Former President of Lebanon Amin Gemayel has no illusions about the reach of Syria's Baath Party regime. The veteran Christian leader blames Damascus for assassinating his brother in 1982, shortly after Bashir Gemayel's election as president of Lebanon. Amin took his brother's place, signed a U.S.-brokered peace deal with Israel and formally asked Syrian troops to exit Lebanon. Instead, the Syrian government supported Lebanese militia groups that drove U.S. peace-keeping troops out of Lebanon, and forced Gemayel to cancel his Israel agreement. Seventeen years after leaving office, Gemayel now believes that a Syrian withdrawal from his country is inevitable, as he explained to TIME Cairo Bureau Chief Scott MacLeod.
TIME: Who is responsible for the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri?
Amin Gemayel: People believe that Syria is responsible because of the continuous interference of the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence services in Lebanese affairs. I don't know if the investigations will give us the right answer. A few weeks before the assassination, the position and statement of Syrian allies in Lebanon became very hostile and threatening to Hariri, an incitement to commit the crime. Officially, Syria is responsible for the security of Lebanon. If the Syrian intelligence apparatus is not able to protect the country, then they should withdraw. And if they are involved in this crime, they have to withdraw and be punished.
TIME: Is this the beginning of the end of Syria's domination of Lebanon?
Amin Gemayel: The countdown has begun. I don't know how quick will it be.
TIME: Because of the assassination of Hariri?
Amin Gemayel: It was not all of a sudden that the mood changed. The (Syrian-backed) extension of President Emile Lahoud's term of office (in September 2004) was, to use a French expression, the drop that caused the glass to overflow. Before that extension, hope had been raised in hearts and minds of the people. They thought that with a new president, perhaps there will be a new policy and a new era. Their disappointment was like an explosion. Many other things, including the assassination attempt against MP Marwan Hamade, strengthened feelings against the Lebanese government and Syria.
TIME: How strong is the opposition now?
Amin Gemayel: The people rose up. It is like with (former Romanian dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu. There is a feeling of being fed up. People feel, “Let us die but keep the country alive.” You gain courage and determination because you have nothing to lose anymore. Syria used the logic of “divide and rule” with success for a very long time. They were very active in promoting the division and inciting people to fight each other and keep the country in permanent conflict with itself. But now, this policy is over. It doesn't work anymore.
TIME: Can the opposition politicians now stick together?
Amin Gemayel: The parties until recent years were fighting each other. Now they decided to unite, to join their efforts to liberate the country. They have come from opposite trenches to call for the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. This would have been unbelievable just a few months ago. There is a personal and national interest of every leader to remain committed and to go all the way, until Lebanon regains its freedom and sovereignty. It is an opportunity for the country and nobody can afford not to work for the cause of liberation. Otherwise they will be badly judged by history. Another important change is that in the past, the U.S. and France accepted the Syrian presence in Lebanon. There is a change after September 11 and after the Iraqi war. This encouraged the Lebanese leaders to raise their voices of resentment toward Syria. It is a liberation from many taboos. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 (calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Lebanon) is a dramatic shift in the international approach to the Lebanese crisis.
TIME: Why is Lebanon so important to Syria?
Amin Gemayel: Syria has an historic and national dream to annex Lebanon. They refuse to appoint an ambassador in Beirut and have diplomatic relations like with any other country, because they don't recognize the independence of Lebanon. Lebanon is the only card that remains for Syria to show that it is an important country in the Middle East. Syria is controlling the main aspects of the Lebanese economy. As important as all the other points, many Syrian officials are exploiting their influence in Lebanon for their own financial interests.
TIME: Should the U.S. try to change the regime in Syria?
Amin Gemayel: We don't know, and it's not a Lebanese concern. We don't have an interest in a strong confrontation between Washington and Syria. The Lebanese people are exhausted after 30 years of war, occupation, turmoil and chaos. I lost my brother, I lost my nephew, I lost my niece. All of them were assassinated during the war. Every family lost a lot. Enough bloodshed! Enough chaos! It is in the real interests of Syria to understand there is a new era, a new approach, and after 30 years of military presence in Lebanon it is time to let this country breath. Until now, it doesn't seem that Syria is ready for this step. The Syrians should know that they cannot play any more games with the international community. What I expect is that if Syria continues to oppose the international community, it would become difficult for the Syrian regime itself.
TIME: Does the Syrian regime feel its own survival is jeopardized if it withdraws from Lebanon?
Amin Gemayel: It is wise to raise this question but I have no answer. For sure the collapse of the Lebanese card will have dramatic effects on the regime in Syria.
TIME: Should the U.S. give guarantees of support to President Bashar Assad to help Syria absorb those dramatic effects?
Amin Gemayel: This is a solution.
TIME: In the meantime, do you support more sanctions?
Amin Gemayel: The U.N. Security Council should go all the way to implement Resolution 1559. They have the means. Where there is a will, there is a way.
TIME: Why did you fail to force Syrian troops to withdraw when you were President of Lebanon?
Amin Gemayel: Syria says, “We will withdraw when the Lebanese government asks us to withdraw.” On 1 September 1983, I sent a letter to then President Hafez Assad calling on the Syrian army to withdraw. Syria did not respond. The situation was more complex. We were in the middle of the Cold War and the Soviet Union was still there, with the balance of power. Maybe (U.S. support) was only words and good intentions. Everybody knows that the Syrian military presence in Lebanon had the blessing and the cover of the United States. It's very clear in the memoirs of Henry Kissinger. Now, with the new Bush administration we feel a stronger determination in liberating Lebanon and in promoting democracy in the Middle East. Washington has an opportunity to translate words into reality.
TIME: If Syria leaves Lebanon, could there be another civil war?
Amin Gemayel: Between who and who? All the parties are in the same room around one table discussing openly the future of a democratic and free country. Hizballah is the last party in Lebanon to be military equipped. But it hasn't any interest in starting another civil war. It would become isolated in Lebanon and abroad and lose everything they won in the resistance against Israel. It would be political suicide for Hizballah to encourage a civil war. (Hizballah leader) Hassan Nasrallah on the day of the assassination called for a dialogue for the historic reconciliation.