[Marxism] Juan Cole's worthwhile comments on Syria and Lebanon

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Mar 1 13:22:07 MST 2005

Juan Cole's comments are very worthwhile, as usual.  First of all, it is
important to know that US opposition to the Syrian occupation, which has
strong strategic reasons which are founded on the assumption that
Israel, and the US as the alternative to direct Israeli occupation, can
impose its will on a Lebanon without Israeli troops. But while the
opposition (which is bourgeois, like those who support Syrian troops)saw
the US drive to confront Syria as an opportunity to press their case,
this does not mean that they are US puppets.

That COULD (not necessarily at first and in fact not necessarily at all)
become another historic miscalculation by Washington and Tel Aviv).
There have been many indications that an unoccupied Lebanon could become
a tougher nut to crack for the Israelis than Syrian-occupied Lebanon).

Along from the gross evidence that can be cited to show that US
imperialism is growing stronger in the Middle East (the Iraqi elections,
the disarray and (I think) divisions in the Sunni-based forces in the
resistance to the occupation -- the openly anti-occupation forces among
the Shia, symbolized by Sadr, seem to be prospering -- the growing
pressure on Syria and Iran, etc.).  Washington is proceeding as though
the elections had opened the way to implementation of its full program
(occupying Syria, enabling Israel to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities,
which they hope will incite popular, pro-US opposition to the regime,
etc., etc.). 

But the elections, while a product of the occupation without doubt, seem
to have been at least as much a product of the opposition to the
occupation among a traditionally discriminated-against sector, the Shia.

By the way, Gilbert Achcar's latest speculations seem as off as his
previous ones.  He continues on a pro-Shia AXIS, rather than an
ANTI-OCCUPATION, INDEPENDENCE OF IRAQ axis. This misrepresents the
complexity of the situation where the entire population of geographical
Iraq (even including the Kurds) is oppressed and restricted by the
occupation, and where the Iraqi Arab nation is being denied
self-determination by the occupation. I'm rather pro-Shia myself (I
never got over the positive accomplishments of the Iranian revolution,
which ended in a mess as all revolutions that don't go all the way do in
their own way), but I think the pro-Shia AXIS can only be distorting.  

The US has to talk to forces in the Sunni wing of the resistance.  They
have to talk to Baathists. It is clear that a stable US-dominated setup
cannot come into being as a pure American "REVOLUTION" in Iraq, placing
all the bourgeois forces that took shape in the struggles set off by the
1958 into pure "democratic" subordination to Washington. At least, that
cannot happen until Washington has shown the power to defeat bourgeois
Syria and Iran as it has not succeeded in defeating bourgeois Iraq.
There can be no peaceful semi-colonial Iraq without large sections of
the Baath. That some in the US government attempt to negotiate with the
Baathists reflects their desire for a stable semicolonial regime, not a
desire to re-establish Sunni domination over the Shia.

Similarly, the crisis in the Sunni-based section of the resistance, in
the wake of the elections, probably revolves around the necessity to
recognize the changes in Iraqi society registered by the ability of the
US to occupy Iraq, and the necessity of a pan-Iraqi resistance to the
occupation. Zin this debate, the hard-core Sunni chauvinists (Zarqawi
being the most vocal advocate) are not the wave of the future.

The Syrians have agreed to turn over a prominent member of Saddam's
family-party to the occupation. 
But is this, as it is being portrayed in the media, a concession to US
power?  Or is it a concession to Iran and to the Shia resistance forces
in Iraq, whose importance was highlighted by the elections as much as
the power of US imperialism was? I suspect the latter.

Syria is portrayed in the US media as a hard-core supporter of the most
fanatically anti-Shia forces in the Iraqi resistance. But the Assad
family which governs Syria today belongs to the Allawite religious
minority, not the Sunni majority of the population. Syria's tie with
Iran is not new.  They supported Iran in the Iraq-Iran war, and seem to
have lent sub rosa backing to all wings of the resistance to the
occupation.  There is no evidence at all that they have insisted (like
the more firmly pro-imperialist Saudi and Jordanian monarchies) on  the
restoration of Sunni domination in Iraq.
Fred Feldman


The Christian-dominated system of Lebanon fell apart for a number of 
reasons. The Israelis expelled 100,000 or so Palestinians north to
in 1948. The Christians of Lebanon refused to give the Palestinians 
Lebanese citizenship, since the Palestinians were 80 to 85 percent
and their becoming Lebanese would have endangered Christian dominance.
time the stateless Palestinians living in wretched camps grew to
(In contrast, the Maronite elite gave the Armenians who immigrated 
citizenship so fast it would make your head spin.)

In the second half of the 20th century, the Lebanese Shiites grew much 
faster, being poor tobacco farmers with large families, than did the 
increasingly urban and middle class Maronites. Maronites emigrated on a 
large scale (it is said that there are 6 million Lebanese outside
and only 3 million inside), to North America (think Danny Thomas and
Hayek) and to South America (think Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina and 
Shakira of Columbia).

By 1975 the Maronites were no longer the dominant force in Lebanon. Of a
million population, the Shiites had grown to be 35 percent (and may now
40 percent), and the Maronites had shrunk to a quarter, and are probably

now 20 percent. The Shiites were mobilizing both politically and 
militarily. So, too, were the Palestinians.

