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Monday, 16 April, 2001, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
Syria: The power in Lebanon
Syrian anti-aircraft
Syrian anti-aircraft position near by the bombed radar station
BBC Middle East Analyst Sebastian Usher

One effect of the latest crisis in the Middle East has been to put the spotlight back on Syria and its role in Lebanon.


The Syrian presence has over the years grown to be resented by the majority of Lebanese

Syria first moved into Lebanon in 1976 - the second year of the civil war there.

They returned in force 14 years later to seal the end of the conflict.

Under the peace accord, Syria was meant to start pulling out its troops within two years, but it never has.

Syria says it is there to protect the Lebanese from Israel and it plays the key, power-broking role in the country.

But Lebanese calls for Syria to withdraw have recently got louder.

Resentment grows

The Syrian presence has over the years grown to be resented by the majority of Lebanese - not just the Christians who felt themselves the biggest losers under the peace agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war.

Syria in Lebanon
First went in 1976
Crucial to establishing ceasefire that ended the Lebanese civil war
30,000 troops in Lebanon today
Has tight hold on Lebanese economy and politics
Syrian soldiers, checkpoints and huge posters of the late President Hafez Assad became part of the Lebanese landscape. So did the fear of informers.

The Lebanese Government came to be seen as a Syrian mouthpiece. Elections were generally believed to be rigged - until last year when Syria allowed a number of MPs to be elected without its endorsement.

Syria undermined

The Israeli pullout from southern Lebanon almost a year ago undermined the Syrian argument that its troops protected Lebanon from Israel.


Anti-Syrian feeling has also been fuelled by frustration at the way Damascus appears to have squeezed the Lebanese economy to its own advantage

Many Lebanese saw it differently. They felt Syria - through its control of Hezbollah - was once again using their country as a proxy battleground.

Last year, there were mass anti-Syrian demonstrations. As a result, the Syrians reduced their checkpoints and redeployed some troops. But the protests continued.

In the past few weeks, the return to Lebanon from a trip to the United States by the openly anti-Syrian head of the Maronite Christian Church, drew more than 100,000 protestors against Syria's presence; a counter demonstration in favour of Syria organised by Hezbollah drew an equal number.

Last week, the government stepped in to ban any more protests.

Frustration

Anti-Syrian feeling has also been fuelled by frustration at the way Damascus appears to have squeezed the Lebanese economy to its own advantage.


Many Lebanese believe the United States tacitly ceded control of Lebanon to Syria in return for its acquiescence in the wider Middle East peace track

It is estimated that more than one million Syrians now work in Lebanon - once as menial workers, now many hold more senior posts.

And Lebanese farmers launched unprecedented protests earlier this year against what they denounced as the flooding of the Lebanese market by cheap Syrian imports.

But the Lebanese are fatalistic. Many believe the United States tacitly ceded control of Lebanon to Syria in return for its acquiescence in the wider Middle East peace track.

Meanwhile, the still open wounds in Lebanon's divided society make any consistent, united opposition to Syria unlikely.

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