Tensions Mount In Lebanon Over Syrian Presence

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Lebanese authorities this week banned demonstrations for and against Syria's continued occupation of their tiny country, fearing an escalation in Christian-Muslim tensions as the country marked the anniversary of the 1975-1990 civil war.

Tensions mounted after Christian and leftist groups pledged to mark the April 13 anniversary with protests in Beirut, demanding that Lebanon's sovereignty be restored. Pro-Syrian groups vowed to stage counter-protests.

Christian activists have been at the forefront of the movement calling on Syria to pull its 35,000 troops out of Lebanon, while Muslims are often considered to be among those who would like Syria to stay.

Maronite Christian Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, who is leading the campaign, visited the U.S. and Canada last month to drum up support for the cause. Upon his return to Lebanon, he was welcomed by some 150,000 Christians, who shouted anti-Syrian slogans.

But shortly thereafter, the Iranian-backed Hizballah organization used the opportunity of the Shi'ite Islamic holiday of Ashoura to call on Syria to stay.

Nevertheless, a Beirut lawyer said that the question of whether or not Syria withdraws is not a straightforward Christian versus Muslim issue.

"There is no Muslim-Christian conflict in Lebanon," said Dr. Muhamad Mugraby, spokesman for the Campaign for Good Governance in Lebanon.

He said Lebanon's real problem is that it is becoming increasingly backward. There is a "constant deterioration" in every aspect of life: the standard of living, education, economy and job opportunities, he said.

This, combined with a lack of good political leadership in the country, had forced religious leaders, like Sfeir to lead the anti-Syrian cause, making it appear to be a sectarian one.

Sfeir's message was actually a restating of the obvious, Mugraby said. "It's a message of reason, logic and fact. This message is being welcomed by all Lebanese ... regardless of religion."

Wednesday, the army banned public protest marches planned by students at primarily Christian colleges, fearing clashes between anti- and pro-Syrian demonstrators. Student leaders then changed their plans, holding sit-ins instead.

The army announced in a statement it would "take strict security measures in all areas to prevent unlicensed gatherings and demonstrations which aim at destabilizing stability and provoking sedition."

President Emile Lahoud also warned Christians and Muslims that he would not permit the debate over the Syrian presence in Lebanon to harm the country's security.

Hundreds of pro-Syrian demonstrators defied a protest ban and took to the streets in a number of small protests.

The Beirut Daily Star described some of those pro-Syrian rallies.

"Dressed in black and wearing face paint and masks, the pro-Syrian demonstrators waved nail-encrusted broomsticks wrapped in masking tape, kitchen knives, brass knuckles, chains, axes, old rusted swords and the odd hammer," it said.

"Around 200 demonstrators at each location were rushed out of mosques upon the arrival of journalists. The demonstrating men and boys waved their weapons and posed briefly before cameras," the Star said.

Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976 to fight Palestinian groups involved in the civil war and to combat Israel's influence there. In 1982, the United Nations called on all foreign troops to leave the country.

Last year Israel withdrew its forces from a narrow southern strip after 18 years there, which opened the door for opposition groups to call for Syria's withdrawal also. There are also one million Syrian workers in Lebanon, and Damascus dominates the Lebanese political process.

Mugraby likened Syria's presence in Lebanon to that of the communists in Eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Although they may not physically threaten or bully the Lebanese, their presence is felt.

Nevertheless, the offices of a Christian politician who supports a Syrian withdrawal were burned down this week. Najah Wakim charged that the fire was set as part of the growing sectarian battle.

In another incident, three women from the Druze community, relatives of a lawmaker who has criticized Syria's presence in Lebanon, were seriously injured when they opened a parcel bomb left on the doorstep. Druze leaders linked the explosion to the Syrian debate.

Mugraby, who pinned Lebanese woes more on economic decline than the Syrian presence, did acknowledge that economic growth would follow a Syrian withdrawal.

The U.S. has pledged $35 million in economic aid to Lebanon this year. Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is due to visit the U.S. later this month.