Steven A. Cook, a Council expert on Syria, says that Syria must be suspected in the February 14 assassination of popular political and business figure, Rafik Hariri, because Damascus has a history of assassinating political opponents in Lebanon. “I think your default position has to start with a suspicion of Syrian involvement,” says Cook, “whether it is Bashar al-Assad’s government, or some element within the Syrian security services who organized it.”
The large street demonstrations calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon recall the recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Ukraine, Cook says. But he cautions that Syria retains significant support in Lebanon, especially from Shiite militant group Hezbollah>, which has organized demonstrations calling on the Syrians to remain.
Cook, the Council’s Next Generation fellow, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 22, 2005.
Let’s start briefly with a run-down on the relations between Syria and Lebanon. Both came under French control after the 1919 Versailles Conference.
Well, from the Syrian perspective, Syria and Lebanon were made one country; in fact, the Syrians have irredentist claims on Lebanese territory.
Under the Turks, the two nations were under the same jurisdiction?
Yes. Under the Ottoman Empire, they were known as the Levant states. The Syrians consider Lebanon to be part of historic Greater Syria. In fact, you hear some Syrians- not all, by any means- talk about one people, two countries. The connotation is that the two countries are the artificial creation of colonial powers.
Did the French want Syria and Lebanon divided?
It wasn’t necessarily the French who wanted the territory divided, although the French colonial policy was to build up minorities at the expense of the overwhelming majority. [More importantly], Maronite Christians within Mount Lebanon lobbied the French government as fellow Christians to create a separate country [after the end of World War I].
And at that time the Christians were a larger percentage of the Lebanese population than they are now?
Exactly. [In 1932, Christians comprised some 51 percent of the Lebanese people. In 2003, 39 percent of Lebanese were Christians, according to the CIA Factbook.]
Jumping forward, it’s well known that the Syrians sent troops into Lebanon in the 1970s to put down a civil war. Talk a bit about that.
It’s a very complicated situation, because the Syrians, when they committed troops to Lebanon, were inconsistent. They came in to assist the Christians, ended up supporting Muslim factions, then turned around again to the Christians, and then back again. The problem for the Syrians, once the Lebanese civil war began, was essentially two-fold. First, the ethnic and sectarian differences underneath the surface in Syria had exploded in Lebanon, and the Syrians wanted to keep them from infecting Syria. Second, Syrians feared an unstable Lebanon caught up in civil war because they were concerned it would lead to an Israeli invasion [to counter Palestinian Liberation Organization factions operating in Lebanon]. The Israelis did invade and occupy parts of Lebanon, first in 1978, and again in 1982. This presented serious security problems for the Syrians, who feared that if Israelis were in Lebanon, they could squeeze the Syrians from Lebanon and the Golan Heights, which the Israelis have occupied since the 1967 war.
How much does it cost Syria to keep thousands of troops in Lebanon? Do the Lebanese pay for their expenses?
No. The Lebanese don’t pay for them per se, but Lebanon has become an economic lifeboat for Syria. There are thousands of Syrian workers, along with Syrian soldiers, in Lebanon who send money back to Syria. There is a certain amount of smuggling that goes on through Lebanon. And so Syria, which is facing a dire economic situation right now, sees Lebanon as very important economically.
Bring us up to date on the events of the last few years. [Former Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad died in July 2000. His first son, the heir apparent, had died in a car crash, so [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad took over. He was not a political player. After he came in, how did the Syrian-Lebanese relationship change?
You’re quite right; Hafez al-Assad’s other son, Basil al-Assad, was being groomed as the heir apparent, and in Damascus, you still see pictures of Basil. His [younger] brother, Bashar- not a political person by any stretch- was then appointed the successor and was very quickly groomed by his father to become the political leader. One of the portfolios that was given to Bashar upon Basil’s death was the Lebanon portfolio, and Bashar was the one responsible for the Syrian presence and managing Lebanese politics.
Bashar al-Assad has been in power now for a little less than five years. But it remains unclear whether he’s been able actually to consolidate power, or whether he has just become someone who’s easily manipulated by his father’s old guard, much of which still remains in government. Bashar al-Assad has made a number of strategic blunders over the years, one of which is saber-rattling with the Israelis and another is his heavy-handed approach to Lebanon. Last fall, the Syrians, exerting authority through their Lebanese agents, changed the Lebanese constitution to extend the term of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, a man who has served Syrian interests in Lebanon.
That does sound incredibly bad from a public relations standpoint, since it was such a blatant manipulation. Why did they show such an outright lack of concern for Lebanese law?
I think there are two factors. One, let’s not underestimate the fact that Syrians have a tin ear for these kinds of things. The Syrian regime is sort of caught in the 1960s and the 1970s, where this is the kind of thing that was done, [and when it occurred, it] went widely unremarked upon, except in some political salons in the United States, Western Europe, and some parts of the Arab world. The other thing is, don’t underestimate the Syrian desire to show the Lebanese who will remain the boss in Lebanon. There was increasing unease among the Lebanese with the Syrians, and so [the constitutional change] was clearly a demonstration of strength. But this seems to have backfired on the Syrians.
Let’s talk a bit about Syria’s relations with Israel. Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, was in Syria at the end of last year and came away feeling that the Syrian leadership was quite eager to deal with Israel on settling the dispute over the Golan Heights. What happened?
I would never argue with Martin on that: his expertise on peace-process issues is unrivaled. But I think that what the Syrians are trying to do is, they have been under pressure from the United States with regard to the Iraq situation, they’re under pressure from the United States and France on the Lebanon situation and the situation of Emile Lahoud and extending his term, so the Syrians are looking towards the Arab-Israeli conflict as a way to release some of the political pressure. Bashar al-Assad may, in fact, be genuine in his desire to open up a dialogue with the Israelis, but I’m not sure he has in mind a strategic vision of peace. He has in mind more of a tactical effort to release the political pressure being applied by the United States and the international community.
