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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 September, 2004, 20:37 GMT 21:37 UK
Syria feels squeeze over Lebanon
By Kim Ghattas
BBC, in Beirut

It has been a tough week for Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is under pressure
Israel has threatened it with a military strike, and the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Syria's continued interference in neighbouring Lebanon.

Even France, traditionally Syria's friend, has joined the chorus of countries critical of the Syrian regime.

Washington and Paris may have had bitter disagreements this last year over Iraq, but Damascus has somehow managed to bring the two Western powers together in condemnation.

Along with Washington, Paris sponsored the Security Council resolution which called for Lebanon's sovereignty and political independence to be respected, and demanded that all foreign forces withdraw from Lebanon.

Syria still has more than 15,000 troops stationed in the country.

The direct mention of Syria had to be removed from the draft for the resolution to get the nine votes needed to pass.

US views changing

The resolution also demands the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon - a clear reference to Hezbollah, the Syrian-backed guerrilla movement still active on Lebanon's border with Israel.

Syria has continuously used Hezbollah as a pressure tool on its arch-foe Israel, and it sees Lebanon as a vital buffer between it and Israel.

Syrian soldiers guard a radar station in the Bekaa Valley
Syrian forces have been in Lebanon since 1976
Syrian troops first entered Lebanon at the beginning of the civil war there, in 1976.

But Damascus' grip over Lebanon was consolidated in the wake of the first Gulf War.

After late president Hafez al-Assad sent troops to fight alongside the coalition forces to liberate Kuwait, he was given the green light by Washington to put an end to the violence still raging in Lebanon.

But more than a decade on, Washington's views of Syria's presence in Lebanon, as well as its views on the Syrian regime's foreign policy, are changing.

Earlier this year, the US slapped sanctions on Syria and called on it, among other things, to withdraw from Lebanon. Damascus was told to stop its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Compromise

Thursday's UN resolution about Syria's interference in Lebanon came a day ahead of a vote in the Lebanese parliament to amend the constitution and keep the current president Emile Lahoud in power for another three years.

His six-year mandate was meant to come to an end in November, and the constitution forbids presidents from serving two consecutive terms.

Initially, Syria had wanted to get Mr Lahoud, its biggest ally in Lebanon, re-elected for a full six-year term.

Widespread opposition to the move inside and outside Lebanon appeared to have convinced Syria to settle for a mandate extension.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud
Emile Lahoud is Syria's biggest ally in Lebanon
But that was the only compromise Syria went for. Despite the UN resolution, the constitutional amendment and thereby the mandate extension was approved 96-29 in a parliament vote.

Opponents of the bill had hoped that international displeasure with Syria's intervention in the elections would encourage more legislators to vote against the constitutional amendment.

But several said they had received anonymous calls threatening them over their stance opposing the vote.

The White House responded immediately, saying the vote had made a mockery of democracy.

Why Syria was so insistent on keeping Mr Lahoud in power is unclear. He has all the qualities Syria would want in a Lebanese president - his loyalty to Syria is unquestioned, his support for Hezbollah unwavering.

But considering Syria's grip over Lebanon, an election would still have produced a pro-Syrian president and many are wondering why Damascus therefore did not just allow the elections to go ahead and avoid all the criticism.

Blunders

Lebanese deputy Nassib Lahoud, a leading opposition figure and the president's cousin, said Syria's insistence on keeping Lebanon under its thumb had "provoked the intervention of the United Nations and put us in conflict with international law".

Lebanon might also find itself a target of Israel. This week, Israeli officials accused Damascus and Hezbollah of playing some kind of role in attacks carried out by Palestinian militant groups in Israel.

Last October, after a suicide attack in Haifa, Israeli jets carried out a rare - though limited - raid against a target just outside the Syrian capital.

Israel has now promised the next strike will be much tougher.

Observers say the Syrian regime's foreign policy these days is made up of a series of blunders and miscalculations which are increasingly isolating Damascus and putting it at odds not only with the US but also the EU.


SEE ALSO:
Lebanon extends president's term
03 Sep 04  |  Middle East
UN backs Lebanon sovereignty call
03 Sep 04  |  Middle East
Move to bolster Lebanon president
28 Aug 04  |  Middle East
Lebanon president 'wants to stay'
26 Aug 04  |  Middle East
Country profile: Lebanon
09 Jul 04  |  Country profiles


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