Officially, Syria is making plans to pull back its occupying forces from Lebanon. But according to sources inside the “Cedar Revolution,” the grassroots pro-democratic movement that has sprouted in Lebanon in recent weeks, Syria has no intention of relinquishing power over its puppet state.
Working in concert with its counterparts in Iran, Syria has developed what we may call a “Lebanon Plan.” The plan entails pulling out its regular troops while deploying a plethora of terror and intelligence networks inside Lebanon. Through the agency of this network, Syria hopes to orchestrate a series of subversive activities inside Lebanon. Syria’s aim in pursuing these activities could not be clearer: the Baathist state hopes to prove to the growing chorus of critics calling for the end of Syrian presence in Lebanon that Syria, far from being a rogue element, is needed to maintain security.
This plan is hardly unfeasible. Already in existence is a coordinated network of pro-Syrian groups under the direct command of the Syrian intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, in Damascus. This network includes the Syrian Social-Nationalist Party (SSNP), the Intelligence services of the Lebanese and Syrian regimes, the intelligence network of the Republican Guard and its head, Colonel Moustafa Hamdane.
Hamdane is a particularly dangerous figure. Of late, the colonel has been calling all his collaborators in Beirut and supplying them with weapons. In addition, he controls the Lebanese Sunni militia known as “Murabitun Organization.” Formerly commanded by his maternal uncle, Ibrahim Koleylat, the militia was resuscitated by Syria a few years ago and is now an organized network in West Beirut with about 500 fighters. They could be ordered into action at any time.
The groups comprising the pro-Syrian network do not work in isolation. They coordinate their activities with the terrorist group Hezbollah as well as various Palestinian terrorist factions. In fact, Syria looks on Palestinian terrorists as its “second reserves.” They are to be deployed in the event that “outside forces”—that is, international troops—enter Lebanon.
The Syrian shadow network is wasting no time putting its destructive plan into action. Last week, it struck in Jdeideh, a popular suburban neighborhood in East Beirut. A massive car bomb tore through the neighborhood last Friday, wounding 11 people and wreaking widespread damage to surrounding homes and shops in the area. Though Lebanese investigators are still searching for the culprits, my sources believe Republican Guard operatives planted the bomb.
Their strategy is part of the shadow network’s campaign of intimidation: they aim to scare Lebanese youth against taking part in the anti-Syrian sit-ins and demonstrations. They may also be seeking to deter financial institutions from lending support to Lebanon’s burgeoning pro-democracy movement.
And the Syrian network may just be getting started. Some analysts in Beirut believe that the next item on its agenda is the assassination of anti-Syrian politicians and intellectuals. High-ranking officers in the Lebanese Army may also be in Syria’s gun sights—whatever it takes to compel Lebanon to acquiesce to Syrian control. In short, Syria hopes to replicate in Lebanon the terrorist campaign underway in Iraq. That campaign, it is worth noting, is also directed from Damascus.
Up to now, the planned withdrawal of Syrian troops has distracted attention from the Syrian campaign to destabilize Lebanon. But a closer inspection of the withdrawal suggests that it may be part of the larger Syrian plan to preserve its grip on Lebanon.
At present, less than four regular brigades of the Syrian Army remain in Lebanon. They have received orders to pull out from Lebanon before April 7. According to sources inside Syria, however, these troops won't be going far. Instead, they will be deployed on the border with Iraq to reinforce the two divisions already stationed there. On the pretext of keeping an eye on U.S. naval forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, policy planners within the Syrian regime have abjured a complete pullback.
Clearly, Syria intends to keep Lebanon in its fold. Yet as recent events indicate, Lebanon is no longer prostrated before the will of its longtime occupier. In the wake of the Jdeideh bombing, for instance, the Lebanese army immediately moved to shore up Lebanese civil society. The commander of the Lebanese Army, General Michel Sleimane, issued a communiqué stressing “law and order.” Sleimane also emphasized that the army was taking steps to protect freedom of speech in Lebanon. Such measures are unprecedented in Lebanon. Previously, it was Syria who laid down the law.
As the above suggests, the powerful movement for independence presents the Lebanese army with a momentous opportunity. No longer cowed by Syrian armies, Lebanese regular forces may move to fill the void. They may become the defenders of the demonstrators—not their oppressors.
In this, they have already been aided by leaders of the Lebanese Diaspora. Concerned about a potential attack on Lebanese officers by the Syrian Mukhabarat, these leaders have taken their case to the United Nations Security Council. Their demands are simple: they ask for international protection of the only military institution capable of assuming Lebanon’s long term security after the Syrian withdrawal.
Their efforts have met with a measure of success. Within the United Nations, Western and Arab diplomats are now drawing a red line around the Lebanese Army. They recognize that by holding the line against Syrian pressure and offering protection to dissidents inside Lebanon, the army will play a necessary role in fostering a peaceful, democratic Lebanon.
Inside Lebanon, pro-Syrian politicians desperately yearn for the demise of the Lebanese independence movement. They hope the “wave will die out,” and the Cedar Revolution will go the way of Prague in 1968. But within Lebanese civil society, students, farmers, school teachers, fishermen, women’s groups and religious orders from all communities know that this is their time, that this is their one shot at freedom.
Despite the best efforts of Syria’s shadow network and its Lebanese apparatchiks, they may yet achieve it.