Mar 21, 2005
A political crisis has been building in Lebanon. It was set off on February 14, when an enormous bomb exploded, assassinating the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, who was also a billionaire property tycoon.
Who was behind the bombing and assassination? The Lebanese authorities have done little or nothing to find out. The authorities cannot even say whether the bomb was a car bomb, or whether it had been buried in the street. The police had compromised the investigation by pulling the six vehicles linked to Hariri from the bomb site only hours after the explosion. Neither did the authorities bother to find out who had been killed in the blast, ignoring the entreaties of several families who told them of missing relatives.
In fact, a whole host of governments, spy agencies, terrorist organizations or business rivals could have been behind the assassination of Hariri. And a small and weak Lebanese government was not about to take on any of them.
But that did not stop the Bush administration from immediately charging the Syrian government, the same government that Bush had been threatening since the start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, with being responsible for the bombing. This blame was then echoed around the world by most other governments and the news media. The United Nations also fell into step, passing a U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning Syria.
Of course, the Bush administration had its own obvious reasons for using the bombing to jump all over the Syrian government. Syria shares a large border with Iraq, and the U.S. wanted to put Syria on notice that not only should it not meddle in the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but that it should act "responsibly" by helping the U.S. to keep order there. At the same time, the U.S. used the incident to pressure the Syrian government to withdraw its 16,000 troops that had been occupying Lebanon for almost 30 years.
In making these demands, the Bush administration – again, echoed by the news media – acted horrified that Syria had been occupying Lebanon. Did any of the media notice that this same Bush administration is mired in bloody occupations of two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan!
What was also conveniently forgotten was that Syria had been occupying Lebanon since 1976, not only with approval from the U.S. and the rest of the major imperialist countries, but at their behest. At the time that Syria first started this occupation, Lebanon was being torn apart by a bloody civil war, a civil war that threatened to spread to other countries. When the Syrian military marched into Lebanon, it concentrated most of its attacks against the Palestinian refugee camps and what was called the Lebanese left, essentially the poor of Lebanon. In the following years, even after the long civil war in Lebanon finally burnt out, the U.S. continued to tolerate the Syrian military's occupation of Lebanon because Syria acted as the guarantor of order as a new Lebanese military and state apparatus were built up.
Syria's domination of Lebanon was extremely oppressive – as Bush said. But Syria's oppression of the people of Lebanon was carried out in the long-term interests of imperialism. And Bush well knows it.
Many of the same competing forces that fought each other in the previous civil war, are lining up against each other in a new competition to see who will dominate the government.
This escalation of competition and tension was behind the big demonstrations of the past month. The first demonstrations, mainly of the more privileged Maronite Christian minority, gained a lot of attention in the U.S. news media, especially since they seemed to be in line with what Bush was saying. But the leaders of the other factions and cliques – the Shiites, Sunnis and Druze – also looked for a way to show the size of their following. The most impressive of these demonstrations were led by the Shiite fundamentalist party, Hezbollah. In answer to that, the Druze, Sunni and Maronite Christian factions, united for an equally big demonstration in Beirut. But the Druze and Maronites are hardly allies – and even now show signs of attacking each other. Syria's statement that it would pull out only pushed these antagonisms into the open.
Right now, the U.S. is trying to work with the different Lebanese factions to channel this competition into May elections. If the confrontation taking shape in Lebanon gets sharper, some of those who today yell and scream against Syria may quickly call for it once again to step in and bail them out. On March 15, Bush made public overtures to the leaders of Hezbollah, even though he had just condemned that organization as "terrorist." This is nothing but a recognition that if Syria pulls out, the U.S. needs another military force to hold the population in check.
For the moment, all these maneuvers are bringing to the surface a confrontation halted – but not gone – at the end of the civil war. Unfortunately, today more than in the 1970s, ethnic and religious divisions could overwhelm Lebanon.
This crisis shows the huge gulf between the poor majority and the rich Lebanese businessmen, of whom the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was the symbol. The working class is now in great part made up of immigrant Syrian workers, who are the object of scorn, insults, and even aggression from the Lebanese middle class which targets them and holds them responsible for Syrian policy.
It is certainly very difficult to go beyond the religious divisions imposed by the Christian and Druze parties, but also by the Shiite Hezbollah. However, that is the only way to unite the Lebanese and Syrian workers, and the poor masses of the two countries, around their social and political demands. It is the only way to break the straight jacket constituted by artificial divisions inherited from colonialism and the intrigues of different powers who fight for influence in the entire region.