October 03, 2005

Martyrs

“The struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” – Milan Kundera

The Lebanese remember their dead.

The streets of Hezbollahland are lined with portraits of Islamists killed in battle with Israel. The walls of Beirut are papered over with martyrs of a more liberal variety.

Five months ago I could hardly look anywhere without seeing the face of former prime minister Rafik Hariri, who recently had been assassinated with a 650 pound car bomb. The people of Lebanon put his portrait up everywhere, and they did it without being ordered to do so. I knew right away when I arrived here in April that this Middle Eastern country was not like the others. The likes of Moammar Ghaddafi and Bashar Assad, whose portraits are omnipresent by gunpoint decree, only dream they could be loved as was Hariri.

Things are different now in October. The ghost of Rafik Hariri does not hover over the city in quite the same way. Many of the portraits are down. Some are replaced with those of Hariri’s son Saad.

The first time I saw photos of Lebanon’s most recent martyr I stopped cold in my tracks on the sidewalk.

Samir Kassir Poster.jpg

Samir Kassir was a journalist, an activist in the Movement of the Democratic Left, a most articulate opponent of Syrian occupation, and a most articulate proponent of freedom for people in Syria. I met him three times when I was here in April. Shortly after I went home to the States, the goons killed him with a car bomb.

May Chidiac is alive. But she’s an almost-martyr in Lebanon, too, and I’m seeing her portrait around in quite a few places. She, like Samir, is an anti-Syrian journalist. And she, like Samir, was car bombed.

May Chidiac Poster.jpg

She’s lucky to be alive. A bomb was placed directly under the driver’s seat of her car. Somehow she “only” lost one leg below her knee.

The first time I came to Beirut the martyr portraits (of Rafik Hariri) made me feel better. I felt safe here seeing omnipresent photos of a decent man who did good instead of portraits of a tyrant.

It’s different now. Middle Eastern martyrs are supposed to be dead presidents, dead guerilla fighters, and dead terrorists. They aren’t supposed to be people I know. They aren’t supposed to be people like me. I cannot – not yet – walk past photos of May and Samir without shuddering.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2005 12:52 AM
Comments

I can't see anything like Samir Kassir on the poster, so I assume he's well enough known that it's not needed. That's also kind of creepy, that martyrs are celebrities.

Also, what exactly does the poster say? I can make out "martyr to the allastqlal(?) uprising" on top, what's "allastqlal"? and below?
The typeface is confusing and I'm having trouble even telling the letters apart (alysar alcymw?raty?) let alone understand it ...

thanks in advance for any help there

Posted by: Michael Farris at October 3, 2005 03:42 AM

Samir's poster says: Shahid Intifadat al-Istiklal (Martyr of the Independence Uprising). The bottom says Al Yasar al-Dimocrati (Democratic Left).

Posted by: Kais at October 3, 2005 04:16 AM

Shukran.

Posted by: Michael Farris at October 3, 2005 04:20 AM

Michael,

FYI, people look at me funny when I say "Shukran" here. So I don't. "Yislamu" is preferred. It is the short way of saying "God bless your hands."

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2005 04:25 AM

Okay. Now I'm wondering about regional variations of 'thank you' in Arabic (I'm just that exciting). I hear 'shukran' from an Iraqi I work with, if it's 'yislamu' in Lebanon I wonder what they say in Syria?

Posted by: Michael Farris at October 3, 2005 06:12 AM

It is so sad that such tragic events are needed to signal "progress"! People like Samir and May are usually percieved by the majority to be the privelaged, "Western" and disconnected few. Now that they are dieing, the masses start to identify with them (as opposed to militants and mentally disturbed suicide bombers). Is this development a good thing? If yes, then why did it have to happen this way?

Posted by: Raja at October 3, 2005 06:48 AM

Michael,

My Syrian-American friend smiles when I say "shukran" and does correct me.

Raja,

Of course it is better for people to identify with Samir Kassir instead of a demented suicide bomber. But somehow I doubt the same people identify with both. I do not expect to see portraits of Samir in Hezbollahland, but I suppose anything is possible.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2005 07:43 AM

"why did it have to happen this way?"
It didn't, and doesn't -- humans made decisions to create the mess.

