DAMASCUS (AFP) – Thirty years after Syria’s tiny neighbour Lebanon plunged into civil war, the region’s dominant powerbrokers in Damascus have witnessed a dramatic political reversal caused in part by the very troops sent in to separate the warring sides.  With Washington heaping pressure on Syria, and the United Nations demanding it pull its soldiers from Lebanon, the Syrian leadership has found itself on the defensive not only in Lebanon but also in the wider region. It’s “the end of the regional role of Syria”, says Syrian political analyst and writer Michel Kilo, stressing that the withdrawal of the estimated 14,000 troops who were still in Lebanon last year would also have an impact on Syria’s power structure, economy and society in general.

Other analysts suggest that with the international spotlight emboldening the Syrian opposition, Damascus will need to revise its domestic policy quickly or risk the country being destabilised.

One foreign diplomat based in the Syrian capital said that the recent accord between Damascus and the United Nations on the pullout of all Syrian troops and intelligence agents by April 30 “marked a turning point” for Syria.

US sanctions imposed on Syria in May 2004 over Washington’s claims that it supported terrorism and sheltered terrorist groups and those fighting the US occupation in neighbouring Iraq, have also increased pressure on the Baath party leadership in Damascus.

The Syrian opposition, and human rights groups in the country, stress that Washington is serious in threatening to take more action against the regime and use this as justification for calls for reform and national reconciliation.

Kilo sees this as underlining the need for a “revision of the balances” within the power structure, without which Damascus risks “domestic crises which would threaten the regime.”

One of the clauses in the UN Security Council resolution 1559 passed in September 2003 demands the disarmament of militia in Lebanon, another complication for those in power in Damascus and the pro-Syrian authorities in Beirut.

The Lebanese Shiite militia movement Hezbollah was the only militia to remain officially armed at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war because of its role in helping defend Lebanon.

Hezbollah, seen by Washington as a terrorist group, is widely seen as being responsible for forcing Israel to withdraw from south Lebanon some five years ago.

Syrian officials say the question of disarming Hezbollah has nothing to do with the international community and is “a Lebanese internal matter”.

In Syria, human rights groups — taking advantage of the discomfort caused to the authorities by international criticism — are increasingly and publicly agitating for change.

The return of thousands of troops will also have a potential impact on Syria’s stagnant economy and existing widespread unemployment.

Damascus, and in particular the regime’s bosses, faces the loss of some two billion dollars each year which experts say was siphoned from Lebanon during Syria’s domination there.

Socio-economic relations between the two countries “are now going to take priority over the military aspect”, said one senior Syrian official in an interview published on Wednesday in the Lebanese An-Nahar newspaper.

One Damascus-based diplomat said that while reforms were anathema to those running a one-party state, the spotlight on Damascus and its relations with, and involvement in, Lebanon would not go away.


Last Thursday, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1595 for an international inquiry over the February killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut.

Lebanon’s opposition accuses Syria of being involved in the killing, a charge denied by Damascus.

Several analysts say they believe the enormous pressure exercised by Washington on Syria over the past few months is aimed at destabilising the regime.

“The pressures will continue,” even after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, said one former diplomat in Damascus.