U.S. academic believes Syria still influential in Lebanon

Washington has its own plans, says Michael Hudson

By Clancy Chassay

BEIRUT: Renowned Middle East expert Michael Hudson said Syria continues to hold influence over Lebanon despite its recent withdrawal, and that the U.S. has its own plans regarding future Syrian – Lebanese relations.

Speaking at the American University in Beirut’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Hudson – who is director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington – cited a recent statement by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggesting America believes that now Syria is officially out of Lebanon it should play a role helping its neighbor manage on its own.

“One of the demands Condoleezza Rice is making on the Syrians is … ‘It’s not enough that you got out of Lebanon. We want you to be proactively helpful in keeping the Lebanese from falling apart now that they’re on their own,'” said Hudson.

He described the Lebanon of recent weeks as having gone “back to the future – a sort of a transformation. Only weeks later (after the Syrian withdrawal), it looks like the same old Lebanon. Everyone [is] double-dealing and having a great time; it seems almost therapeutic.”

Noting that the opposition movement, seen by many as having brought an end to the Syrian occupation here, had been “experiencing certain defections,” Hudson spoke of a relatively unchanged political landscape in Lebanon following the Syrian pullout.

“Once you get over the euphoria of liberation, you ask: ‘Who are the real forces in the country?’ And it turns out they’re pretty much the same forces who were running things already,” he said.

Hudson suggested that the continued dominance of familiar political forces was likely to help sustain Syrian influence in Lebanon.

“There are about half a dozen major forces in the country,” he said, “and Syria will therefore retain very substantial influence, even if it doesn’t have a significant mukhabarat presence here.”

Hudson also said the United States may be intending to use Syria to control events here.

“Perhaps that explains part of (America’s ) pressure on Syria, saying: ‘Say folks, you can influence them, but we will be watching you. If your aim is disarming Hizbullah then that’s fine, but if it’s your going to the same old thing then it’s not.'”

Hudson described witnessing “two Lebanons” represented in the numerous street demonstrations leading up to the Syrian withdrawal.

“There was the Lebanon of the poor, the Lebanon of Islam, the Lebanon of true nationalism,” he said, referring to the largely Shiite rallies often organized by Hizbullah.

Hudson added that this Lebanon feels “very strongly about what Israel has been doing to them and to others, and very strongly object to what they might have seen as an American-led plot to expel the Syrians, disarm Hizbullah and so on.”

Hudson described the other Lebanon as “people who are cosmopolitan, well off, who really like America, who really don’t like Syria, who would like to be done with the whole Israeli business.”

He also suggested opposition members might be more inclined to forge a peace agreement with Israel.

“Their leaders would be prepared, when they came to power, to disarm Hizbullah and conclude another May 17 agreement with Israel, bringing back (Michel) Aoun, bringing back (Samir) Geagea. Maybe Aoun or Geagea would become president.

If that was the case,” he said, “you would have two Lebanons in conflict.” – With additional reporting by Naira Der Kiureghian.