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Frequently Asked Questions

Syria's Role in Lebanon

By Josh Lustig
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; 4:15 PM

What caused the current crisis in Lebanon?

The crisis began with the assassination on Feb. 14 of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a popular self-made billionaire who was a leading opponent of Syria's military presence in Lebanon.

Hariri had resigned as prime minister last fall, shortly after Syria pressured the Lebanese government to amend its constitution to allow President Emile Lahoud to serve a third term. Retaining his seat in parliament, Hariri became a leading figure in the Lebanese political opposition, which hoped to erode support for Syria with a strong showing in elections set for May.

Hariri was killed in a massive explosion on the Beirut waterfront, many Lebanese -- as well as foreign governments -- suspected that Syria had a hand in the attack.

Who governs Lebanon?

The structure of the Lebanese government is aimed at balancing power among the country's principal religious groups -- Maronite Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims and Druze.

An unwritten agreement reached in 1943 between the newly independent state's Christian and Muslim leaders calls for Maronites to control the presidency and the army, a Sunni to serve as prime minister and a Shiite to be speaker of the parliament. Seats in the 128-member parliament are allocated on the basis of a 1932 census, giving Christians a slight majority.

In the peace accord that ended Lebanon's 1975-89 civil war, the proportions were adjusted to give more representation to the country's growing Muslim population. The accord also increased the powers of the prime minister.

In the absence of an up-to-date census, there are disagreements over whether the current arrangement accurately reflects the country's demographics. Shiites are generally agreed to be Lebanon's most populous group, though no group is thought be in the majority.

Lebanese politics have been in disarray since Hariri's assassination. On Feb. 28, Prime Minister Omar Karami resigned amid the pressures of opposition demonstrations in Beirut. But after the Shiite Muslim party Hezbollah launched massive counter-demonstrations in favor of Syria, the Lebanese parliament asked Karami to return and form a caretaker government to run the country until after the May elections. His efforts to form a cabinet that includes both supporters and opponents of Syria has so far been unsuccessful.

What is Syria's interest in Lebanon?

Under the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon was a Syrian province until the mid-1800s, when it became a separate entity within the empire. Ottoman rule ended with World War I, and in 1920 the League of Nations placed Lebanon under French mandate. Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943, its early years were marked by struggles to balance power among the Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze communities. The situation was further complicated by the influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians when Israel was established in 1948.

The sectarian tensions erupted into civil war in 1975. The follwing year, at the invitation of Lebanon's Maronite president, Syria sent troops and other assistance. The troops stayed throughout the 14-year war, often backing different groups and contributing to the ongoing conflict.

Under the peace accord that ended the war in 1989, Syria agreed to pull back its troops to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley within two years and consult with the Lebanese government on a timeline for a full withdrawal.

In recent years, Syria maintained political influence in Lebanon mainly through the presence of about 15,000 troops and 5,000 intelligence agents and through its dominance of Lebanese intelligence services. Syria is also a large financial backer of Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group that operates throughout Lebanon and has been launching attacks against Israel for decades. Hezbollah, which means "Party of God," maintains an armed militia, runs health care, educational and other social programs, and holds 12 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

Will Syria pull out of Lebanon?

In October 2004 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559 calling for Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, halt interference in internal affairs and dismantle all active militias. Before Hariri's assassination, Syria was slow to respond, dismantling a small number of army outposts but leaving the bulk of its forces and intelligence agents in place.

In talks with the United Nations on March 12, Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed to withdraw one-third of its troops and intelligence agents by the end of March and to move the rest to the Bekaa Valley. About 4,000 to 6,000 Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon on March 17, leaving an estimated 10,000 troops remaining in Bekaa. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said on March 17 that the United Nations expects all Syrian troops to be withdrawn before Lebanon's May elections.

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