Analysis Brief

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Pressure Seems to Ease on Syria

Prepared by: Esther Pan
March 10, 2006


It's been more than a year since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri shook the status quo in the Middle East. The massive demonstrations in Lebanon that followed Hariri's death, combined with intense international pressure, forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon after nearly thirty years of occupation. But after a UN investigation seemed to set the stage for action against Damascus, the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad's regime appears to be easing. Middle East analyst Mona Yacoubian tells's Bernard Gwertzman that after a year of unrelenting pressure from the United Nations and the international community over Syria's role in the Hariri assassination, Syrians "really don't believe that they have anything to fear at this time."

Yacoubian and Scott Lasensky, both of the U.S. Institute of Peace, write that despite growing rifts in Syria's ruling Alawi elite, an increasingly emboldened opposition, and the rising strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no unified opposition ready to take over power from President Assad. In a December briefing, they write that, while Syrians may not like Assad's regime, they prefer its stability to the chaos they see in neighboring Iraq.

Assad himself is facing an array of problems at home. A report by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) says the Syrian economy has stalled under Assad, who has failed to institute promised economic and political reforms. An International Crisis Group report says the threat of violence in both Syria and Lebanon is still very real. This CFR Background Q&A examines how Assad made a series of missteps that contributed to Syria's political and economic decline.

In Lebanon, the momentary unity of the protest movement shattered once Syria withdrew, leaving the same sectarian divisions—among Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites—that led to Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war. Many young people, disillusioned after a year in which dozens of notable figures were assassinated by car bombs, say sectarian tension is now higher than ever (BBC). Syria-watcher Joshua Landis writes in his blog that Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt doesn't believe the national dialogue currently underway in Lebanon will be able to change anything. Jumblatt believes only Washington can help oust the Syria-backed Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and disarm Hezbollah, steps he calls necessary to end Syrian influence in Lebanon. UN Resolution 1559 (PDF), passed in September 2004, calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces—i.e. Syria—from Lebanon, and the disarming of all militias—i.e. Hezbollah. But Hanna Avraham, a research associate at MEMRI, writes the Lebanese public is still divided on the issue of disarming Hezbollah.

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