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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 10March 14, 2005

lead article
Lebanese gov’t resigns amid sustained protests
Under U.S. pressure, Syrian gov’t turns over Iraqi Baathists
AP/Nati Harnik
Some 25,000 protesters converge on Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, Lebanon, February 28 despite a government ban on demonstrations. The prime minister of Lebanon resigned that day.

Lebanese prime minister Omar Karami resigned February 28 in face of broad mobilizations against the years-long intervention by the Syrian government in Lebanon. After hearing the news, thousands of people celebrated that night in the streets of the capital, Beirut.

For days, tens of thousands had demonstrated in Lebanese cities calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country and removal of the Syrian-backed government of Karami and President Emile Lahoud. Chanting “Syria out!” and “Lahoud, your turn is coming!” the protesters identified the Syrian and Lebanese governments as responsible for the assassination two weeks earlier of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, a prominent politician who had spoken in opposition to the Syrian government’s presence in Lebanon.

Some 14,000 Syrian troops are currently in Lebanon. For nearly three decades, the Syrian government has intervened in politics there, hoping to assure that Beirut will support the policies of the Syrian rulers and will act as a buffer for Damascus against the Israeli government.

Under the political pressure cooker created by the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, working people and others in Lebanon have stepped into the political space opening as the Baath Party regime in Syria weakens. The open move last fall by the Syrian government to push through a change in Lebanon’s constitution to keep the Lahoud government in power, followed by the assassination February 14 of Hariri, detonated the long-simmering and widespread popular indignation against the meddling of Damascus in the country’s affairs.

Washington and Paris have seized on the development to vie for greater influence in Lebanon and seek to further advance their competing interests in the region. Washington has continued to press Damascus to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and to turn over Iraqi Baathists and others who U.S. officials say are using Syria as a base to finance and organize the armed campaign against the U.S.-led occupation forces and others inside Iraq. After Hariri’s assassination, Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus, Syria’s capital. So far, the Syrian government has continued to accede to this pressure, most recently turning over 30 leading Iraqi Baathists to the Iraqi government and beginning to withdraw its troops in Lebanon to an area closer to the Syrian border.  
Lebanon’s government collapses
Karami announced his decision to resign February 28 at a special session of parliament. This parliament’s term of office expires at the end of May. Opposition political parties are demanding a “neutral” government to organize elections and investigate the assassination.

On the day Karami resigned, 25,000 protesters gathered in Martyrs’ Square in defiance of a government ban on protests that began that morning. The interior minister ordered police and troops to take “all measures necessary to maintain security and order and prevent demonstrations and gatherings.”

“Security forces set up roadblocks to limit the flow of young Lebanese streaming into Beirut,” the Financial Times reported, “but closer to the site of the protest sympathetic army officers allowed small crowds through.” Working people and others of various backgrounds have seized the greater political space opened up by the divisions among the Lebanese rulers to give voice to their rejection of the Lahoud government and its backers in Damascus.

Support for the demand for Syrian troop withdrawal had spread beyond its traditional right-wing backers based in the Maronite Christian elite even before the assassination of Hariri. A Sunni Muslim, Hariri served as Lebanon’s prime minister for most of the last 12 years and was an important figure in the imperialist powers’ plans to install a more compliant regime in Beirut.

In September 2004 Hariri played a role in the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which put the stamp of the “international community” behind the demand for withdrawal of Syrian forces. The following month he resigned his post in protest over the parliament’s approval of a constitutional amendment that extended the term of office of President Lahoud.

Walid Jumblatt, whose Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) had long sided with Syrian forces, has shifted his stance and in September “spearheaded opposition” to the extension to Lahoud’s term as president, the BBC reported. The PSP is based in the Druze population, a religious denomination derived from Islam, and was a major component of the anti-imperialist forces in the 1975-1990 civil war in Lebanon.

The February 16 funeral procession for Hariri—joined by more than 200,000 people—turned into a political demonstration. The Washington Post reported that many carried banners protesting the Syrian military presence with slogans such as “Syria Out” and “Hey Syria—Who’s Next?”

Opposition forces continued to demonstrate at Martyrs’ Square. On February 21 more than 100,000 protested there, the Lebanon Daily Star reported.

Owners of the factories, banks, and other businesses organized a national “strike” to coincide with the day of the parliamentary vote of confidence that led to Karami’s resignation. “The economic authorities,” the capitalist forces said in announcing the action, “call for the formation of a new and neutral government which has the people’s support and the trust of the international community and Arab countries.” The teachers union joined in the opposition “strike,” Agence France-Presse reported.

The breadth of the opposition has forced political groups that traditionally aligned themselves with Damascus to take a conciliatory position toward the opposition. Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militia that has been historically backed by Syria, has met with a top aide to Jumblatt and other opposition figures who have urged the powerful militia to back their cause. “Our only choice is dialogue if we care for Lebanon,” Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was quoted as saying. “Hezbollah is a main partner in any future coalition and an essential component which enjoys authority and credibility,” said Jumblatt.  
Damascus’s role in Lebanon
The Syrian government ordered its troops into Lebanon in April 1976 in order to block a revolutionary upsurge among the Lebanese toilers from toppling the government that largely disenfranchised the Muslim majority. The political arrangement in Beirut—sponsored by French imperialism—guaranteed control of parliament to the wealthy from the Maronite minority.

