- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010


There is a wonderful spirit in Lebanon: The people and the land never give up. Despite a fractious and multiconfessional society, plus ongoing foreign domination and invasions, the country has held together. Now, with anti-Syrian Prime Minister Saad Hariri being cajoled by Saudi Arabia to be more accepting of Syrian influence in his country, the times continue to be precarious.

Seventy percent the size of Connecticut, tiny Lebanon has been the center of turmoil and controversy for centuries. Through it all, its 4 million inhabitants have managed to reconstitute their destroyed cities and shell-shocked economy thanks to Lebanon’s solid education system, national pride and extraordinary stamina.

Since independence from France in 1943, its recent history has included a devastating civil war (1975-90), incursions and occupation by Syria (1976-2005) and Israel (1978 and 1982-2000) and a bloody stream of political assassinations, most notably of the current prime minister’s father, Rafiq Hariri - popularly known as “Mr. Lebanon” - on Valentine’s Day 2005.

Nonstop crises created an exodus of about 500,000, plus 200,000 killed or critically wounded and 1 million displaced. However, gritty citizens of all religious stripes - Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims; Maronite, Melchite, Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians; secretive Druze; and not a few Jews - remain determined to survive in arguably the most beautiful part the Middle East.

The iconic Rafiq Hariri, a mathematics teacher who emigrated to Saudi Arabia and made a fortune in construction, returned to Lebanon, where he was five times named head of government. Equally important, Rafiq Hariri, whom this observer knew well in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, determined to rebuild his war-torn homeland, especially Beirut and his hometown, Sidon.

Achieving remarkable success and profit, he was accused of bilking impoverished owners, paying 15 percent of market value for devastated properties with shares in his development company, Solidere. (Admittedly biased, I accepted his contention that owners received fair payment because no one else was willing or able to risk rebuilding central Beirut, which he previously had undertaken, only to have the project destroyed by renewed fighting.)

Hariri’s assassination - his vehicle destroyed and 21 persons killed by more than 2,000 pounds of explosives in Beirut’s rebuilt center - was orchestrated by Syrian intelligence agents, according to a U.N. investigator, respected German judge Detlev Mehlis. Lebanese citizens mounted massive, unrelenting protests following the assassination, forcing Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops in June 2005 after 29 years of involvement in the country.

Fast-forward to March 2010. Saad Hariri, prime minister since November 2009, is summoned by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose government has strongly backed the Hariris’ political activities. The 86-year-old ruler of Arabia’s strongest nation tells Mr. Lebanon’s 40-year-old son to accommodate Syrian interests in Lebanon and to order the media not to criticize Syria and its government.

Saad Hariri returned and ordered all media supporting his Movement of the Future, founded by Rafiq Hariri, to stop criticizing Syria, despite Syrian President Bashar Assad’s having physically threatened the elder Hariri just six months before his murder. Undoubtedly extraordinarily difficult for the younger Mr. Hariri, his action underscores the pragmatic determination of the Lebanese to survive Arabia’s tangled geopolitics.

Saudi Arabia has strong arguments for its demand. Riyadh is making every effort for Syria to drop its close relationship with Iran. Indeed, a cooling of relations between Damascus and Tehran could be a boon to both Iraq and Israel.

Iran and Syria have diverging interests in Iraq, which lies between them. As Iran moves to control Iraq following U.S. withdrawal, Syria wants its eastern neighbor, Iraq, to remain stable and be neutral.

The Iran-Syria entente has enabled Tehran to provide massive support for Hezbollah forces based in Syria and especially in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah, created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime in 1979, has become the strongest military force in Lebanon and a grave threat to Israel. A cooling of relations between Syria and Iran would impede Hezbollah’s Iranian lifeline.

The February visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus undoubtedly upset many Arab leaders, with a visa-scrapping agreement signaling even closer relations between the two countries. Moreover, the Iranian demagogue’s visit included a dinner for Mr. Assad, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who rarely appears in public because he fears Israel’s wrath for having provoked the 2006 war.

I have confirmed the continued buildup of Iranian missiles, shipped via Syria, in Lebanon’s Hezbollah-occupied Bekaa Valley. Tehran’s Hezbollah client thus becomes an even stronger internal Lebanese force and greater threat to neighboring Israel. Indeed, several Lebanese analysts think this could be the tipping point for another Israeli invasion.

All this leaves Lebanon on the brink, as usual. My bet is that the Lebanese will stand by their land. During a recent visit, I talked with business leaders, politicians, taxi drivers and waiters. Each and every person was solidly determined that peace and tranquillity would finally break through the conflicted clouds that have long bedeviled Lebanon.

My wife and I passed numerous military road checks, and a bomb was detonated in Tyre while we were there; frustration continues apace with widespread corruption. However, the extensive commercial and residential construction virtually everywhere is a critical sign of Lebanese hope and commitment, flatly ignoring the worldwide economic downturn.

Perhaps most encouraging was the dedication Oct. 13 of the new Olayan School of Business complex at the American University of Beirut, funded by the family of the late Saudi business leader and 30-year university trustee, Suliman S. Olayan. The pre-eminent business educational institution between Europe and South Asia, the school trains 1,100 full-time and 500 part-time degree candidates, 30 percent of whom are women. Reflecting Lebanon’s powerful tug on its citizens, Dean George Najjar resigned a professorship at the University of Southern California 20 years ago to return home and build the school.

At the dedication ceremony, the Lebanese spirit was expressed by then-Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Saad Hariri’s predecessor, when he characterized the university as “an oasis … solidly connected to its territory, deep-rooted in its surroundings, providing a valuable space for openness, tolerance, moderation, dialogue and acceptance of others.”

That sentiment reflects not just the university and its business school: It is what most Lebanese are determined to create for their country, whatever it may yet take.

John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst and former diplomat who has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years based in Beirut; Cairo; and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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