Statement of Daniel
Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on International Relations
June 25, 1997
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, for the opportunity to discuss Lebanon. I would like to focus on the dimension of this subject I know best, namely the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. I shall tell you something about its background, the current situation, and future prospects. I will then conclude with some recommendations for U.S. policy.
The Syrian Occupation
With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Lebanon has acquired the distinction of being the only satellite state anywhere on the globe. It is a state with all the trappings of sovereignty -- a flag, an independence day, a constitution, membership in the United Nations -- but very little of its substance. This situation culminates a process that goes back to the beginning of the century. In 1920, when the French government drew the borders of modern Lebanon, it met with considerable opposition in Damascus, a resistance that continued through the next two generations. But only with the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1975 did the Syrian authorities find an opportunity to act. Their takeover of the country occurred step by step, culminating in 1990 with the domination of some 90 percent of the country -- all but a small sliver in the south. Though done with far greater subtlety and skill, Hafiz al-Assad's takeover of Lebanon closely resembles Saddam Husayn's occupation of Kuwait. In both cases, the dictator of a powerful totalitarian state exploited an old irredentist claim to justify the subjugation of a small and Western-oriented free neighbor. The major difference is one of finesse: in contrast to Saddam's crude and brutal invasion, Assad prepared the way by sponsoring a range of Lebanese dissident groups, had himself invited in by bona fide Lebanese leaders, and then over a fifteen-year period slowly sliced off portions of the country. Assad disposes of many levers of power over Lebanon. Today, an estimated 40,000 Syrian troops enforce his will in the country. Indeed, arrive by plane in Beirut and you'll encounter Syrian troops right in the airport. In addition, a large number of Syrian political and intelligence agents maintain a formidable presence throughout Lebanon. So subservient is the Lebanese government to Damascene wishes, Lebanese politicians visit the Syrian capital before making any major decision. Speaking candidly, President Ilyas al-Hirawi once confessed his shame that so many Lebanese travel to Damascus to discuss their differences: "We now disagree on the appointment of a doorman and go to Damascus to submit the problem to the brothers [there]." Lebanese officials openly acknowledge that Damascus makes all their decisions in the peace process with Israel. In all, as Israeli military intelligence puts it, "Lebanon's dependence on Syria is absolute."
Now, the curious thing is that this occupation is illegal by the Syrian government's own lights. For Damascus has on three occasions concurred with decisions made by other bodies that Syrian troops should leave Lebanon. It first agreed to withdraw the troops in October 1976 as part of the Riyadh-Cairo accords. In September 1982, it signed the Fez Declaration that committed it to "start negotiations" with the Lebanese government about "an end to the mission of the Arab deterrent forces in Lebanon [i.e., the Syria troops]." In October 1989, to win Lebanese Christian support for a revision of the Lebanese government structure (the Ta'if Accord), Assad accepted a provision that Syrian troops would be re-deployed from their positions in Beirut to the Bekaa Valley two years after some conditions had been met. Those conditions were all fulfilled in September 1990; but September 1992 came and went without any change. Theodor Hanf, a German scholar of Lebanon, dubs this a "blatant violation" of the Ta'if Agreement. More generally, Binyamin Netanyahu rightly noted some years ago that "in Lebanon the Syrians broke just about every agreement they signed."
The Current Situation
Syrian control has had many consequences for Lebanon. Earlier the most open of the Arabic-speaking countries, Lebanon boasted decentralized power, real democracy, rule of law, unimpeded movement, a Hong Kong-style free market, independent schools, and an unfettered press. Now, the central government in Beirut keeps gaining in authority and recent parliaments are, according to Hanf, "the least representative in Lebanese history." Syrian operatives function almost entirely outside the rule of law (for example, they routinely make arrests without warrants) leading Human Rights Watch to conclude that "the record of violations in Syrian-controlled Lebanon has been worse than in Syria." Syrians police who comes into the country and who goes out. Assad's regime imposes Syrian-style standards on the school curricula, including the requirement that Arabic and Islam be taught. It brings the free-wheeling Lebanese economy more in line with that of statist Syria, creates organic links between the two countries (for example, in the electricity grid and in roads), and dumps Syrian goods in Lebanon. As for the press, long the least inhibited in the Arabic-speaking countries, Human Rights Watch states that it "has been forced to toe a Syrian-drawn line, leave Syrian-controlled Lebanon, or cease functioning." Perhaps most significant for the long-range future, the Assad regime has opened the doors for Syrians to move to Lebanon, seek work there, settle there, and possibly bring other family members to join them there. With time, this emigration may profoundly alter Lebanon's population by increasing the proportion of peasants and Muslims. All these changes have the additional virtue, from Assad's point of view, of making the Christian population, and especially the Maronites who are the heart of independent Lebanon, feel less welcome in their own homeland. Lebanese Christians already have a century's legacy of emigration; the Syrianization of their country makes it likely they will abandon their ancestral home in ever-increasing numbers. Should they do so, Damascus will have cleared the major obstacle to its permanent colonization of Lebanon.
