Assad forced to assert Syria's control over Lebanon
Analysis, Stratfor, March 27, 2001
Syrian troops deployed into the Druze-held Chouf region in Lebanon, local Lebanese radio reported March 19. The report echoes similar reports from last fall and suggests Damascus is again using scare tactics to rein in Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, a key opponent of Syria's presence in Lebanon. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's reluctance to employ the harsh tactics used by his father has allowed Jumblatt and his allies to continue pressuring for Syria’s withdrawal. It has also created an opportunity for regional rivals to boost their influence in Beirut. Assad faces growing opposition at home and in Lebanon and increasing competition from Iran and Saudi Arabia. He will now be forced to reassert Syria's control over Lebanon or face a loss of influence both in Beirut and at home One of the most vocal opponents of the Syrian presence in Lebanon is Member of Parliament Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and a key player in Lebanese politics. During a ceremony held at Mukhtara to commemorate the 24th anniversary of the assassination of Walid’s father, the Druze chieftain reiterated his opposition to Syrian influence in Lebanon, reported the Beirut Future News March 16.
Last November, reports indicated Syrian forces had been deployed to the region in and around Mount Lebanon – known as the Chouf – as a warning to Jumblatt. The recent deployment of Syrian troops to Moukhtara, Jumblatt’s ancestral home in the Chouf, is likely meant as a renewal of that threat. Although denied by Damascus, the reports suggest Syria is growing increasingly concerned about the Druze leader’s anti-Syrian activities.So far, Assad has responded with only limited threats. In the fall, Jumblatt was declared persona non grata by the Syrian government, a designation stripping him of his diplomatic status. But Jumblatt could still enter Syria as a private citizen. Even the recent deployment of troops means little unless they actually do something. A simple show of force will have little impact on Jumblatt’s activities. President Assad’s apparent hesitation to employ harsher measures has weakened Syrian influence in Lebanon. Moreover, it has created an opportunity for Syria’s regional rivals to strengthen their own influence in the southern Mediterranean littoral state. For example, the Saudi government recently granted Lebanon $100 million in low interest loans, including $45 million to renovate the Beirut-Damascus highway, reported the Lebanese Daily Star March 9. A second source of competition for Damascus comes from another Persian Gulf superpower. Iran has long been a key player in Lebanon and has used its relationship with the Lebanese Shiite fundamentalist group Hezbollah to pressure Israel.
Iran has also offered to sign a $100 million financial accord to fund various development projects in Lebanon, including the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed by Israel’s 22- year occupation of South Lebanon, reported Agence France-Presse Feb. 22. The money reasserts Iran’s commitment to Lebanon and its close relationship with Hezbollah. It also demonstrates Syria is not the only regional power with influence in Lebanon. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia would directly challenge Syria’s presence in Lebanon, but neither country is supporting Damascus’ continued control over the country. The distinction may be subtle, but in Middle Eastern geopolitics often what is not being done is as important as actions actually taken. On the home front, Assad faces growing opposition from within his government. Prominent business leader and Member of Parliament Riad Seif has grown increasingly vocal in his opposition to current government’s policies. Unlike the rein of Hafez Assad, when opposition was violently crushed, the current President Assad has allowed the publication of opposition newspapers and is more tolerant of political dissent. Individually, none of these pose enough of a threat to upset the Assad regime’s stability. Combined, however, they represent one important fact: President Assad is not the strong man his father was. He is perceived as weak, a perception that can be fatal for a Middle Eastern leader whose legitimacy depends largely upon his control of the armed forces and his willingness to use force.