But usually not any one human, rather many. Similar to the genocide in Darfur; the genocide in Rwanda; the Killing Fields of SE Asia after the US left, China's Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward.

It's not inevitable, like the US leaving Vietnam was not inevitable, but many actors make many decisions and reality is the result.

Most remember the Martyrs that died for their own group.

Michael, remember, too, Steven Vincent.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at October 3, 2005 08:55 AM

I am Lebanese and I say Shukran all the time.

Shukran.

:)

Posted by: Kais at October 3, 2005 09:24 AM

Kais,

So why do I get funny looks when I say "shukran"? That never happened to me in North Africa.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2005 09:59 AM

MJT,
Because you are the "ajnabi" (foreigner) in Beirut. Trying to speak Arabic will only get you looks and smirks. The Lebanese are not as open and kind-hearted as they seem.

Posted by: Hassan at October 3, 2005 10:21 AM

MJT:

Depends on where in the country. Some prefer and expect a "Merci", some "Thank you" and some "Yislamo" or "Shukran." Some Lebanese think it's beneath them to use Arabic words, so that might explain some of the funny looks. You disapoint them by using their own language. If you are in Ashrafieh, try "Merci", you will get a big smile. I have not done any research on this, but I find it that the less educated and the poor respond better to "Shukran" and "Yislamo." It all boils down to issues of sect and class.

Posted by: Kais at October 3, 2005 10:52 AM

Kais: Some Lebanese think it's beneath them to use Arabic words

That is one of the craziest things I have encountered in this country. Someone (not me) could write a whole book about the psychology behind that.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2005 12:08 PM

No matter where you travel, you can find the great hearted and good souls.
And as usual it is the best and brightest that are sacrificed first in any human struggle.
Hopefully Lebanon will save some of her best when she's finally arrived at the portals of peace and prosperity!

Posted by: quark2 at October 3, 2005 01:54 PM

"It’s different now. Middle Eastern martyrs are supposed to be dead presidents, dead guerilla fighters, and dead terrorists. They aren’t supposed to be people I know. They aren’t supposed to be people like me. I cannot – not yet – walk past photos of May and Samir without shuddering. "

You are right, there's a death cult going on in this region.

Posted by: V at October 3, 2005 02:06 PM

-- Michael, you said:

“Samir Kassir was a journalist, an activist in the Movement of the Democratic Left, a most articulate opponent of Syrian occupation, and a most articulate proponent of freedom for people in Syria”

I guess it all depends on your definition of “freedom” dude: unlike LBC anchor May Chidiac who has always been a center-right Christian journalist staunchly opposed to all forms of totalitarianism be they Marxist/Syrian or Irano-Islamic, Samir Kassir was certainly no “friend of freedom” – unless you believe in the twisted Trotskyite definition of liberty in vogue in Neocon circles…

Samir Kassir was a dogmatic member of the “International Committee of the Fourth International”, a secretive Marxist organization that once counted Paul Wolfowitz and Michael Ledeen as members of its US branch: unlike his (more or less) repentant friends at the Pentagon, Mr Kassir never reneged on his campus days commitment to uncle Leo’s Marxist cum "internationalist" cause!

You also said:
“The first time I came to Beirut the martyr portraits (of Rafik Hariri) made me feel better. I felt safe here seeing omnipresent photos of a decent man who did good instead of portraits of a tyrant”

Hafiz al-Asad and Ruhollah Khomeiny were certainly terrorist tyrants of the worst kind, and the sight of their Soviet-style portraits hanging on the walls of West Beirut invariably made me want to puke…but Wahhabi fellow traveler Rafiq Hariri wasn’t much higher on the moral scale

In 1989, many Christian Lebanese MPs such as Raymond Eddé and a handful of courageous secular Muslims forcefully rejected the unconstitutional Taef “agreement” imposed by gunpoint on Lebanon by Saudi Arabia and Syria while George H. Bush and Jim Baker looked the other way.

