Syrians withdraw from Beirut, but not from Lebanese economy

Published June 26th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

On the face of it, Beirut does not seem quite the city that it did just little more than a week ago. Key positions near the presidential palace, the defense ministry and along the Mediterranean coastline, all of which were held by Syrian troops, have been abandoned.  

 

The Syrians have not gone altogether. Officially, about 6,000 troops had withdrawn from Beirut and Mt. Lebanon. But many moved inland into the Bekaa Valley and to strategic positions in mountainous central Lebanon. Before the pullout there were reported to be between 25,000 and 30,000 Syrian troops in the country, about 10,000 less than the number of Syrian troops who had moved into Syria during the 1975-1990 civil war. 

 

But, at least compared to what existed only weeks earlier, Syria’s often overbearing dominance of Lebanon appears to have been diluted. 

 

However, from an economic perspective, the overt presence of Syrian security forces in Beirut was more a symptom than a cause. And thus, by simply removing them from the scene, one did little to release the often-devastating drag that Damascus has on Lebanon. 

 

Lebanon’s economy is tied to that of Syria through a variety of agreements, the most prominent of which is the "Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination," signed in 1991. It is structured in such a way to provide Syria with an element of control over the market of its western neighbor.  

 

In 1991, Lebanon’s first post-civil war—and Syrian dominated—government announced the official removal of most travel restrictions between the two countries. This meant that Syrian workers could cross over the border virtually undetected, and they came in droves. With Syria's per capita GNP being less than a third of Lebanon's, Syrians are ready willing to work for wages that are extremely low by Lebanese standards. 

 

Today, the number of Syrian workers in Lebanon has been estimated to be 1.4 million. According to Lebanese economist Bassam Hashem, the Syrian labor force in Lebanon deprives the Lebanese treasury of an estimated three billion dollars per year in permit fees and taxes.  

 

The dumping of Syrian products in the Lebanese market is another area of discontent, with Lebanese business leaders having long complained about Syrian exporters flooding their markets with fruit, poultry, and dairy products, plastics, clothing and shoes. Furthermore, 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.  

 

At this stage in time, Syria most probably could not afford to consider withdrawing completely from Lebanon. According to the World Bank, with a population of 4.3 million in 1999, Lebanon 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 million had a gross domestic product of $19.4 billion and a gross national product per capita of $970.  

 

Syrian workers remit around $4.3 billion from Lebanon to Syria every year, or a little less than a quarter of the GDP. Until the Syrian government is able to remedy that figure, Syria is unlikely to willingly relinquish is control in Lebanon willingly. ― (MENA Report)

© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)


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