Although the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon was greeted with much fanfare in the Western media, their departure is little more than a symbolic gesture by Damascus, extracted under enormous pressure from the international community. Syrian soldiers have not been directly involved in policing the country for nearly a decade (several Lebanese political analysts I spoke with recently could not remember the last time anyone was killed by one). Lebanon's satellite regime still answers to Damascus, while the backbone of Syria's power in Lebanon -- its intelligence apparatus -- remains deeply imbedded in the country and as capable as ever of assassinating wayward political elites or fomenting violence if things do not go Syria's way.
While Western observers have spilled much ink debating whether and how tenaciously Syrian President Bashar Assad will resist the reemergence of an independent Lebanon, they have almost invariably ignored or understated the single most critical factor affecting both questions. Put simply, the Assad regime is hooked on Lebanon. Jibran Tueni, the editor of Lebanon's leading daily newspaper, Al-Nahar, recently estimated that Syria siphons between US$10-billion and US$20-billion a year from its captive neighbour -- a foreign exchange windfall that far exceeded the costs of maintaining the occupation. If this cash flow approaches even the lower boundary of Tueni's estimate, then Syria is far more dependent on revenue extracted from Lebanon (47% of its GDP) than Saudi Arabia is on oil export revenue (36% of its GDP). The cash-strapped Assad regime would almost certainly collapse if this lifeline were suddenly cut. The fact that economic reform in Damascus remains as sluggish as ever is a sign that the Syrians cannot even conceive of life after Lebanon.
Fortunately for Assad, none of this revenue depends on the presence of Syrian soldiers in Lebanon -- it depends on Syria's ability to control the country's government. Drug producers in the eastern Beqaa Valley and corrupt bankers in Beirut will continue giving the Syrians their cut so long as Damascus can guarantee that the authorities in Beirut leave them alone. Syrian farmers will continue to export tariff-free produce into Lebanon until the authorities block Syrian smuggling routes. Roughly one million Syrian workers in Lebanon (who remit over US$2-billion a year back to their families) will remain in the country, driving poor Lebanese out of work, until the Lebanese government starts regulating their presence.
Regardless of the outcome of parliamentary elections this month (if they are held at all), Lebanon's government will face tremendous domestic pressure to act against Syrian interests in all of these areas. However, the threat of assassination will continue to loom over Lebanese elites who contemplate defying Damascus, as will the prospect of Syrian-backed terrorist violence.
When former president Amine Gemayel tried to pursue an independent path following the entry of U.S. and European peacekeeping forces into Beirut in the early 1980s, the late Hafez Assad struck back furiously through Syria's terrorist and militia proxies, plunging the country back into civil war and quickly reducing Gemayel's government to vassal status.
Hafez's son and successor certainly has the means to instigate such an apocalyptic explosion of violence in Lebanon. Ironically, however, the fact that he has a much bigger financial stake in Lebanon than his father did (and is much more dependent on it) mitigates against a full-scale destabilization campaign. Widespread unrest in Lebanon would damage an economy in which the Syrian officials are heavily invested and undercut demand for (and probably the security of) Syrian workers.
Thus, Assad faces a much more difficult challenge than his father did -- how to keep his golden goose without strangling it -- and will have to use violence much more selectively if he is to have any hope of succeeding. In light of his track record of stupendous blunders (e.g. the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February), I wouldn't bet on him accomplishing this delicate task.
Syria's staggering financial dependence on Lebanon also poses a problem for the Bush administration. While U.S. officials remain divided over whether regime change in Damascus should be a long-term goal of U.S. policy, there is a loose consensus that a precipitous collapse of Assad's grip on power would be dangerous -- it could prompt the cornered dictator to embark on riskier adventurism in Lebanon or abroad, for example, or spark a Sunni Islamist uprising against his minority Alawite Syrian regime (a thought that no one in Washington relishes).
Finding a way to weaken the Assad regime's grip on Lebanon without fatally undermining its grip on Syria will be a daunting challenge. The fates of two nations hang in the balance.