The only countries which stood on the side of Lebanon at the time were France and Iraq: Saddam Hussein and President Mitterand backed both the Christian Lebanese Forces and General Michel Aoun against bloodthirsty Syrian occupation troops…that were actually generously financed by Saudi Arabia and Rafiq al-Hariri until 2003!

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at October 3, 2005 03:02 PM

"Middle Eastern martyrs are supposed to be dead presidents, dead guerilla fighters, and dead terrorists. They aren’t supposed to be people I know. They aren’t supposed to be people like me."

Wait until you have a boss who's younger than you are.

Or a President.

I know you know this, but just to remind you:

No man is an Island, entire unto its Selfe;
Each of us is a parte of the Continente, a Peece of the Main.
If a Clodd be washed into the Sea, Europe is the lesser,
As much as if a Promontory were, or a Manor of thine or thy Friends were.
Therefore send not to aske for whom the Bell tolls,
It tolls for Thee.

It is the special privilege of the young to see the actors and movers in the world as Other without being accused of detachment, or worse. Later on that becomes harder. The people who do things in the world, both good and bad, are people who have to get up in the morning, too. Some of them would be good to have coffee with, of a soft autumn afternoon on a balcony overlooking the sea, or in a cafe on a shopping street. Some would not. Either way, the most exalted Dear Leader's feces smell about the same as mine, or yours. Discovering that in a way that reaches the heart is IMO a big part of being truly connected with the world.

No one can see all humankind as Us; our brains (and souls) are only so big, and not everyone can fit. What we have to do is get all the various patches of Us attached at the edges, with proper overlap. I'm happy for you that you've found the bit that clicks for you as Us, I'm glad you're there to help us see where the overlap is with the Us back here, and I hope that Donne's conclusion isn't literal in your case.

Regards,
Ric

Posted by: Ric Locke at October 3, 2005 09:28 PM

Victorino,

If you stick up for Saddam Hussein one more time you are banned from commenting on this Web site. Don't argue with me, pal. I am not going to put up with your bullshit.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2005 09:33 PM

Man, lots of luck to you Michael.
This guy Victorino thinks some International Conspiracy of Marxists that includes Wolfowtitz and Ledeen... sounds like a looney conspiratorial site like the ones that believe there are lizards that have come to earth and taken over.

Ledeen is anything but a Marxists that's for sure... but I think the Trotskyite reference is just a way of saying Joos without saying it.

LOL... what a lovely world we live in.....
It will never end... nevvver.

Please say hello to Joumanna though.

Michael N

Posted by: Mike Nargizian at October 4, 2005 12:08 AM

Censorship eh Michael?
Thought you stood on the side of freedom of speech...even amongst turbaned savages!
;-)

Re: The Marxist/Trotskyite roots of neo “conservatism”, I’m afraid there’s nothing new or “conspiratorial” about this FACT: it has been kind of an open secret since the late 1960s

For a well documented recap, check out the following article by professor Paul Gottfried who teaches political science at Elizabethtown College, PA

http://www.vdare.com/gottfried/fact_checking_notes.htm

“ … Jonah [Goldberg] complains that he is baffled by “the inconsistency of the anti-war liberals.” He’s right. If such liberals were consistent about their leftism, as he says, they would want to “fix the problems of other countries” universally - which is the neocon project. Jonah wants to spend our savings “tearing down the crack houses of the world,” e.g. Iraq.

In all of this, the neocons have shown themselves to be consistent leftists. Without frontally challenging the left at home - and indeed while celebrating a radicalized American government and society - neocons work to spread our form of “democratic modernization” throughout the world. Michael Ledeen, who is a fave at the National Review , tacitly pays homage to Trotsky’s concept of permanent world revolution when he praises America’s alleged universal commitment to “creative destruction.” […]

Paleo-conservatives are firmly against the alliance between interventionist administration and globalism, whether externally in the form of wars to spread “democracy” or internally in the form of the dissolution of historic nations through non-traditional immigration.

The paleocons would like nothing better than to de-fund the governmental export of “creative destruction.” They are therefore willing to ignore foreign “crack houses” - providing that we make no effort to import them.

By linking the war against Iraq to certain neocon fixations, Goldberg’s buddies made their mission to the Old Right that much harder.

They compound this when they smear their rightwing critics as “anti-Semites”...”

Posted by: Dr Victorino de la Vega at October 4, 2005 01:45 AM

Syria after Lebanon: Hooked on Lebanon
by Gary C. Gambill

Although Syrian troops have withdrawn from Lebanon, their departure is little more than a symbolic acknowledgment of Lebanese sovereignty, extracted under enormous pressure from the international community. They had not been directly involved in policing the country for nearly a decade, and their number had already dwindled in recent years from a peak of over 40,000 down to 14,000. The backbone of Syria's power in Lebanon—its intelligence apparatus—has merely gone underground. The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February and the murders of prominent dissidents Samir Kassir and George Hawi in June suggest that Syria remains as capable as ever of murdering dissidents and fomenting violence if developments in Lebanon do not go its way.

As Western observers debate how tenaciously Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will resist the independence of Lebanon and what the implications are for his grip on power at home,1 many ignore the most critical factor affecting these questions. Put simply, the Assad regime is hooked on Lebanon. Jibran Tueni, editor of Beirut's leading daily newspaper, An-Nahar, recently estimated that the Assad regime siphons at least ten billion dollars (US) a year from Lebanon,2 equivalent to 47 percent of Syria's gross domestic product (by comparison, Saudi Arabia's oil exports represent 36 percent of its gross domestic product).3 While Tueni's estimate is probably exaggerated, Syrian revenue from Lebanon amounts to several billion dollars a year. Assad's political survival may well hinge on how successfully he fights to preserve this financial lifeline.

When Syrian influence in Lebanon waned in the aftermath of Israel's 1982 invasion and the subsequent entry of U.S. and European peacekeeping forces, the late Hafez al-Assad struck back with terrorist and militia proxies, plunging the country back into civil war. Ironically, his son's deeper financial dependence on Lebanon today lessens the appeal of a full-scale destabilization campaign. Bashar faces a much more difficult challenge: how to keep his golden goose without strangling it.

The Conquest of the Underworld
Drug production, counterfeiting, and other illicit trades account for the Assad regime's oldest—and once the most lucrative—source of occupation revenue. Such criminal enterprises have flourished wherever Lebanese territory has come under the control of Syria or its proxies. Throughout the Lebanese underworld, whether Syrian officials are involved directly or merely offer protection to local criminal networks, Damascus gets its cut.

Drug production. While Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley was already known for producing high quality hashish when Syrian troops first entered the country in 1976, it only became a major global narcotics producer under Syrian occupation. Between 1976 and 1991, drug cultivation in this region expanded from 10 to 90 percent of arable land.4 By the early 1980s, the Bekaa was the source of more than half of all marijuana and hashish seized in Western Europe.5 Under Syrian supervision, it also became a center for opium poppy cultivation and heroin processing. By 1990, according to Western narcotics agencies, Lebanon's annual heroin trade was worth around US$1.4 billion.6

A 1992 report by the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice, itself based on classified briefings by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Drug Enforcement Agency, estimated that the Syrian military earned between $300 million and $1 billion from narcotics production and trafficking in Lebanon. "Whether by extorting protection payments, collecting bribes, or even becoming active partners with the Lebanese traffickers," the report found, "most individual Syrian officers and troops directly profit from the drug trade… Without Syrian military participation, the present system of growing, producing and transporting drugs in Lebanon today would simply collapse."7

Following the report's release, Washington began pressuring the Syrian government to curtail Lebanon's drug trade. In 1993, Syrian and Lebanese troops launched a much-publicized crackdown on drug cultivation in the Bekaa Valley. Moreover, Syrian and Lebanese security forces moved only against the easily observable cultivation side of Lebanese drug production. Laboratories in Hermel, Baalbek, Zahle, and other Bekaa Valley towns reportedly continued to produce heroin from opium imported from Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as cocaine from raw coca paste imported from South America under Syrian protection.8 Nevertheless, in 1997 the U.S. State Department removed Lebanon and Syria from its annual list of countries that produce or traffic in illicit drugs.9

Not long after its removal from the list, Syria began relaxing restrictions on drug cultivation and, by the end of the decade, marijuana harvests were on the rise.10 When CNN Beirut bureau chief Brent Sadler and a team of cameramen tried to film cannabis fields near Hermel in June 2001, armed gunmen forced them out of their car and confiscated their film equipment.11

Counterfeiting. Beginning in the late 1980s, Syrian officers in Lebanon became heavily involved in counterfeiting U.S. and, to a lesser extent, European currencies. They initially focused on distributing Iranian-produced bills through the same networks that laundered their drug proceeds12 but soon began to produce higher quality forgeries at their own Bekaa printing presses. In 1993, NBC quoted U.S. intelligence sources as saying that Syrian counterfeiting of $100 bills in Lebanon had "skyrocketed." It reported both that U.S. authorities had already seized $200 million of the fake currency and officials' fears that billions more were in circulation.13 The bogus bills were so sophisticated that the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank's scanning machines failed to identify the money as counterfeit.14 After pocketing perhaps over $1 billion, the Syrian government came under intense U.S. pressure to cease their racket.

Money laundering. After gaining full control over Lebanon in 1990, the Syrian regime exploited Lebanon's bank secrecy laws to launder billions of dollars from the drug trade, the sale of weapons to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, and other illicit activities. For example, the Beirut-based Bank al-Madina bought billions of dollars in real estate at inflated prices. It required sellers to deposit their proceeds in the bank and accept "no questions asked" interest payments drawn from secret Iraqi accounts not recorded in the bank's books. This pyramid scheme collapsed only when the influx of Iraqi money stopped in the weeks prior to the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Depositors panicked and tried to withdraw their money, only to find that more than one billion dollars were gone. The bank quickly collapsed.15 The Lebanese government's investigation failed to uncover the whereabouts of these funds, but there is evidence that the bank paid substantial kickbacks to senior Syrian officials.16 After the owner of the Beirut-based television station New TV, Tahsin Khayat, declared in December 2003 that he had evidence linking a top Syrian intelligence officer to the scandal, Lebanese security forces detained him.17

The Syrian government's return from money laundering is not readily quantifiable. The main financial benefit is that it allows the Assad regime to obfuscate its sources of income. More important though are the strategic returns—Syrian-backed terrorist groups can use Lebanese banks to launder and distribute funding received from donors who value anonymity.18 Iraqi insurgent leaders have been allowed similar access. For example, Saddam's half-brother and former intelligence chief Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan laundered millions of dollars in Lebanese banks before his capture earlier this year.19

Lebanese black-marketeers dealing in everything from stolen cars to audiovisual bootlegging can operate only by providing cuts to Syrian officials who may receive up to a billion dollars annually from underworld criminal activity in Lebanon. However, this figure is minor compared to what Syrian officials have skimmed in other ways from Lebanon's open economy.

Kickbacks for the Kingmaker
Lebanon has one of the most corrupt governments in the world. In 2001, a United Nations-commissioned corruption assessment report estimated that Lebanon loses more than $1.5 billion annually as a result of graft—nearly 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product.20 The mechanism for this graft is apparent. Of $6 billion in project expenditures examined in the report, only 2.4 percent ($143 million) was awarded by the state Administration of Tenders. The remainder went not to the most qualified applicants but to those willing to pay the highest bribes. Over 43 percent of companies surveyed in the report acknowledged that they "always or very frequently" pay bribes. Some 40 percent said that they "sometimes" do.21

Corruption was rife in Lebanon long before the Syrian army entered the country. More than one Syrian commentator has lamented that it was Lebanon that corrupted Syria. Once the Assad regime became kingmaker in Lebanon, a world of riches opened before it. A Lebanese cabinet minister who might pocket $200 million in bribes a year gladly remits half in return for the Syrian support necessary to remain in his position. In this respect, Syrian officials did not come into the country and change the rules—they simply used their control over Lebanon to siphon money out of the system in the same way, albeit on a greater scale, that Lebanese political elites had been doing for generations.

Having won Lebanon at a time when their own country's economy was reeling from a cutoff of Soviet aid, Syrian officials learned to master the Lebanese economic game. Their mentor, ironically, was the late Rafik Hariri, a multi-billionaire construction tycoon close to the Saudi royal family. After two years of lobbying Damascus for the job, Hariri assumed the premiership in 1992, and the Lebanese economy went into overdrive.

Hariri poured billions of dollars into rebuilding the country's war-ravaged infrastructure and resurrecting Beirut's business and hotel districts, a construction boom financed by runaway deficit spending and massive injections of international aid. The results exemplified Lebanon's version of trickle down economics—after everyone gets their cut, only a trickle of government spending actually reaches its destination.

He spent over $2 billion, for example, in the early 1990s on a plan to boost the country's power capacity from 800-1,000 megawatts to over 2,000 megawatts by rehabilitating or constructing ten power plants and their accompanying grids. Not only was much of the money—over $500 million according to one former minister—siphoned off in the process,22 but rampant profiteering directed the remainder to redundant or ill-conceived projects. A decade later, the Lebanese government is struggling to produce 1,400 megawatts of electricity, and rolling blackouts continue to plague the capital.23

Government expenditures are not the only source of graft. Lack of transparency and unreliable contract enforcement in Syrian-occupied Lebanon make it impossible for private sector investors, whether Lebanese or foreign, to enter any economic sector without cutting deals with Damascus. Whether their business is banking or BMWs, the most important ingredient of success for entrepreneurs in Lebanon is not cost efficiency or marketing savvy but political protection obtained through secret partnerships with Syrian officials. In this way, members of Lebanon's oligarchy gain preferential access to government contracts, operating licenses, and law enforcement needed to beat out competitors.

A large portion of their profits is diverted into Syrian pockets. Lebanese investors often function as little more than front men for Syrian patrons who reap most of the profits. Until recently, for example, Lebanon's cell phone market was dominated by two companies: LibanCell and Cellis. On paper, Ali and Nizar Dalloul, two sons of a former Lebanese defense minister, owned 86 percent of LibanCell, but both were widely rumored to be fronting for Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam and former Syrian chief of staff Hikmat Shihabi.24 Many Lebanese say that Najib Miqati, a close friend of Assad's who served as Lebanon's prime minister between April and June 2005, owned 30 percent of Cellis. In the latter half of the 1990s, the two companies saw their profits skyrocket as the Syrian-dominated Lebanese government blocked competitors from entering the market while allowing them to charge exorbitant subscription fees. Whereas mobile telephone calls cost around 3-8 cents per minute in other Arab countries, in Lebanon the rate was 13 cents per minute. As companies elsewhere in the world were giving away mobile phones to attract customers, LibanCell and Cellis charged new subscribers a $500 deposit for their new telephones.25

While many Lebanese elites resented Syrian profiteering, the Assad regime's control over the Lebanese judiciary ensured that few dared to openly contest it. In a country where just about everyone in government is corrupt, selective prosecution is an enormously effective instrument of control. In 1994, Lebanese parliamentarian Yahya Shamas was arrested and imprisoned on drug trafficking charges which, according to Shamas, were filed after he refused to sell a piece of lucrative property to Ghazi Kanaan, the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, for less than its market value.26

Hariri, however, was no Syrian puppet. In making senior Syrian officials such as Khaddam and Shihabi rich, Hariri bought himself a bloc of support within the Syrian regime whose interests were not fully in line with those of the Assad family. Lebanon may have been in Syria's pocket, but factions of the Syrian regime were effectively in Hariri's pocket.

After assuming control of the "Lebanon file" as part of his political apprenticeship, however, Bashar al-Assad ousted Hariri in 1998 and shifted power to Lebanon's military-intelligence elite, led by President Emile Lahoud. Bashar quickly found that Hariri was more dangerous out of office. Although Hariri returned to power after a two-year hiatus, his increasingly confrontational relationship with the Syrians was largely a reaction to this demotion.

