PBS Frontline: Syria and Lebanon

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Kate Seelye
PBS Frontline/World Producer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005; 11:00 AM

The recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in a car bombing now dubbed "The Earthquake" is fundamentally changing the political landscape of the Middle East. Following Hariri's murder and decades of Syrian military occupation, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Lebanon, suspecting Syrian involvement in the bombing and demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops. PBS Frontline/World producer Kate Seelye , the daughter of an American diplomat who has lived in Lebanon and Syria for most of her life, navigates a treacherous moment in the Middle East and asks whether democracy or war will be next for Lebanon.

The film also examines Syria's border with Iraq and features interviews with Syrians about the charges that Arab fighters are crossing the border to join the conflict in Iraq.

"The Earthquake" aired Tuesday, May 17 on PBS (check local listings): PBS Frontline/World.

PBS Frontline/World producer Kate Seelye was online to discuss the report.

A transcript follows.

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Boston, Mass.: That was brave of you to confront the Lebanese justice minister the way you did in that press conference. Were there any repercussions? What are the newspapers and television channels like in Lebanon? In Syria?

Kate Seelye: There were no repercussions following my confrontation with the justice minister. He later resigned, under pressure from the Lebanese opposition which accused him and the heads of the intelligence services of being Syrian allies. Lebanon has several major newspapers and television stations that are largely free of censorship. Censorship in the past was mainly self-censorship, an attempt to avoid angering the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agents who have been known to detain journalists in the past. As for Syria's press, it is still mainly state-controlled and pretty much toes the party line. There are a few private magazines and newspapers that have started up recently with a slightly reformist bent. Even in the state-controlled press in Syria, readers are starting to see much more criticism of the regime. So despite the generally authoritarian nature of the Assad government, there is new openness in the Syrian media.

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Quebec, Canada: If Rafiq Hariri had cracked down on Hezbollah, would that have eroded Syria's strangle-hold on Lebanon? Might Hariri still be alive and in power if he eliminated Hezbollah?

Kate Seelye: No. First of all, Hariri was in no position to crack down on Hezbollah. The organization is extremely popular in Lebanon. It's viewed there as a legitimate resistance organization. If Hariri had had the power or will to crack down on Hezbollah (which he didn't), he would have totally turned the Lebanese against him. Furthermore, the only group that could have disarmed Hezbollah might have been the Lebanese army, which Hariri didn't control. Also Syria was not strong in Lebanon because of Hezbollah. Syria was strong in Lebanon because of its army presence, because of its intimidation tactics carried out by its intelligence agents in Lebanon and because it essentially held complete sway over Lebanese politicians and politics. Kicking Syria out of Lebanon weakened Hezbollah.

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Lisbon, Portugal: How likely is it that the Alawite ruling class will lose power if democracy moves to Syria?

Kate Seelye: Syria's Alawite ruling class represents a small fraction of Syria's overall population - it's something like 15% (give or take 5%). In a democracy, they would have a small representation in Syria's government. There is enormous fear among Alawites that if the Sunni majority ever came back into power in Syria, Alawites would once again be treated in the manner they were before rising to power. The Alawites were long the peasants and servants to the Sunni ruling class. In addition the Sunnis view the Alawites almost as heretics who don't properly follow Islam (Alawites are an offshoot of Shism). Patrick Seale writes eloquently about the historical condition of the Alawites in his biography of Hafez al Assad.

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Wheaton, Md.: Is it true that Syria still controls Hezbollah and most of the other terrorist groups in Lebanon?

Kate Seelye: Syria does not control Hezbollah. It has merely had significant influence with the Islamist group because of its military presence in Lebanon and because it served as the conduit for arms from Iran to Hezbollah. Hezbollah's real patron is Iran. Hezbollah gets its money from Iran. Hezbollah follows the Iranian leadership's hardline ideology (the Khamenei, not Khatami line). If Iran dried up its financing, Hezbollah would shrink radically in stature and influence.

Syria has more influence over the hardline Palestinian group - PFLP-GC, which takes direct orders from Damascus. However the PFLP-GC, once headed by Ahmad Jibril, has little influence in Lebanon or the region.

Getting back to Syria and Hezbollah, Syria will certainly try to maintain power and influence in Lebanon through its close alliance with Hezbollah. Both share the view that the crux of the Middle East crisis is Israel's ongoing occupation of Arab land. Both believe in maintaining pressure on Israel until those lands are returned.

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Montreal, Quebec: If you were in Bashar's position, what would you now do?

If multi-party elections were held and the Islamists won as they usually do in Middle East elections, then how do you expect the new Syria to be better or worse?

Kate Seelye: Bashar Al Assad is being urged to reform by Syrians who feel that the current authoritarian nature of the regime is unhealthy for the future development of a country that has fallen far behind others economically, socially, etc. In other words, a more open, politically pluralistic government will be more in tune with the changing nature of the world and will be in a better position to offer its citizens better economic and social opportunities. Right now, unemployment in Syria is conservatively put at 25%. Most young Syrians want to leave because there are so few opportunities. That's the fault of a state-controlled economy, run by an out-of-touch, authoritarian regime.

It is not necessarily the case that the Islamists would win in multi-party parliamentary elections. Yes, the Islamists are numerically well-represented in Syria, but remember that Syria has long been a socialist, secular state. There are still lots of Arab nationalists in Syria who believe in Baathism as a concept. There are lots of Sunni merchants who don't favor political Islam. Hence elections might bring to power a combination of Islamists, Baathists, and independents that more accurately represent the views of ordinary Syrians. A more democratic Syria, more reflective of the country's diversity would probably serve its people better.

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Caracas, Venezuela: Why do you suppose the U.N. did almost nothing regarding the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, while condemning Israel's defensive measures in South Lebanon? Isn't this hypocrisy?