Lebanon’s population of nearly 4 million is about 70 percent Muslim and 30 percent Christian. The Maronite Christian minority had served traditionally as the base of French colonial rule in Lebanon prior to gaining independence after World War II. Through Paris and Washington’s intervention, this minority maintained a disproportionate representation in Lebanon’s government in the decades after.

Hafez Assad, the father and predecessor of the current Syrian president, Bashar Assad, favored modifications in the Lebanese political structure that would strengthen Muslim—and thereby, he hoped, Syrian—influence in Lebanon. He feared the consequences for his own rule, however, if this were to be carried out by the revolutionary struggle of the Lebanese workers and farmers.

As the nationalist forces, aided by forces under the command of the Palestine Liberation Organization, began to gain force in the civil war, Damascus stepped in on the side of the right-wing Christian regime to try to head off a revolution. Fearing the workers and farmers of Lebanon more than its pro-imperialist Christian rulers, Damascus dealt a cruel blow to the masses fighting for majority rule. The first round of fighting in 1975-76 ended in a stalemate.

Since that reactionary intervention in Lebanon’s internal affairs, Syrian forces have remained in the country. Concerned with the Israeli regime’s repeated invasions of Lebanon, the Syrian rulers have also looked upon Lebanon as a buffer against Israel.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the capitalist regimes in Damascus and throughout the region increasingly sought to find an accommodation with Washington. These forces use their state power—including naked violence and aggression—to advance their class interests against rival regimes, as well as against workers and farmers at home.

The Syrian rulers openly aligned themselves with Washington in its war on Iraq in 1991. In exchange, the U.S. government turned a blind eye to the actions of Damascus in Lebanon. In October 1990, as Washington was putting together its coalition for the invasion of Iraq, Syrian troops, tanks, and warplanes drove Lebanese Gen. Michel Aoun from the presidential palace in Beirut and installed the government of Elias Hrawi.

In testimony before Congress at the time, U.S. secretary of state James Baker said, “We are appreciative of the role that Syria is playing in support of the international coalition in the Gulf.” When asked whether the administration had given a green light to the Syrian intervention in Lebanon, he said, “Syria was there at the request of the legitimate government of Lebanon, a government that we recognize and a government that we support.”  
Washington, Paris press Syria
The government of Bashar Assad—who became president in 2000 after the death of his father—has taken a more openly conciliatory stance toward Washington in face of the escalating imperialist war drive in the Mideast. Since Washington launched its “war on terrorism” in 2001, Damascus has “provided important intelligence support to Washington in its fight against al Qaeda,” the Wall Street Journal noted at the time of the U.S. assault on Iraq.

Washington turned up the pressure on Beirut and Damascus, shortly after taking control of Iraq in the spring of 2003. U.S. officials accused the Syrian government of supplying Baghdad with military equipment and “harboring fugitives” from the deposed Iraqi government. “We hope that all nations in the region will now review their past practices and behavior,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the time.

Following Lebanese prime minister Karami’s resignation, U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and her French counterpart, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, didn’t ease their fire on Damascus. In a joint statement at a March 1 press conference in London they repeated their governments’ “call for the full and immediate implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. That means the full and immediate withdrawal of all Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon.” They also insisted that the vote for a new parliament in the spring include “an international observer presence prior to and during the elections.”

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of Washington, has also felt the pressure to fall in line with the U.S. rulers’ aggressive drive in the region, which is carried out in the name of bringing “liberty and democracy” to the Middle East. On February 26 Mubarak asked the Egyptian parliament to change the constitution to allow some space for contending candidates in presidential elections. He has ruled under a state of emergency since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was killed in 1981.  
Retreat by Damascus
The Syrian government turned over to Baghdad 30 officials of the Iraqi Baathist party February 27, including Saddam Hussein’s half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim Hassan, Iraqi officials reported.

Hassan had directed the political spy apparatus under the Hussein regime. Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two years ago, he had reportedly been involved in organizing and funding the Baathist-based forces that have carried out bombings and other attacks on civilians and U.S. and Iraqi forces. Operating out of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Hassan and the other 29 were arrested in Hasakah, 30 miles from the Iraqi border, according to the Associated Press.

In an attempt to undercut demands for full withdrawal of its forces, Damascus announced February 24 a “redeployment” of its soldiers in Lebanon to the Bekaa Valley along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. “The important withdrawals that have been carried out so far and will be carried out later will be done in agreement with Lebanon against the backdrop of the Taif Agreement and the mechanisms it entails,” said Syrian deputy foreign minister Waleed Al-Mualem, according to Islam Online.

The 1989 Taif Agreement between the Lebanese and Syrian governments called for the movement of Syrian troops back to the border of the two countries, followed by discussions on the duration of the presence of Syrian forces. They are currently centered in the mountains above Beirut, along the eastern border of Lebanon, and around the northern town of Tripoli.

The White House responded to the Syrian government’s announcement of troop redeployments by repeating its demand for immediate withdrawal. “Our view on redeployment is that [UN] Resolution 1559 calls in clear and unequivocal terms for all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon,” said State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher at a February 25 press briefing. “That needs to happen immediately, and we’re looking for action, not just statements.”
Related articles:
Using political space opening in Mideast

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