The Maronite elite found the newly assertive Muslims of the south 
intolerable, and a war broke out between the Maronite party-militia, the

Phalange (modeled on Franco's and Mussolini's Brown Shirts) and the PLO.

The war raged through 1975 and into 1976 (I saw some of it with my own 
eyes). The PLO was supported by the Druze and the Sunnis. They began 
winning against the Maronites.

The prospect of a PLO-dominated Lebanon scared the Syrians. Yasser
would have been able to provoke battles with Israel at will, into which 
Syria might be drawn. Hafez al-Asad determined to intervene to stop it. 
First he sought a green light from the Israelis through Kissinger. He
got it.

In spring of 1976 the Syrians sent 40,000 troops into Lebanon and
the Palestinian fighters, saving the Maronites, with Israeli and US 
approval. Since the Baathists in Syria should theoretically have been 
allies of the Palestinians, it was the damnedest thing. But it was just 
Realpolitik on al-Asad's part. Syria felt that its national interests
threatened by developments in Lebanon and that it was in mortal danger
it did not occupy its neighbor.

The Druze never forgave the Syrians for the intervention, or for killing

their leader, Kamal Jumblatt. Although the Palestinians were sullen and 
crushed, they declined as a factor in Lebanese politics once they were 
largely disarmed, since they still lack citizenship and face employment
other restrictions. The UN statistics show almost 400,000 Palestinians
Lebanon, half of them in squalid camps. But some social scientists
that because of massive out-migration to Europe, there are actually less

than 200,000 in the country now.

In 1982 the Israelis mounted an unprovoked invasion of Lebanon as Ariel 
Sharon sought to destroy the remnants of the weakened PLO in Beirut. He 
failed, but the war killed nearly 20,000 persons, about half of them 
innocent civilians. Ziad Jarrah had a long-term grudge about that. The 
Israelis militarily occupied southern Lebanon, refusing to relinquish 
sovereign Lebanese territory.

The Shiites of the south were radicalized by the Israeli occupation and 
threw up the Hizbullah party-militia, which pioneered suicide bombs and 
roadside bombs, and forced the Israeli occupiers out in 2000.

One foreign occupation had been ended, but the Syrians retained about 
14,000 troops in the Biqa Valley. The Israeli withdrawal weakened the 
Syrians in Lebanon, since many Lebanese had seen the Syrians as a
against Israeli expansionism, but now Damascus appeared less needed.

Over time the Maronites came to feel that the Syrians had outstayed
welcome. So both they and the Druze wanted a complete Syrian withdrawal
the early zeroes.

In the meantime, Syria gradually had gained a new client in Lebanon, the

Shiites, and especially Hizbullah. Likewise many Sunnis supported the

The Syrians made a big mistake in growing attached to Gen. Emile Lahoud,

their favorite Lebanese president. When his 6-year term was about to
last fall, the Syrians intervened to have the Lebanese constitution
to allow him to remain for another 3 years. Across the board, the
public was angered and appalled at this foreign tinkering with their 

Rafiq al-Hariri resigned over the constitutional change. He was replaced
prime minister by another Sunni, Omar Karami of Tripoli in northern

The assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the popular multi-billionnaire
prime minister (1992-1998 and 2000-2004), angered a broad swathe of the 
Sunni community, convincing them it was time for the Syrians to go.
the lack of any real evidence for the identity of the assassin, the 
Lebanese public fixed on the Syrians as the most likely culprit. The 
Sunnis, the Druze and the Maronites have seldom agreed in history. The
time they all did, it was about the need to end the French Mandate,
they made happen in 1943. This cross-confessional unity helps explain
the crowds managed to precipitate the downfall of the government of PM

If Lebanese people power can force a Syrian withdrawal, the public 
relations implications may be ambiguous for Tel Aviv. After the US 
withdrawal from Iraq, Israeli dominance of the West Bank and Gaza will
the last military occupation of major territory in the Middle East.
in the region, in Europe, and in the US itself may begin asking why, if 
Syria had to leave Lebanon, Israel should not have to leave the West
and Gaza.

I don't think Bush had anything much to do with the current Lebanese 
national movement except at the margins. Walid Jumblatt, the embittered
of Kamal whom the Syrians defeated in 1976 at the American behest, said
was inspired by the fall of Saddam. But this sort of statement from a
warlord strikes me as just as manipulative as the news conferences of
Chalabi, who is also inspired by Saddam's fall. Jumblatt has a long
of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment that makes his sudden 
conversion to neoconism likely a mirage. He has wanted the Syrians back
since 1976, so it is not plausible that anything changed for him in

The Lebanese are still not entirely united on a Syrian military
Supporters of outgoing PM Omar Karami rioted in Tripoli on Monday. 
Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah still supports the Syrians and has 
expressed anxieties about the Hariri assassination and its aftermath 
leading to renewed civil war (an argument for continued Syrian military 

Much of the authoritarianism in the Middle East since 1945 had actually 
been supported (sometimes imposed) by Washington for Cold War purposes.
good thing about the democratization rhetoric coming out of Washington 
(which apparently does not apply to Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, 
Uzbekistan, and other allies against al-Qaeda) is that it encourages the

people to believe they have an ally if they take to the streets to end
legacy of authoritarianism.

But Washington will be sorely tested if Islamist crowds gather in Tunis
demand the ouster of Bin Ali. We'll see then how serious the rhetoric
people power really is.

full: http://www.juancole.com/



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