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An occupation by any other name; Syria's military presence in Lebanon

By Leanne Piggott - posted Friday, 10 September 2004

Syrian military forces have been in continuous occupation of Lebanese territory for almost three decades. The precise number of Syrian troops in Lebanon at any time is a closely guarded secret. Most authoritative estimates put the current figure at 17,000, about the same number as the regular Lebanese army. Hordes of secret police also ensure that the Syrian regime dominates every aspect of Lebanon’s politics, judiciary and economic life.
Until now, the international community has tacitly recognised that Syria’s intervention was necessary to bring an end to Lebanon’s 15 years long civil war. But Lebanon’s peace was achieved at the price of its independence, as was starkly illustrated last week.

Article 49 of Lebanon’s Constitution requires a new president to be selected by Parliament every 6 years. The term of the current President, Emile Lahoud, is due to expire in November. The Syrian Government, preferring the pliant Lahoud to any alternative leader, proposed an amendment to Lebanon’s Constitution to enable Lahoud to remain President for a further three years.

The constitutional change was opposed by a wide range of Lebanon’s civil and religious leaders. Even Prime Minister Hariri, himself a Syrian factotum, originally expressed opposition to any extension of Lahoud’s term of office. But Hariri was peremptorily summoned to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Asad and the head of military intelligence in Lebanon, General Ghazali. Miraculously, it seems, Hariri became an overnight convert to the Syrian proposal.


On his return to Beirut, Hariri convened a special session of his cabinet that approved the constitutional amendment. The meeting lasted a mere twenty minutes. The cabinet decision was rubber-stamped by the Lebanese Parliament last Friday. The constitutional amendment was condemned as a Syrian diktat even by Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, a one-time Syrian supporter.

Syria’s manipulation of Lebanon’s internal political processes has now become too flagrant for the UN to ignore any longer. The day before Lebanon’s Parliament voted to approve the constitutional change, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and for the Lebanese government to assert its sole and exclusive authority throughout Lebanon.

Like almost all Security Council resolutions, 1559 is not of itself legally binding. But it is significant that the resolution was co-sponsored by the US and France, with the support of Britain and Germany: a new post-Iraq consensus. The Syrian regime can no longer take for granted that the international community will keep turning a blind eye to its domination of Lebanon.

Predictably, Syria’s Ambassador to the UN has contended that Syrian troops are in Lebanon “at the will of the Lebanese Government” by virtue of the 1991 Syria-Lebanon “Treaty of Brotherhood”. It is a rule of customary international law, as expressed in Article 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that a treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force. The “Treaty of Brotherhood” was entered into at a time when there were 42,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, twice the number of forces in the regular Lebanese army at the time. The “Treaty” is therefore invalid in its entirety and of no legal effect.

The Syrian Government has also contended that its troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 at the request, and with the consent, of the then Lebanese President. But according to the UN’s International Law Commission, for any such consent to be valid “it must be freely given and clearly established”. Lebanon’s “consent” was neither. Syria’s direct military intervention in 1976 followed years of indirect subversion through two guerilla organisations that took their orders directly from Damascus. Syria’s President and Foreign Minister at the time made public statements to the effect that these irregular forces were organs of the Syrian Government.

This means that any “consent” allegedly given by Lebanon to the entry of Syrian troops was vitiated by coercion. Further, under international law, Syria’s destabilisation of Lebanon through directly controlled proxies constituted an act of aggression, which has been continued by Syria’s subsequent overt military intervention.


Assertions that the UN should keep out of Lebanon’s “internal affairs” do not stand up to analysis. It is Syria, not the UN, which is interfering in Lebanon’s internal affairs. Syria’s ongoing occupation of, and hegemony over, Lebanon is no different in principle to the domination of Eastern Europe by the former Soviet Union prior to 1989. Inevitably, such issues are immensely difficult to deal with. But let no one pretend that they are not properly matters for the entire international community.

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About the Author

Dr Leanne Piggott lectures in Middle East Politics at the University of Sydney and is director of Academic Programs of the Centre for International Security Studies. She is the author of A Timeless Struggle: Conflict in Land of Israel/Palestine (forthcoming, Science Press).

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