If the last 30 years of Lebanon's tortured history have revealed a single immutable truth, it is that no political allegiance in the country is sacred. Many politicians and militia leaders known for their impassioned defence of the Palestinian struggle early in the country's 1976-1990 civil war later lined up to cut deals with invading Israeli forces in 1982. Lebanon's largest wartime Christian militia fought Syrian forces for over a decade, only to watch cynically from the sidelines as Syrian troops crushed the last remnants of the Lebanese army and marched into the capital in 1990. Former minister of culture Michelle Edde, who famously declared a decade ago that he would lie down in the middle of the highway to prevent a withdrawal of Syrian forces, is conspicuously silent today as Syrian President Bashar Assad faces mounting domestic and international pressure to pull them out.
Prime Minister Omar Karami's unexpected resignation on Feb. 28, the latest in a series of defections by Syrian-backed politicians since the assassination of former prime minister Rafic Hariri last month, underscored a painful reality for Assad: Only those who have no prospect of a political future once Syrian troops depart, such as President Emile Lahoud (who is hated by his own Maronite Christian community) and Labour Minister Assem Qanso (who heads the much-reviled Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath Party), have remained steadfastly loyal. Karami, who hails from one of Lebanon's most prominent Sunni Muslim families, didn't even bother to inform the Syrians before jumping ship to salvage what's left of his political career.
Even more striking is the gradual defection of Hezbollah from the Syrian camp. In a televised interview last week, the deputy secretary-general of the militant Shiite group, Naim Qassem, declared it would not take sides in the escalating confrontation between the Syrian-backed government and the broad-based opposition coalition calling for its resignation. "If we join one side it means we cancel out the other side; both represent factions of the Lebanese people from all sects and religions," he explained. Asked if the Karami government could count on the support of Hezbollah MPs in a parliamentary vote of confidence, Qassem replied obliquely that the group was keeping its "cards covered."
Notwithstanding their common animosity to Israel and the United States, Hezbollah leaders do not like the Syrians. For starters, there is ideology -- marriages between religious fundamentalists and secular nationalists in the Arab world are always loveless and usually short-lived. Moreover, one of the main pillars of Syrian control over the country -- institutionalized corruption -- is anathema to the group's ascetic leadership.
Although granted free rein to wage war against Israel, Hezbollah has gotten the short end of the stick in Syrian-occupied Lebanon, politically speaking: The 1989 Taif Accord, brokered under Syrian and American auspices, bars Shiite Muslims from the two highest offices of government and allots them a disproportionately low share of parliamentary seats. To add insult to injury, the Syrians refused to let Hezbollah compete freely for these seats, forcing the movement to share joint 50/50 parliamentary slates with their favoured Shiite client, the secular (and deeply unpopular) Amal movement.
Like all other Lebanese, many rank and file Hezbollah militants have experienced humiliating treatment, beatings or even death at the hands of Syrian forces. In 1987, Syrian forces executed 23 Hezbollah militants who had allegedly resisted their takeover of West Beirut, prompting 50,000 angry Shiites to march through the streets chanting "death to Ghazi Kanaan" (then head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, now Assad's Interior Minister).
More importantly, the Shiite masses have been relegated to the bottom of the socio-economic pecking order in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. Roughly one million Syrian workers live in the country, taking away unskilled labour jobs from the mostly Shiite urban poor -- whose ranks are nevertheless swelling because poor, predominantly Shiite, farmers have been driven into bankruptcy by the unhindered influx of cheap agricultural produce from Syria. (Some spent their life savings converting their farms to grow crops unsuitable for the Syrian climate, such as bananas, only to be driven out of business by well-placed Syrian "entrepreneurs" smuggling South American produce into the country.)
This is not to say Hezbollah leaders are glad Syria is coming under such intense pressure to quit Lebanon -- they would undoubtedly have preferred for the occupation to continue long enough for them to drive the final nail into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Now that this pressure has materialized, however, fighting a losing battle to keep Syrian forces in Lebanon would be political suicide. Instead, Hezbollah officials have been meeting with the opposition coalition, hoping for a deal that would allow them to keep their massive military apparatus in the south intact.
Although a recent flurry of statements by opposition leaders praising Hezbollah's "national resistance" has raised eyebrows in Washington, it is doubtful that the group will be able to pull this off. Those who are leading the campaign to push the Syrians from Lebanon presumably understand that only strong American support for post-occupation Lebanon can keep Syria out -- and that the United States will support Lebanon only if it is terror-free. The Bush administration would do well to make certain that there is no misunderstanding on this issue.