Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1997, Pages 56, 114

Special Report

As U.S. Rediscover Lebanon, Its People Dare to Hope for a “Lebanon Free From All Foreign Forces”

By Carole Dagher

The year 1997 brought some signs illustrating Lebanon's economic revival and comeback on the international stage. The often-postponed decision to lift the ban on travel to Lebanon by U.S. citizens finally was taken by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on July 30. It sent a signal to Lebanese that their country was no longer just a blank spot on the map of Middle East countries in which the U.S. has interests.

Pope John Paul II's historic visit to Beirut last May gave a decisive nudge to that U.S. decision, according to American Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Jones. But Secretary Albright's surprise visit to Lebanon at the end of her first Middle East tour in September encouraged Lebanese to hope that Washington intends to restore at least some of its once close bilateral ties with Beirut.

In fact, Albright took a big step beyond merely reiterating the traditional U.S. "commitment to the territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty of Lebanon." She personally drove into downtown Beirut, where she met with a cross-section of business, political and religious leaders assembled at the last minute by the U.S. ambassador. There she expressed the intention of the Clinton administration to deal with Lebanon as a full partner in the peace process and she emphasized the importance of a "Lebanon rebuilt not according to any other model, not beholden to any foreign power, but rather a Lebanon by and for you, the Lebanese people."

One would normally view this Beirut stop as quite natural. Why wouldn't the secretary of state include Lebanon on her Mideast trip? After all, Lebanon embodies the most sensitive issues of the Middle East equation and stands as the last still-active battleground of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the context of the regional stalemate and the deadlock reached by the peace process, especially on the Syrian-Israeli track, Albright's initiative was charged with significance.

Lebanese commentators interpret talk about a Lebanon "free from all foreign forces" as a direct invitation to both Israel and Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. Whether or not that was Albright's intended message, Lebanese quickly recalled that such talk has not been heard from the U.S. since two years ago, when it appeared that there was a real chance for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

Albright emphasized the importance of "a Lebanon by and for you, the Lebanese people."

The Clinton administration signaled then that it might acquiesce in Syria's role in Lebanon in exchange for a Syrian-Israeli deal. From that time on, Lebanese officials and journalists have measured improvement in U.S. policy toward Lebanon in terms of deterioration in the U.S.-Syrian relationship. Thus, Albright's comments in Lebanon (and even her arrival in Beirut, from Cyprus, rather than from Damascus) have been interpreted hopefully by some Lebanese as U.S. pressure on Syria, especially after four hours of talk between Secretary Albright and Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad yielded no clear results.

Official Lebanese sources confirmed that the U.S. secretary of state raised with Lebanese President Elias Hrawi the issue of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. And, in fact, a backlash at the official level appeared only a few days after Albright's departure. During a meeting of the Council of Ministers, President Hrawi, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other ministers with strong ties with Damascus, such as Druze leader Walid Jumblat, stressed the important role played by the Syrian army in Lebanon.

However ever-divided Lebanese leaders feel about Syria, public opinion welcomed Albright, and her visit was described as "very positive" by political leaders of all shades (except the Hezbollah) as well as the media. It also raised some hope among the Lebanese people that they are not totally forgotten in the United States. But Lebanese were also aware that Albright's actions might be viewed by the Syrian regime as an attempt to separate the Lebanese and the Syrian tracks. That interpretation was dismissed a few weeks later by U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Richard Jones.

Talks About an Israeli Withdrawal

Nevertheless, that concern has increased ever since Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu launched his "Lebanon first" option in an attempt to initiate direct Israeli-Lebanese security arrangements in southern Lebanon. In fact, the possibility of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon has been growing since last spring, as bold Hezbollah attacks against Israeli soldiers have increased, become more sophisticated and have been backed by the Lebanese armed forces.

Lately no week has passed without casualties among Israeli soldiers. And the combat death of Hadi Nasrallah, son of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in mid-September only seemed to intensify the determination of the Islamist group.

Furthermore, the increasing military involvment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon has considerably hindered Israeli operations there. By deploying its troops close to the border that separates the Israeli-occupied zone (Israel's so-called "security zone") from the rest of the country, the Lebanese army was able to arrest some of those who collaborate with Israeli troops, and to dismantle the networks set up outside that zone by Israel and its ally, the South Lebanon Army (SLA).

The primary objectives of those networks were destabilization of southern Lebanon and foiling counterattacks by the Lebanese resistance on Israeli targets. Intervention by the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) made it more difficult for the Israeli army and the SLA to operate as freely as in the past. For their part, the LAF intensified their use of anti-aircraft batteries against Israeli airplanes that tried to locate the positions of the resistance groups in the south. Finally, by engaging directly in the fighting the LAF thwarted a landing by Israeli elite troops on the Lebanese shores at Ansariyeh, where 12 Israeli naval commandoes were killed.

Faced with the belief among many Israelis that Lebanon has become their country's "Vietnam," and by questions from both Labor and Likud ministers concerning the benefits of staying in Lebanon, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been under heavy pressure. However, U.S. diplomats are skeptical that he will withdraw unilaterally from Lebanon for many reasons.

First, from the Israeli side, it seems unlikely that Tel-Aviv will give up its long-standing policy of securing its northern borders without any guarantees or commitments whatsoever from the Lebanese government. But such a bilateral solution is totally out of the question.

Second, on the Lebanese level, a sudden withdrawal of the Israeli troops raises the question of the fate of the local SLA and of stability in southern Lebanon. Civilians living in the Israeli-occupied zone do not hide their concern about Hezbollah-led retaliation to punish those who are viewed as "collaborators."

Despite soothing speeches by Hezbollah leaders, those in the Israeli-occupied zone recall the traumatizing massacres that took place in the Chouf mountains in 1983 between Druze and Christians in the wake of a sudden Israeli withdrawal from the area.

Bombings that targeted some residents of Jezzine, just outside the occupied zone last summer, on grounds that they were collaborators with Israel, escalated those fears dramatically.

Though the Lebanese Army, upon a decision of the Council of Ministers, initiated an attempt to re-open the Kfarfalous road linking Jezzine to the rest of the country via the city of Saida, it was faced by shelling from the SLA forces who prefer to keep Jezzine isolated.

Third, on the Syrian level, a full and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon would embarrass Damascus according to many observers. Such a step could deprive Syria of its Lebanese card in the negotiations with Israel. It would also remove any pretext for a perpetuation of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon.

For all these reasons, despite their tendency to grasp at straws of hope that the outside world may unexpectedly rediscover Lebanon and come to its rescue, most Lebanese are skeptical that this year's favorable developments will lead to much more in the immediate future. Instead, resignation is slowly replacing the hope of implementation of the U.S.-sponsored Taif agreement regarding the redeployment of the Syrian troops in the Bekaa Valley. Realists know that Albright's words of support to "a free Lebanon" are only the latest of many encouraging statements from many quarters that have had absolutely no real-life effect on the ground.

Carole Dagher is a Lebanese free-lance journalist based in Beirut and author of two books dealing with Lebanese and Middle East politics: The Challenge of the General (1992) and Those Men who Make Peace (1995).

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