The Daily Star, 26 August 2004

The debate currently taking place in Lebanon over the renewal or extension of the presidential mandate, and whether to amend the Lebanese Constitution to bring this about, raises only minimal interest in Syrian political circles. With the exception of a very small number of people at the very top of the political leadership in Damascus, the general attitude of Syrians toward what goes on in Lebanon is characterized by a lack of concern, even bewilderment.

In the past few years, however, there has emerged a small group of Syrians that rejects the current state of affairs between the two countries. This group has called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and the establishment of a bilateral relationship based on equality, transparency and constructive cooperation.

The lukewarm reaction in Syria is surprising indeed given the fact that Lebanon is the country’s closest neighbor and hosts over half a million Syrian laborers whose families rely entirely on their income from work in construction and agriculture. To this must be added the fact that Lebanon’s press is the window through which Syrian intellectuals – both independents and those in opposition – reach their Syrian readers, but also an interested Lebanese public and the rest of the world.

This general Syrian indifference contrasts glaringly with the passion, either positive or negative, with which large sectors of the Lebanese public react toward Syria. The fact remains that while the relationship with Syria is a major focal point of Lebanese political life, in Syria, even within opposition circles, the country’s relations with Lebanon are hardly a significant matter at all.

Added to the lack of concern toward issues of politics and governance in Lebanon, average Syrians are surprised when they are told that their regime is the “regional protector” of Lebanon’s regime, or that it is “the main elector” of its president, or that Syria’s president is the “head of Lebanon’s ‘three presidents,'” as one Lebanese journalist recently wrote. They are equally astonished when they are told that politics in Lebanon are “merely quarrels between the president of the republic, the prime minister and the president of Parliament,” while “the real decisions are made in Damascus,” to quote another Lebanese journalist.

What is most astonishing, however, is the fact that Syria maintains hegemony over another more complex, lively and “advanced’ country, by ruling over its political elite and controlling relations between the various components of its population. No less astonishing is that some Lebanese, those for whom Syrians work as laborers or as intellectuals, never cease to complain about the Syrian regime’s interference in their personal affairs and in domestic political matters. Syrian astonishment, however, does not come because we are feigning innocence, but because we lack confidence in both ourselves and our regime.

This lack of Syrian interest in Lebanon is supposedly fueled by the complexity of the Lebanese political scene and by the fact that Syria’s role in Lebanon is not grounded in the reasonable. The Lebanese might resent this Syrian apathy toward their country, but they might be pleased to know that its more fundamental cause is that the Syrians are also uninterested in the political process inside their own country. The lack of concern for Lebanon is part of a broader lack of concern by Syrians for issues relevant to their own regime, which they fail to understand.

This public attitude results from a variety of factors, namely alienation from and fear of the regime, an inability to understand why it behaves the way it does, and a realization that the ruling elite only acts to further its own interests and to prolong its time in power. Within this context, Syrian military and security hegemony over Lebanon is still, until today, shrouded in the frightening considerations buttressing the regime in Syria – those of “national security,” “high matters of national interest,” as well as fear and secrecy. And despite the fact that the climate of fear that had inhibited the discussion of internal Syrian political matters has ebbed in recent years, this impression, particularly when compared to the freedom of speech enjoyed by Syrian writers in the Lebanese press, is overstated.

An even more compelling reason for the lack of concern for Lebanese issues in Syria is probably a lack of public awareness. There is nothing in the psychological make-up of Syrians, or in their living memory, that allows them to fall back on a previous time when their country ruled over another. That’s because such a reality is in stark contradiction with contemporary Syrian history, which has been distinguished by the fact that it is others who have imposed hegemony over Syria.

It is normal that this sentiment should have provoked a sense of victimhood, a psychological state that has brought about a disregard for facts and prevented Syrians from considering the potentially hegemonic relationships in which their country has played an active part (whether with respect to Syria’s Kurds, Palestinians, or, in the past, the Palestinian Liberation Organization). Official statements aside, independent analyses of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship tend to focus on the dangers that Israel poses and on the intricate religious and sectarian dimensions of Lebanon as the defining characteristics of this relationship. Clearly, however, these two characteristics serve to defend the status quo in the relationship rather than provoke its reconsideration.

Finally, one must observe that attitudes toward Lebanon in the Syrian countryside, from which most laborers working in the Lebanese economy come from, are similar to those in the rest of Syria, but more extreme. To the peasant from the Hawran or the Jazeera, Lebanon is not only a place characterized by pleasure seeking and over-indulgence that he neither understands nor feels at home with, it is also a country that denigrates and fails to respect him. Syrian laborers, who find that their own country cannot employ them all, but who are also downtrodden in Lebanon, have no incentive to change the hegemonic relationship between Syria and Lebanon.

There are voices in Lebanon that reject Syrian hegemony, but also refuse to come to grips with the new realities that have shaped Lebanon, even if these realities are of recent vintage, for example the advent of Hizbullah. These Lebanese do themselves and their country a great disservice. By their attitude they impede the crystallization of a collective Lebanese will for change and sovereignty, allow certain Lebanese factions, as well as external powers, to insist on defending the Syrian role as powerbroker among the Lebanese, and undermine the position of those few Syrians who object to their country’s hegemony over Lebanon.