A year after pullout, Syria looms large in Lebanon

BEIRUT — Syrian troops, a familiar sight for almost 30 years, are gone from Lebanon’s streets. Anjar, the village that hosted Syria’s intelligence base, has sunk back into obscurity. Many old Syrian allies sit on the sidelines.

But a year after the last Syrian soldiers left under global pressure after the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the widespread euphoria has vanished.

Few doubt the pullout was a blow for Damascus, but cracks in Lebanon’s ruling anti-Syrian bloc and concern over its economic record have since given new life to Syria’s local allies.

No events are even planned to mark the April 26 withdrawal.

“Syria’s presence is not as oppressive as before, not as direct and controlling as before, but it is still there,” said Osama Safa, head of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies.

“After 30 years in Lebanon, Syria still has many strong points of influence through traditional Lebanese political leaders… This has always been the case and it always will be.” Pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud remains in power despite pressure by the anti-Syrian bloc for him to step down.

The anti-Syrian groups see Lahoud, whose term was extended in 2004 under Syrian pressure, as the last vestige of its tutelage. But they have failed to agree on any replacement, and national talks to end a debilitating political crisis look set this week to leave Lahoud in the presidential palace for now.

Tense relations

Relations between Syria and the government have been tense, with Damascus rejecting calls to exchange embassies or mark a disputed border area occupied by Israel.

Meanwhile the Hizbollah group, which is backed by Syria and Iran, has managed to hold onto its arms, even though the same UN Security Council resolution that demanded Syrian troops leave Lebanon also calls for militias to disarm.

Lebanon’s only armed group, it has teamed up with another Shiite Muslim group, Amal, for joint leadership of the largest religious community in the country’s delicate sectarian mosaic.

An understanding with the Maronite Christian general Michel Aoun, an unlikely bedfellow who fought a battle with the Syrians at the close of the 1975-1990 civil war, has reduced the main anti-Syrian bloc’s dominance in the 128-seat parliament.

Syrian-backed politicians who stayed out of elections last May and June have been popping up on television again.

In the north, Suleiman Franjieh, whose family has old ties to the ruling Assad family in Syria, is forming a front with Omar Karami, the pro-Syrian prime minister who resigned amid protests in the aftermath of Hariri’s death.

They appear to have taken their cue from the anti-Syrian coalition’s loss of momentum and internal divisions. Hopes that the economy would take off after the Syrian exit have faded and an international debt aid meeting has been delayed for months.

Security vacuum

The Syrian withdrawal also left a security vacuum, with a string of bombings and the assassination of two anti-Syrian journalists and a politician in the ensuing months.

Many Lebanese blamed Syria, saying the attacks were meant to prove the Lebanese could not govern themselves.

Syria has denied any role in the death of Hariri or the ensuing instability. A UN investigator last year implicated Syrian officials in the murder and said Damascus was impeding the inquiry, but a follow-up report in March said the groundwork had been laid for better cooperation.

Much of the anti-Syrian coalition’s credibility now hangs on that inquiry, if Syria is cleared they will suffer a blow.

In the meantime, no one knows if Syria still maintains undercover agents in Lebanon or how many there might be, though one thing is certain — the borders are porous and smugglers cross daily without going through the official customs points.

Truckloads of arms have come in for Hizbollah.

“The Syrians played a central role in creating the deadlock from which their Lebanese allies have benefited,” said Michael Young, opinion editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper.

“That doesn’t mean their allies are in a position to return to where they were a year ago, but they still have influence.”

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