A decade after quitting Lebanon, Syria’s worse off than ever

Sunday 01/05/2016
A Beirut building that is still riddled with holes from bullets and shells 41 years after the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war.

Beirut - April 26th marked the 11th anniversary of the with­drawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in compli­ance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559 following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on February 14th, 2005.

It was the start of Syria’s descent into chaos and a long war that has left it in ruins.

A massive anti-Syrian demonstra­tion took place in the streets of Bei­rut that March, with people blaming the killing on Syria’s security forces and their Lebanese allies. Within a month the Syrian Army withdrew after nearly 30 years — and Syria was hit with a tidal wave of international outrage.

Furious at being ejected from Lebanon in such a humiliating man­ner, the “Beirutisation of Damas­cus” started. Private banks, with total deposits of $3 billion, sprouted in Syria, as did private universities and schools, private insurance com­panies, car showrooms, shopping malls, a 3D cinema complex in cen­tral Damascus.

International brand names such as Prada, Escada and Gucci, absent from Syria during the long years of its socialist economy, became read­ily available. So were restaurants, from the Parisian Entrecote to American KFC, in addition to Japa­nese, Chinese, Mexican and Italian diners.

The side-effects of this social revolution — seemingly the correct thing to do in 2005 — became imme­diately apparent in a country where 11% of the people live below the poverty line.

With time it proved to be a disas­ter for Syria. Unemployment stood at more than 10% — mainly young people — and those making money found their income devoured by the numerous spending attractions Syria was offering.

New cars and private homes — once a dream for ordinary Syrians — were easily obtainable through long-term bank loans but thousands of clients eventually defaulted and were unable to settle their debts.

This unleashed anger and envy, topped with social imbalance for those who suddenly realised that they could not afford the new life­style Syria was offering. In early 2011, with the Middle East in the throes of the “Arab spring”, massive class friction erupted in the streets.

Economic reform did not trickle down the social ladder; it only bene­fited the upper-middle class and the moneyed elite, especially in the ur­ban interior, creating a rift between cities and the poverty-stricken countryside, especially around Da­mascus and Aleppo.

Then came the decision to lift subsidies on products once bank­rolled by the state, causing the price of heating fuel, for example, to tri­ple. The masses screamed at the inflation, blaming it squarely on the government.

By March 2011, those who suffered most from the economic liberalisa­tion were chanting: “The people want to bring down the regime!”

Politically, the consequences of the Syrian withdrawal from Leba­non were no less biting. This was especially true regarding Syria’s re­lationship with Hezbollah, the pow­erful Lebanese organisation that had been protected and embraced by Syrian officialdom since the early 1990s.

Before 2005, Hezbollah needed Syrian patronage to survive the complex web of Lebanese politics. Damascus transferred Hezbollah arms from Iran to Lebanon and its security officials in Beirut made sure those arms were fully protect­ed by the Lebanese state.

After 2005, the relationship flipped: Syria needed Hezbollah’s fighters for survival and to main­tain a foothold in Lebanon as all its former allies had viciously turned their backs on Damascus. Syria lost its tremendous influence in naming ministers, approving prime minis­ters or hand-picking presidents.

By 2008, it was forced to open an embassy in Beirut — something it had resisted since both countries’ independence from France in the 1940s because Lebanon had histori­cally been part of greater Syria.

Whatever influence Syria com­manded in Lebanon was due to the loyalty of its Hezbollah allies, who always consulted Damascus on in­ternal Lebanese affairs. Contrary to the case before 2005, they sought the advice of the Syrians but no longer took orders from them.

For a brief period in 2008-10, Da­mascus sincerely believed the tur­moil of 2005 was becoming a thing of the past. Lebanon’s prime min­ister, Saad Hariri, son of the slain statesman and the Syrian regime’s fiercest critic in Lebanon, had to bow to Damascus and made a show of making peace with President Bashar Assad.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and French president Nicolas Sarkozy paid visits, seemingly ending Syria’s pariah status. Globally, the much-publicised, UN-mandated Special Tribunal on the Hariri assassination was fizzling and no indictment was forthcoming against any Syrian of­ficial.

The Obama administration was opening up to Damascus and seek­ing its assistance in Iraq and with Iran. Foreign embassies in Damas­cus, which closed in 2005, were back in full operation.

All this created an illusion of in­vincibility, that Syria was immune to political turmoil. The world was knocking on Syria’s door again and 2005 seemed like a bad dream.

But 2011, of course, proved such an assessment horribly wrong.