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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 18:39 GMT 19:39 UK
Lebanon still faces tense future
By Sebastian Usher
BBC News

Lebanese civilians wave as Syrian troops pull out of Lebanon
Many Lebanese are only to happy to see the Syrians leave

Many in Lebanon doubted, up to the last minute, that it would really happen, but Syria has finally pulled all of its troops out of the country.

What the soldiers are leaving behind - apart from the detritus of their abandoned military posts and checkpoints - are more than a few questions about Lebanon's future.

The first practical question is how complete the withdrawal - both of Syria's troops and, more crucially in Lebanese eyes, its intelligence agents - really is.

A team of UN experts is due to verify that it has been 100% completed. If the pullout is given the UN seal of approval, that will go some way towards allaying the suspicions of the Lebanese over Syria's sincerity.

But Syria's involvement in Lebanon goes far deeper than the stationing of its troops.

Ever since the civil war was finally brought to an end in Lebanon under its auspices, Syria has been the country's key power broker.

Equal footing

A generation of Lebanese politicians has had to make deals with Damascus in order to govern the country.

Even some leading members of the anti-Syrian opposition have not been immune to this. And many are realistic about Syria's influence.

For many Lebanese, the fact that the elections will be going ahead at all is reason for optimism

The veteran Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt - who has been one of the main spokesmen of the opposition - said recently: "The security of Lebanon is linked to that of Syria and vice versa. We do not want, God forbid, to become a centre for plotting against Syria."

The opposition is hoping the parliamentary elections due to be held before the end of May will give them the balance of power.

But there is unlikely to be a witch-hunt of politicians with links to Syria and they will still have a voice.

Old antagonisms

For many Lebanese, the fact that the elections are going ahead at all is reason enough for optimism.

But the tensions between the different groups in Lebanon - principally between Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and the Druze - are undoubtedly much more clearly defined than they have been for many years.

Farewell parade for withdrawing Syrian soldiers
The withdrawal ends a 29-year deployment in Lebanon

The Syrian occupation both muffled these divisions and failed to heal them.

Since the shock of the assassination of the country's most prominent political and business figure, Rafik Hariri, in February, the talk in public in Lebanon has been of unity.

But in private, old antagonisms and fears are quick to spring to the surface.

It will be the task of any new government in Lebanon to try to confront and resolve these tensions.

Difficult choice

The ambiguities over the role of the Shia militant group, Hezbollah, will also have to be tackled.

Hezbollah has evolved into a political and social force, but it still maintains its militia in the south.

Supported by Syria and Iran, it has never given up its right to bear arms, despite a clause in the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the civil war stipulating that all militias must disarm.

The US describes Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation and Israel says it remains a major threat.

A new Lebanese government will have to make a difficult choice: demand that Hezbollah disarm, or allow it to continue as a quasi-approved militia.

The former risks a confrontation with Hezbollah and the country's Shia but the latter would undermine the government's authority.

Regional hub

On the economic front, there are hopes the Syrian troops will take with them the corruption and bribe-taking that characterised their occupation.

There is also some resentment about the mass influx of Syrian workers but some parts of the country, like the Bekaa Valley, have grown to rely on the cheap imported labour.

Lebanon has long been hoping to achieve Rafik Hariri's goal of reconstituting itself as one of the economic hubs of the Middle East.

Mr Hariri's killing shook the economy badly, but not fatally but stability is needed.

Reassuring foreign investors that Lebanon is as safe a bet as can be offered in the volatile region it inhabits will be an important challenge as will be establishing new relations with Damascus on a new footing.

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