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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 March, 2005, 13:12 GMT
Lebanon's rocky road from Damascus
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Beirut

The Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad announced a redeployment of his forces in Lebanon on Saturday amid a torrent of calls for him to withdraw his troops completely. Street protests have also continued in Beirut demanding that Syria's 14,000 soldiers go home.
Syrians read al-Thawra newspaper in Damascus
Nerves are jangling in Damascus as well as Beirut

The Lebanese government had just fallen, and I needed to get from Damascus to Beirut in a hurry.

It is only a couple of hours' drive between the two capitals, but no-one wanted to take me there. The taxi drivers in Damascus were worried they would be lynched when they arrived in Lebanon because anti-Syrian feeling there was so strong.

Not likely, but anyway, I persuaded a Syrian driver to take me just over the border into Lebanon, where I would be collected by a Lebanese taxi and taken on to Beirut.

Perhaps inevitably, this cold war style handover did not quite go as planned.

There was a mix up over the rendezvous, and me and my Syrian driver were left waiting for half an hour at a pastry and coffee shop just inside Lebanon.

I noticed the locals there looking at me rather suspiciously, but thought nothing more of it.

The Lebanese driver finally arrived and picked me up.

But a few minutes down the road we were stopped at a checkpoint on the windy mountain road. It was immediately clear this was not good.

A couple of men in unidentified military uniforms pulled us abruptly from the car, another man with a gun, and wearing a balaclava, watched on.


Oh no, I thought, this is just too much of a cliché. I really do not want to be a kidnap victim in Lebanon. That would be back to the bad old days.

Military intervention begins in 1976
30,000 troops in Lebanon during 1980s, currently 15,000
Syrian forces crucial in ending the Lebanese civil war in 1990 and maintaining peace
Calls for departure of the Syrians increase gradually with Israeli withdrawal in 2000
UN resolution calling for withdrawal of all foreign forces passed in Sept 2004

We were frogmarched into the office, then slowly the truth emerged.

The Lebanese soldiers who stopped us had had a call from the coffee shop up the road.

The locals, seeing me, a Westerner, in a Syrian registered car, assumed I had been kidnapped. They had telephoned for help.

With smiles and handshakes we were allowed to go on to Beirut, where demonstrators in the main square were still celebrating the fall of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government.

You see, what is going on in Lebanon is not just a re-run of the peaceful revolutions in Ukraine or Georgia. This is a lot more dangerous, and people in Syria and Lebanon are a lot more scared.

There is the question, first of all, of Syria.

Nobody knows for sure whether the Syrians did order the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri last month.

On the face of it, it does seem amazingly counter-productive. The killing sparked this whole wave of anti-Syrian protests.

But the Syrians have used similarly brutal methods to maintain their control here in the past, and there are elements in Damascus, particularly in the intelligence services, who are sufficiently out of touch to think they could get away with it again.

Living in fear

One of Syria's leading opponents in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, has retreated to his mountain palace, now virtually a fortress, fearing he could be the Syrians' next target.

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt had hosted opposition talks at his home

He told me he had had a fateful conversation with Rafik Hariri, shortly before the former prime minister's death.

"He said, they might kill you, or they might kill me," said Mr Jumblatt, "and, well, it was his turn."

Walid Jumblatt described how Syria maintains control here with a network of intelligence agents.

"Big brother is everywhere." As he put it.

And everyone who knows the Syrian government says the instinct, when cornered, is usually to react with force.

The other big issue is Lebanon's own complicated religious and ethnic mix.

Strolling along the glorious Beirut corniche, with its luxury hotels and skyscrapers, it is easy to forget that Lebanon's vicious civil war ended barely 15 years ago.

Lurking in the background is the fear of that chaos returning.

The demonstrators in Martyr Square are young, educated and pro-Western. They will tell you that all of Lebanon is united around their revolution, but it is not quite that simple.

Hezbollah's members are hardly about to come out on the streets in support if a pro-American government comes to power

To take one example, one of the largest factions in Lebanon is the Hezbollah.

The "party of God", political party, social services network, and, according to Washington, terrorist organisation.

Hezbollah has credibility because it helped expel the Israelis from Southern Lebanon. It now gets support from Syria and Iran.

Hezbollah's members are hardly about to come out on the streets in support if a pro-American government comes to power here.

So, away from the happy celebrations and youthful protests in Martyr Square, people understand those complications.

They understand that this may not be the smooth "cedar revolution" as the PR men have already slickly named it.

That is why the Lebanese are nervous enough to assume someone changing cars on a dark night in the mountains, is actually being kidnapped.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 5 March, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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