- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

The assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister and self-made billionaire Rafik Hariri in Beirut Monday has brought Syria’s military presence in Lebanon under renewed scrutiny and has increased pressure for its withdrawal.

Historically, Syria has never fully accepted Lebanon’s independenceand considers its smaller neighbor as part and parcel of greater Syria.

This week’s assassination of Mr. Hariri and its aftermath illustrated the growing anger of the Lebanese toward their country’s larger neighbor.

Mr. Hariri’s family called yesterday for an internationally led investigation into his assassination ” a move opposed by Lebanon’s Syrian-controlled government.

Many Lebanese, including Mr. Hariri’s supporters, accuse Syria and the Lebanese government of assassinating Mr. Hariri and killing 16 others with a bomb Monday.

They fear that a Lebanese-led investigation will be little more than a whitewash.

Even before the deployment of a Syrian-dominated Arab peacekeeping force in 1976, Syria’s presence had been felt in Beirut.

For years, any politician aspiring to the job of Lebanese prime minister needed to obtain Damascus’ blessing.

To better understand Lebanon’s predicament, one needs to delve in the country’s history.

When Paris granted Lebanon its independence in November 1941 after 20 years of French rule, a “national pact” was reached among the three main factions in Lebanon.

The Maronite Christians ” at the time the majority ” were given the presidency, Sunni Muslims the prime ministership and Shi’ites the post of National Assembly leader. This holds true today.

This arrangement worked until 1958, when a first civil war broke out and President Camille Chamoun requested the intervention of U.S. forces. President Eisenhower dispatched the Marines, which met no resistance, and order was quickly established.

But two unrelated incidents had direct consequences for Lebanon: the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and clashes in Jordan between the Palestinian guerrillas and Jordanian troops in September 1970.

Both events sent waves of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon

Attacks by Palestinian commandos on Israel brought retaliatory raids against Lebanon, and Lebanese civilians often were caught in the crossfire.

Shi’ite villagers from southern Lebanon, where the Palestinian guerrillas had established themselves near the Israeli border, fled north and relocated in what became a belt of poverty surrounding Beirut.

Tension between Palestinian militias and Lebanese Christians forces escalated and, in April 1973, Israeli commandos carried out a daring raid into the heart of Beirut, killing three top leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The raid resulted in fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and Palestinian militias.

It also marked a turning point in Lebanon’s recent history as it convinced the Lebanese Christians that a major clash with the Palestinians was inevitable.

Christian political parties, primarily the Phalange and Mr. Chamoun’s National Liberal Party, started arming themselves and training their militias.

The trigger that started the 1975 civil war is usually attributed to the now infamous “bus incident.”

On Sunday, April 13, 1975, Pierre Gemayel, the Phalangist leader was inaugurating a church in the Christian suburb of Ain El Remmaneh. A group of armed men drove by the church, firing at the gathered crowd.

A short while later, a bus carrying Palestinians returning from a rally to their homes in a refugee camp passed in front of the church.

Thinking they were about to be attacked anew, the Christians, who had brought in reinforcements, opened fire on the bus and killed 26 Palestinians.

Other incidents that helped raise the stakes included Prime Minister Rachid Karame’s declaring that the Christians were no longer the majority and should not continue to hold the presidency. This frightened the Christian community, which had become a minority.

As the civil war gathered momentum, Syria became involved, at first politically, in a series of unsuccessful attempts to halt fighting.

But by March 1976, the effort collapsed, and the Lebanese Army broke up along religious lines ” Muslims on one side, forming the Lebanese Arab Army, and Christians on the other.

As fighting escalated, Christians found themselves losing to better-armed Palestinians and their leftist-Muslim alliance known as the Lebanese National Movement.

The Christians sought help from Syrian President Hafez Assad, and in May 1976, the first units of Syrian forces entered Lebanon to support the Christian militias.

They were welcomed by the Christians with rice and rose water and by rocket-propelled grenades and artillery by the Palestinian alliance.

A series of meetings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo established the 30,000-strong Arab Deterrent Force, legitimizing Syria’s military presence in Lebanon.

Syria dispatched about 27,000 troops, while a token forces of 3,000 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and Sudan made up the balance.

In due course, the Arab peacekeeping force was deactivated, but Syrian forces remained in Lebanon.

By 1978, the tables had turned. Christians were fighting Syrians, and Syrian forces undertook a massive bombardment of Christian East Beirut.

The exact toll of the Lebanese civil war is not known although the figure of 44,000 dead and 180,000 wounded is often advanced.

Syria now justifies its presence in Lebanon by saying it is there to ensure stability in the country and that it is defending its southwestern flank from an Israeli attack. Syria and Israel are officially still in a state of war.

In the past year, Lebanese opposition to Syria’s continued occupation of Lebanon has grown consistently as several prominent Lebanese politicians openly voiced their wish to see Syria leave.

Mr. Hariri recently had joined the movement pushing for Syria’s withdrawal.

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