And, of course, Bashar al-Assad is not going to want anything but the total return of the Golan Heights.
He cannot accept anything less than what his father demanded, which was the entirety of the Golan Heights.
Which is what the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat got in the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord in 1979, the return of the entire Sinai.
Now let’s get into the Lebanon crisis. Tell us about Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated a week ago, and his relations with Syria.
Well, Hariri was the man who people consider single-handedly responsible for the rebuilding of Lebanon over the course of the last 15 years. As chairman of the Solidere Corporation and as prime minister of Lebanon [1992-98, and 2000-04], he had close ties to the Saudis and was someone who- not without corruption, not without problems- was interested in reform and rebuilding Lebanon. And to a large extent, he was successful at that. He had turned on the Syrians because of their heavy-handed efforts to extend the term of office of Emile Lahoud.
As prime minister, hadn’t he worked closely with the Syrians?
Yes. He had worked with the Syrians; he was, in fact, the prime minister when the Syrians worked to extend Emile Lahoud’s term. He subsequently resigned and relations turned sour. He was, in fact, summoned to meet in Damascus with Bashar al-Assad in the fall- that meeting lasted 15 minutes. Rather than returning to Lebanon directly after the meeting, Hariri traveled to either Corsica or Majorca, because he felt the situation was too tense for him to return to Lebanon.
What was he doing in Beirut at the time he was killed?
Hariri was ramping up for the Lebanese elections in May. I believe he was going to galvanize the opposition and return as the leader of Lebanon- as prime minister of Lebanon on an anti-Syrian, pro-reform platform, or as the leader of the opposition.
Talk about the street demonstrations we’re seeing now in Lebanon. There was another one yesterday demanding that Syria get out. What are we seeing here?
Yesterday’s demonstration was the largest yet and, according to press reports, there were tens of thousands of people in the streets screaming, “Syria out!” And like what happened in the Ukrainian situation, people are now draping themselves, not in orange, but in [the Lebanese national colors of] red and white, expressing their opposition to the Syrian presence and their opposition to the Syrian government.
But there was also a rather sizeable demonstration that was held under the auspices of Hezbollah over the weekend that was a counter-demonstration, saying people should not trifle with the government, should not trifle with the Syrians, and that Hezbollah supported the current arrangements. And Hezbollah is the largest and most powerful militia- the only remaining militia- in Lebanon. So there seems to be a groundswell of average people- Muslims, Christians, and Druze- who are opposed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. But at the same time, Hezbollah is also able to mobilize a significant percentage of the population in support of this continued Syrian presence.
Over the weekend, there was also an announcement in Tehran about a new alliance.
An alliance or some sort of cooperation between the Syrians and the Iranians.
It’s the “axis of evil” come true, right?
Exactly, although the Syrians had been left off the original axis of evil [which, as enunciated by President Bush in 2002, consisted of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran]. This isn’t anything new or surprising. During the Iran-Iraq war, the one Arab country that supported Iran was Syria, and that was because the competition between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein underscored the historical enmity between the two branches of the Baath Party [which dominated the two nations respectively]. Of course, there’s another issue that leads into it: the Shiites recognize the Alawi sect from which the Assad family and most of the Syrian leadership hails as a Muslim sect. The Sunni world does not necessarily recognize the Alawis as Muslims.
A side question: If Syria so disliked Saddam Hussein, and Syria even went to war on the U.S. side in 1991, why have the Syrians been helping the insurgents in Iraq?
Well, that’s a very, very interesting question, and it’s one of the things that I’m not sure we have a real handle on. It doesn’t make sense for the Syrians to be supporting a largely Sunni, Baathist-based insurgency in Iraq. And I’m not quite sure that the Syrian government is directly involved in supporting the insurgency. I think what’s happening is that there’s a certain amount of benign neglect. They are not policing their borders; they are allowing people who would join the insurgency to come across the borders. They’re allowing money to come across the borders to help fund the insurgency, and along with the money, there are also weapons, explosives, and things along those lines- the payoffs. But there’s no love lost between the Baathists of Iraq and the Baathists of Syria, that’s clear.
To sum up, do you think Hariri was killed by Syria, or agents working for Syria, as the people in the street in Lebanon are charging?
Well, in the absence of evidence, given the fact that the Syrians have blood on their hands in Lebanon- they have assassinated a variety of Lebanese leaders in the past- and the heavy-handed way in which they deal with Lebanon, I think your default position has to start with a suspicion of Syrian involvement, whether it is Bashar al-Assad’s government policy, or some element within the Syrian security services who organized it. In addition to the 14,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, there are thousands of Syrian security agents there as well. So I think that has to be your beginning point. But again, there is no evidence right now to directly point the finger at the Syrians.
Is it the sort of thing Hezbollah would have done?
It is probably not the sort of thing that Hezbollah would have done. But, of course, Hariri had spoken out against Hezbollah.
He wanted them out also.
Well, after an episode in which Hezbollah had attacked Israelis across the border, and the Israelis had responded quite robustly, he had said this kind of thing, provoking this kind of response, isn’t in the interest of the Lebanese people.
Wouldn’t Hezbollah feel threatened by the U.N. Security Council Resolution, sponsored by the United States and France, which among other things, calls for all militias in Lebanon to be disbanded?
But who is going to disband Hezbollah? The Lebanese government certainly isn’t going to do that.