Ruling Lebanon brings many benefits to Assad. It marks a significant step toward bringing all of "Greater Syria" under Damascus's direct control, one of his long-term aims. It permits him to stamp out the press criticism and political intrigue that once came out of Beirut. Lebanon provides his officials with an annual income from drug trafficking estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, or even more. It provides employment for a million Syrian workers and a protected market for Syrian products. More broadly, as a prominent Arab banker writes, "Damascus is clearly turning Lebanon into its private economic engine by allowing Beirut to attract foreign investments, launch huge construction projects and reopen its financial markets." Control of Lebanon also offers a convenient venue for housing terrorist proxies, keeping them under Syrian control but outside of direct Syrian responsibility. It gives Assad control of a second voice in Arab councils and the peace process. Finally, the Lebanese theater offers him a way to tangle with Israel without endangering his own regime; the two sides have tacitly agreed to reserve total war for the Golan Heights and engage in lesser skirmishes in Lebanon. For all these reasons, holding on to Lebanon has critical importance to Assad. The record suggests several conclusions:
1.Syrian promises to leave Lebanon have no value and should not be sought again.
2.Even were the uniformed troops to withdraw, Assad may still have enough assets in Lebanon to exert considerable control over the country.
3.The Assad government seeks to occupy Lebanon permanently.
Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Lebanon's population -- and not just the Christians among them -- rejects the Syrian occupation. Survey research conducted by Hilal Khashan among 500 Lebanese Sunnis in 1989-90 showed that a mere 3 percent of them favored union with Syria. Anecdotal evidence confirms this. As one Lebanese put it two years ago, "Syria is at the top of the hate list in Lebanon today, much more so than Israel. Israel is perceived of only as a military threat while Syria threatens Lebanon's very existence." Lebanese opinion might overwhelmingly reject the occupation but, thanks to the Syrian dictator's cleverness, nearly the entire world has acquiesced in his seizure of Lebanon -- including our own Executive Branch. To the best of my knowledge, the White House and State Department have never condemned the occupation, preferring to see this issue only in the context of Arab-Israeli negotiations. As a State Department official explained to me some time ago, "we constantly urge complete implementation of the Ta'if Accord but it's not a bilateral priority. We've not condemned this [non-implementation] very loudly because it needs to be resolved in the context of a comprehensive peace settlement." In contrast, Congress is one of the few governmental bodies in the world to condemn the occupation: you voted unanimously in July 1993 to consider "the Government of Syria in violation of the Taif agreement." A second, similar resolution passed the House in June 1995.
The U.S. government faces a fundamental choice vis-à-vis Lebanon: whether to accept or contest Syrian domination there.
Work with the government: This means recognizing Rafiq al-Hariri as a real prime minister, accepting the August 1996 elections as legitimate, and acquiescing to rules established by the Syrian regime. Such a policy has the advantage of winning favor in Damascus and perhaps encouraging it in the peace process with Israel. But it disheartens natural allies of the United States in Lebanon and abroad; and it signals the world that while a blatant invasion such as Saddam's into Kuwait is not acceptable, a subtle one such as Assad's into Lebanon is acceptable.
Ignore the government: The alternative is to denounce the Syrian occupation and ignore the governmental pseudo-structure in Beirut. This has the advantage of sticking with our friends and our principles. It raises the danger of backing what is largely a Maronite opposition, and thereby having the U.S. government throw its weight behind a force that has already lost much of the battle.
To my mind, there is really no choice: this government must stand in solidarity with the oppressed and against the oppressors. Just as we supported Estonians and Czechs through their decades of Soviet domination, even when the prospect of their independence seemed impossibly remote, so we must stand by the Lebanese people in their hour of need. Nor is this only a matter of principle: Baltic leaders all agree on the importance of the U.S. government refusing to accept the Soviet occupation of their countries. One day, I am convinced, Lebanese patriots will similarly thank us for standing with their people even as they faced the seemingly invincible might of the Syrian sword. Accordingly, I urge you to do all within your power to condemn and repulse the Syrian occupiers. Toward this end, Congress can take several steps.
First, you can use your bully pulpit by sending a direct message to the tyrants in Damascus. I particularly commend to you Rep. Eliot Engel's Amendment to H.R. 1986 concerning "Sanctions against Syria," which passed by a vote of 410 to 15 on June 10. The Assad regime takes close note of such resolutions.
Second, you can pressure the Executive branch to show some spine. In 1994, for example, you had a critical role in assuring that functionaries did not take Syria off the terrorism and narcotics lists.
Third, Congress can close the "national interest" loopholes that permit the Executive branch to waive regulations, and which it seems to do disproportionately for Damascus. In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime earlier this month, it came out that in 1996 Syria received $226 million in U.S. exports, $81 million of which was in controlled commodities. This must not continue. Finally, I urge you to turn away "Friends of Lebanon" appeals for money and appropriate no funds for that country, on the assumption that any funds that go there will ultimately end up in Mr. Assad's pocket.
A final point, concerning the
travel ban that has been in effect against American nationals traveling to Lebanon since
1987: this made sense a decade ago, when Americans were frequently abducted in Lebanon.
But it now serves no purpose. If it's meant to protect Americans from trouble, the need is
passed. If it's meant to signal disapproval of the Syrian occupation, there are many more
effective ways to do so. I hope you will press the Clinton administration to repeal the
travel ban and thereby let American citizens exercise their right to free movement.