ruling family, and the parliament primarily includes yes-men and -women. So little is expected of them that recently participation in parliamentary elections, though officially set at 56 percent, was estimated to be much lower by independent sources, with Syrian opposition figures saying it could have been in the single digits. There are no presidential elections, but in three days' time President Bashar al-Assad will hold a referendum to give the Syrian people the opportunity to renew his mandate for another seven years. Syria is not North Korea, but it is the very antithesis of what most countries aspire to becoming.
What Flynt Leverett wouldn't admit was that while the so-called Cedar Revolution may have been romanticized, there was good reason to see it as something novel in the Middle East. For the first time, for example, several intelligence and security chiefs were forced out of office because of popular discontent. Place that against the grim order the Syrians and their Lebanese allies, notably the theocratic, authoritarian Hezbollah, seek to resurrect. Many in the West want to close the door on an Arab world that seems permanently overcome by its pathologies. Fine, but in abandoning a weak but genuine liberal system they are also abandoning a part of themselves.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon.