The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was preceded by the loss of its empire. One by one, the nations of Eastern Europe peacefully overthrew their communist governments and re-asserted their independence. However, one Soviet satellite regime managed to survive, even after the dismantling of the Soviet Union itself. To this day, the Ba’ath Party regime in Syria largely operates according to the old Soviet model politically, economically and militarily.
Since the early 1960’s, the principal sectors of Syria’s economy, including banking, insurance and most large businesses, have been nationalised. Despite occasional attempts by the Ba’athists to encourage private investment, the government sector accounts for about three-fifths of Syria’s GDP. As is typical of highly regulated economies, Syria’s official economy is paralleled by an irrepressible black market.
Syria’s economic performance has been less than scintillating. Between 1990 and 2003, per capita GDP grew on average by 1.4 per cent a year. The growth rate that would have been needed to provide sufficient jobs for Syria’s young and growing work-force was about 6 per cent a year. To make up for its deficient productivity, Syria gets money from grants from other Arab governments, from occasional spikes in the price of the oil it refines and, most significantly, from plundering its own satellite, neighbouring Lebanon.
Once described as “the Switzerland of the Middle East”, Lebanon underwent a human and economic catastrophe during the civil war between 1975 and 1990. The Syrian Government helped ignite the civil war in the early to mid-1970’s through the activities of its Lebanese proxy organisations, Al-Saiqa and the Palestine Liberation Army, which were manned and led mostly by Syrian personnel answerable directly to the Syrian Ministry of Defence.
This indirect, and totally illegal, intervention and use of force in Lebanon by the Syrian regime was followed up from January 1976 onwards by an overt Syrian troop presence that persists to this day. Syria’s President had announced that he was sending his troops to Lebanon to save it from the ravages of a civil war that he himself had helped to foment. Such cynicism would have done Stalin proud.
By 1989, with 42,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, the exhausted rival Lebanese groups were coerced into signing the Ta’if Agreement, which ended the civil war but at the price of Lebanon’s independence. This was followed by the 1991 “Treaty of Brotherhood” between the two countries. Both agreements speak of the “special relationship” between Syria and Lebanon and they form the basis of Syria’s contention that its military occupation of Lebanon has been with Lebanese consent.
In both fact and law, this contention is unsustainable. As Syria’s Foreign Minister candidly acknowledged in 1976, “Syria had not consulted anyone when it entered Lebanon, nor would it consult anyone when it decides to withdraw from Lebanon”. In international law, no consent can validly be given under the kind of military coercion Syria has applied to Lebanon since the early 1970’s.
Syria also claims that its original interventionist force was endorsed by the League of Arab States. But Article 53(1) of the UN Charter forbids the use of force under regional arrangements without the authorisation of the Security Council.
Syria’s hegemony has not only been of a military nature. Senior Lebanese Government officials have made no major decisions without first travelling to Damascus for “consultations”. Thousands of mukhabarat (secret police) throughout the country have helped the Syrian-sponsored Lebanese Government to spy on and control its people.
Between 600,000 and 1,000,000 unskilled and semi-skilled unemployed Syrian workers have flooded into Lebanon, causing an exodus overseas of similar numbers of skilled Lebanese workers. The outflow of skills from Lebanon has exacerbated the decline in productivity and wage levels. The repatriation to Syria of the earnings of Syrian workers in Lebanon has been a further drain on Lebanon’s economy.
UN Security Council Resolution 1559 last year (like Resolution 520 in 1982) called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon and for the country to come under the “sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon throughout Lebanon”. Even Syria’s traditional ally, Russia, has joined the UN, US, France and other EU countries in insisting that Syria comply with Resolution 1559 - now.
Syria has responded by combining with Lebanon’s Shi’ite extremists, Hezbollah, to orchestrate large anti-Western demonstrations in downtown Beirut. But the writing is on the wall. Submitting to foreign domination of any kind is repugnant to most Lebanese.
Emboldened by the post-Iraq momentum for democratic change sweeping the region, the Lebanese opposition’s “intifada” against Syria’s occupation of their country is already bearing fruit. Syria is now yielding to the combined external and internal pressure and is committed to a timetable for withdrawal.
But without Lebanon, the Syrian economy may implode. Following the Soviet precedent, the fall of the Ba’athist regime in Damascus is no longer a remote prospect.