Syria’s economic grip on Lebanon sparking sectarian discontent
Speaking to members of Lebanon’s Constitutional Council on April 9, Emile Lahoud, the country’s Christian and pro-Syrian president, raised the much-feared specter of sectarian strife. The Lebanese people do have no intention of reliving their violent past, and will not allow anything to divert them from their path toward national reconciliation, he said.
But Lahoud’s confident statement of Lebanese resolve did not seem to be reflected on the ground. Political tension in the country was clearly rising, 26 years after the outbreak on April 13, 1975, of the civil war that ripped Lebanon apart for 15 years and resulted in the death of 150,000 people.
On Saturday, April 7, the Lebanese interior ministry decided to ban rival public rallies planned for the following Wednesday. The giant gatherings that had been called were cancelled, but sporadic pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrations still took place in Beirut, although no violence was reported. Nonetheless, that same day a booby-trapped parcel exploded, injuring three Druze relatives of an anti-Syrian member of parliament.
There are clearly sectarian elements to this latest rise in political tension, but the root causes are clearly different to those that existed 26 years earlier. For, whereas the 1975 outbreak of violence reflected a backlash by the country’s Muslim majority against its Christian political and economic elite, this time the issue is Syria’s influence over Lebanese affairs and the presence of Syrian security forces in the country. In general, while many of the Muslim political groups support the Syrian presence, the most vehement opposition is largely Christian. The country’s Druze minority has also voiced opposition to the Syrian presence.
Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the spiritual leader of Lebanon's 900,000 Maronite Christians has been leading the campaign against Syria's presence. “We are calling for a very simple thing, that Lebanon be sovereign, free and independent," he said on March 27 when he returned from a seven-week tour to North America.
Syria currently has 30,000 troops in Lebanon. They were first sent into the country in 1976 in an effort quell the civil war, and they later sided with the Muslims against the Christians forces. When the war ended in 1990, it was largely a result of Syria’s military forcing its will on the various parties. Since then, the road to power in Beirut traditionally has led through Damascus.
Two events last year brought the sensitive issue of the Syrian presence to the top of the political agenda. In May, Israel withdrew its troops from Southern Lebanon, where they had been stationed, essentially since 1978. This removal of one foreign element in the country placed the other foreign element—Syria—under the microscope. Two weeks later, Syrian President Hafez Assad died and was replaced by his 34-year-old son, Bashar. The new president was believed by many to be more open to rethinking the Syrian-Lebanese relationship.
But the truth is that even if Bashar Assad was prepared to consider withdrawing from its Lebanese vassal, he most probably could not afford to do so. In the years that Syria has been ensconced in the country, its moribund economy has become dependent upon it.
Despite the ravages of civil war, the Lebanese economy remains impressive when compared to its Syrian neighbor. According to the World Bank, with a population of 4.3 million in 1999, the country reported a gross domestic product of $17.2 billion and a gross national product per capita of $3,700. By contrast, Syria’s population of 15.7 billion had a population of 15.7 million had a gross domestic product of $19.4 billion and a gross national product per capita of $970. In other words, while Lebanon lacks petroleum or mineral resources, and instead relies solely on its heritage of mercantile and entrepreneurial talent, it has achieved a standard of living almost five times that of Syria.
Damascus’ hegemony over Lebanon is anchored through a series of bilateral treaties, the most prominent of which are the "Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination" and the "Defense and Security Agreement," both in 1991. The accords tie Lebanon closely to Syria in all fields, and most are structured in such a way to provide Syria with an element of greater control. This inherent imbalance has created a good deal of discontent in the Lebanese business community.
Labor is a burning issue. A rapid influx of Syrian workers into Lebanon began shortly after Syria's October 1990 takeover of Beirut, and 1991 the new Lebanese government announced the official removal of most travel restrictions between the two countries, meaning that Syrians could cross over the border virtually undetected. Today, according to economist Marwan Iskander, a former adviser to Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the number of Syrian workers in Lebanon is about 1.4 million. Furthermore, the Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon often have jobs to supplement their meager pay. Syrian workers remit around $4.3 billion from Lebanon to Syria every year.
Since Syria's per capita GNP is less than a third of Lebanon's, Syrian workers have been ready willing to work for wages that are extremely low by Lebanese standards. A Syrian taxi driver in Beirut, for example, earning up to $200 per month, makes twice the salary of a university professor in Damascus. This means that Lebanese employers prefer to hire unskilled Syrian workers over their Lebanese counterparts, and undoubtedly this has contributed to Lebanon’s unemployment rate of about 30 percent. According to Lebanese economist Bassam Hashem, the Syrian labor force deprives the Lebanese treasury of an estimated $3 billion per year in permit fees and taxes.
Syria has managed to limit worker unrest in Lebanon through its influence over the labor movement. In mid-March, Lebanon's main union, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (GCLW) voted in a new leader who was backed by pro-Syrian parties, including Shiite Amal movement and the National Syrian Social Party. But federations classified as independent boycotted the election. Indeed, 27 members of the 74-strong executive council did not cast a vote.
The dumping of Syrian products in the Lebanese market is another area of discontent. Lebanese business leaders have long complained about Syrian exporters flooding their markets with fruit, poultry, and dairy products, plastics, clothing, and shoes.
In February, the Lebanese government quadrupled to $40 million the sum allocated to agriculture in the draft budget, largely in an attempt to appease local farmers who were complaining about the import of cheap farm produce, mainly brought in from Syria. Farmer protests had started in the northern Akkar plain and spread to the eastern Bekaa valley, both bordering Syria. Farmers blocked the roads to stop truckloads of Syrian produce entering the country.
The co-existence of an open economy like Lebanon's and a largely closed one like Syria's has inevitably led smuggling from the first to the second. There have long been accusations against Syrian army of enrich themselves from the proceeds of the illegal trade. Other charges have involved Syrian elements allegedly imposing silent partners on Lebanese business enterprises, thereby harvesting huge revenues.
Lebanon has become an important haven for money laundering operations, and Syrians have in the past been accused of taking a share of the illicit proceeds. This practice may be curtailed, though, after the Lebanese parliament passed this week a law aimed at combating money laundering.
But despite the opposition of many Lebanese to the Syrian involvement in the country and its economy, there is unlikely to be any change in the immediate future, in the main because of a lack of political will to rock the boat. The Maronite president, Emile Lahoud, generally argues that the Syrian army helps to stabilize a country that is internally fragile, and according to Prime Minister Hariri Syria’s presence is necessary because of the “current sensitive stage in the Middle East, which is marked by the absence of any signal on the chances of peace within the foreseeable future.”
But, as they speak, there is growing a very tangible groundswell of opposition to Syria, which largely is sectarian in character. That does not bode well for Lebanese stability. – (Albawaba-MEBG)
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)