Kate Seelye: Others argue that the U.N. is hypocritical for pushing to apply U.N. resolution 1559 calling on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, while doing little to push Israel to comply with numerous U.N. resolutions calling on it to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The U.N. is an imperfect body only as powerful as the countries involved. For years, it was in the U.S. interest to have Syrian troops in Lebanon stabilizing the country (that's how it was perceived by Washington). It's widely stated that the first Bush administration gave the Syrians the okay to consolidate their power over Lebanon in 1990, in exchange for Syria joining the U.S.-led coalition to kick Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. From 1990 until 2004, the U.S. didn't make much of a case for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. It's only when the U.S. and France joined forces to sponsor U.N. resolution 1559, that the momentum began. I guess what's at fault is not the hypocrisy of the U.N. but the interests of the major powers.

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Munich, Germany: I recall reading in the British press that, after the death of the reigning president of Syria, Premier Tony Blair was wooing the new President of Syria and his British born and educated wife. Since both the President and his wife were fairly young and westernized, many thought that things would change for the better in Syria and the Middle East.

What happened? With all the possibilities that a youthful new President has to offer, why is Syria now the pariah of the Middle-East?

Kate Seelye: In fact when Bashar al Assad came to power in 2000, he promised many political, social and economic reforms. Many in Europe were optimistic he would begin to change Syria. Unfortunately, few of the reforms he promised have been implemented. That's partially blamed on the old guard whose entrenched interests even Bahshar is having a hard time challenging, as well as on the challenges of bringing fundamental change to such a rusty, state-controlled economy, without bringing about the collapse of the economy, etc. Also, Bahsar is a novice leader, he probably doesn't have the skills to steer such a complicated political process like opening up an authoritarian regime. He himself may have gotten cold feet after he called for more political openness and dozens of intellectuals began publicly bashing the regime during the Damascus Spring of 2001. Many were later imprisoned.

But I think what really went wrong - what turned Syrian into a pariah state - was his poor handling of foreign policy. During the U.S.-led war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Syria was the most vocally opposed of all Arab countries. Not only was it opposed, but its foreign minister declared that it was in Syria's national interest to see the U.S. defeated in Iraq. Furthermore, Syria allowed Arab fighters to gather in Damascus, board buses funded by Saddam's government, and travel to Iraq to fight the U.S. That was happening just blocks from the U.S. embassy. What Syria failed to take into consideration was that it was dealing with a post-9/11 Bush administration not tolerant of any opposition. It was not the time to anger the U.S., but Syria did and it's now paying the price.

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Gullsgate, Minn.: Kate Seelye, rarely do journalists carry your degree of expertise and diplomacy around in their rucksack. Have you ever considered a career as a diplomatic ombudsman in some global capacity, beyond the realm of reporter/media moderator? Your Frontline reporting was awesome. Thank you.

Kate Seelye: I'm glad you enjoyed the show. I have long considered joining the foreign service, but sometimes find myself at odds with U.S. foreign policy. Hence I feel less constrained in my role as a reporter and perhaps in a better position to inform Americans about what's happening in the Middle East - a region of great importance to the U.S.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What was the breakdown of the Lebanese people according to what percentages belong to different religions? Do most people within the same religious group hold similar political beliefs? In sum, how large a role does religion play into whom Lebanese people believe should govern them?

Kate Seelye: The Shia make up the largest religious group at about 40%. Then you have the Christians who make up about 33%. The remainder are Sunnis and Druze. The Lebanese do tend to relate along religious lines, although not exclusively. For instance, the Greek Orthodox and the Maronites tend to have very different political views, even though they are both Christian sects. The big challenge in Lebanon, now that it is free of Syrian control, is to encourage Lebanese to begin identifying along national, rather than religious lines. That will entail the creation of national political parties that promote non-sectarian issues, such as employment for all, welfare for all, better housing for all, etc. Currently most Lebanese believe that only a leader of their own religion can be trusted to fight for their interests, so by and large Shia will vote for a Shia leader, a Maronite for a Maronite, etc. That needs to change and many Lebanese recognize that.

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Oslo, Norway: Since you've spent so much time in the Middle East, what is the real reason for the hatred of Israel? It can't be because of the "Palestinian issue" since no effort was made to create a Palestinian state prior to 1967. Is the average Arab really so anti-Semitic that they don't believe Jews have a right to exist as a nation and as a people?

Kate Seelye: I have found that a lot of Arab anger toward Israel is due to what many Arabs views as Israel's unjust ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands. Most Arabs I meet are angry with Israel, but accept its presence. They tell me that they would like it to stop settling occupied Palestinian land and to engage in sincere talks to establish a Palestinian state.

Of course there are Islamist fundamentalists, for instance those who follow al Qaida, who utterly reject Israel's presence in the region and are deeply anti-Semitic. It's hard to tell what percentage of the population they make up, but it's certainly not a majority.

As for anti-Semitism in general, yes, there are many racist views of Jews in the region, which pre-date the creation of Israel. My grandfather taught philosophy at the American University of Beirut in the 1920s. His students were Muslim, Christian and Jewish. He used to give tests to his students asking them to explode religious and ethnic stereotypes about the "other." In reading his tests and and his students' answers, it was clear to me that Muslims mistrusted not only Jews, but also Christians, just as Christians and Jews held stereotypes of Muslims. These racist attitudes were not unique to the Arab world, however. They were alive and well all over the world.

Over the years, as Muslims and Christians have worked together in modern Arab state systems, stereotypes of each other have lessened. I think that would be the case vis-a-vis Jews, but because most Muslim and Christian Arabs have no dealings with Jews, but simply read about them in light of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, hateful stereotypes remain.

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