Calls are growing for Syrian forces to leave Lebanese soil,
writes Ross Dunn.

Since ancient times there has been a tradition of invading armies leaving a monument to their presence at the mouth of the Nahar al-Kalb river, north of Beirut.

The conquerors who have left inscriptions on the rock faces above the river bank include Pharaoh Ramses II of Egypt from the 13th century BC, Nebuchadnezzar II from the 6th century BC, Greek armies and Roman emperors, down to French and British military commanders in the modern era.

Recently, hundreds of Lebanese demonstrators tried to erect two new plaques. On one of the white marble tablets were the words marking Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon on May 24. The other was left blank in anticipation of the departure of the only remaining occupying power - Syria, which has 35,000 troops stationed throughout the country.

The protesters, waving Lebanese flags and singing the national anthem, demanded that United Nations Security Council Resolution 520 be upheld. This calls for Lebanon's sovereignty, unity and independence to be respected and for its army alone to be deployed in all parts of the country.

"We are here to remind people that while one foreign occupation has left the country, another remains," said Fadi Abu Jamra, co-ordinator for the Free National Current. This a student movement that rallies behind the former Lebanese commander General Michel Aoun, who more than a decade ago made a failed attempt to re-establish the authority of the Lebanese Army and expel the Syrian troops.

Before the plaques could be installed, the Lebanese security forces moved in and broke up the demonstration. But this served only to reinforce the belief that Lebanese officialdom is being controlled by the Syrian occupiers. However, while this is virtually accepted wisdom, few leading figures are willing to voice their opposition publicly.

One of the exceptions is Gebran Tueni, 42, publisher of the An-Nahar newspaper. He has seen the paper closed down several times and for three years lived in exile in Paris because the publication was opposed by the Syrian regime.

"They [the Syrians] thought if you have a free press then you have a free country, and they did not want Lebanon to be a free country," he said.

There have been other attempts to muzzle independent newspapers in Lebanon, including attempts to divert government advertising to publications more likely to toe the official line.

But despite such pressure, Mr Tueni continues to push for an end to Syria's iron grip over Lebanon. The presence of Syria was felt not only through the occupying army but also economically. There were up to a million Syrians working in Lebanon taking away the jobs of local Lebanese, Mr Tueni said.

Millions of dollars were being transferred from Lebanon to Syria each year, he said. There was also, in effect, a ban on Lebanon exporting its goods to Syria, while Syria used Lebanon as a dumping ground for its products.

Mr Tueni hopes this oppression of Lebanon might come to an end following the death of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and the rise of his son Bashar, who has a more modern outlook.

"We accept to be allies of Syria but not agents. And [Bashar] Assad will have to think one day he will have to withdraw from Lebanon because he is a foreign force."

The Syrians, who have never recognised Lebanese sovereignty, have been in the country since 1976 following the outbreak of civil war. But Mr Tueni does not accept the argument that the Syrians are crucial to maintaining peace in the country.

"This is a false pretext. If the unity of Lebanon is imposed by Syrians then it doesn't deserve to live," he said. "Because anything artificial or imposed by force will never remain."

The withdrawal of the Israeli troops had removed another of Syria's strongest justifications for remaining in Lebanon, said Professor Farid Khazen of the American University of Beirut. "The argument before was that the Israeli military presence in Lebanon is a threat to Syria, but now this has gone there should be a new thinking," he said.

At the same time, he said, no-one in Lebanon was seeking any confrontation with Syria. "On the contrary, the vast majority of Lebanese want peaceful and orderly relations with Syria, which is after all our neighbour."