The Conquest of Labor
A third critical economic return of Syria's occupation is the flow of remittances from roughly one million Syrian workers in Lebanon estimated to range from $2-$4 billion annually.27 During the heyday of Lebanon's reconstruction, the number was much higher. According to statistics from Lebanon's General Security Directorate, cited by Lebanese economist Michel Murkos, the number of Syrians entering the country between 1993-95 exceeded the number who departed by almost 1.5 million.28 Since Syria's per capita gross domestic product is less than a third of Lebanon's, its workers are willing to labor for much lower wages than their Lebanese counterparts. As a result, Lebanon's two largest unskilled labor markets—construction and seasonal agriculture—are dominated by Syrians while 20 percent of the Lebanese labor force is unemployed.29 Those who manage to get unskilled jobs in the face of stiff Syrian competition are usually forced to accept low wages, dismal working conditions, and no health insurance or other benefits. The plight of Lebanon's urban poor is directly linked to Syrian labor colonialism.

Very little money earned by Syrian workers remains in Lebanon. They typically live in squalid conditions, often sharing a single room with several compatriots so as to remit the bulk of their earnings back to their families. The Assad regime has further discouraged them from spending their wages in Lebanon by preventing them, for example, from bringing Lebanese-made durables back into Syria.

Damascus has protected this vital asset by entrusting only diehard loyalists with Lebanon's labor ministry portfolio. The outgoing labor minister, Assem Kanso, and former labor minister, Abdullah al-Amin (1992-95), are senior officials in the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath party. Former labor ministers Assad Hardan (1995-98, 2003-04) and Ali Kanso (2000-03) are leaders of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which advocates Lebanon's dissolution as a state and incorporation by Syria. The Lebanese government is not allowed to regulate the influx of Syrian workers, who do not pay taxes or permit fees normally required of foreign workers, depriving the Lebanese treasury of several hundred million dollars per year according to Lebanese economist Bassam Hashem.30 In order to limit the amount of competition faced by Syrian workers, Damascus has forced the Lebanese government to restrict the entry of non-Syrian laborers into Lebanon.

The Conquest of Agriculture
A fourth dimension of Syrian economic domination also hurts Lebanon's poor. Much like nineteenth century European colonial powers, the Syrian government treats its protectorate as a captive market for its own exports, particularly agricultural produce. The Assad regime not only forces its Lebanese counterpart to accept disadvantageous terms of trade, but it also violates these terms whenever expedient by smuggling produce past Lebanese customs.

In desperation, some Lebanese farmers invested their savings, switching to cultivation of fruits unsuitable for Syrian climate, only to find the Syrians smuggling the same fruit into Lebanon from other countries. For example, in recent years, Lebanon has been deluged by bananas smuggled into the country from Syria. According to Waddah Fakhri, the head of the Southern Farmers' Association, Syrian smugglers import the bananas through the Syrian port of Latakia where they avoid customs duties by claiming that the goods are in transit to Lebanon. The shipments are then smuggled past Lebanese customs and enter local markets duty-free.31 In June 2003, the local media reported that "watermelon farmers in Lebanon are suffering from excessively low prices for their crops due to the smuggling of Jordanian watermelons across the Syrian border."32

Stiff Syrian competition might have had a silver lining if it had spurred the Lebanese government to develop and modernize its agriculture sector. However, the Syrians disallowed this. While agriculture accounts for about 12 percent of Lebanon's gross domestic product, well under 1 percent of the yearly budget is allocated to this sector. Of $7.5 billion in development funds allocated under the 1999 five-year plan of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, agriculture and irrigation projects itemized separately received only .5 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively. "Civic education, youth, and sports" projects, by contrast, received 2.6 percent.33

Consequently, despite its abundance of arable land, premium soil conditions, plentiful water resources, and rich diversity in topography and climate allowing for the cultivation of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, Lebanon is one of the least agriculturally self-sufficient countries in the world, with agricultural and agro-industrial imports exceeding exports by a nearly 20-to-1 margin.34

Implications
The Assad regime is not yet in trouble. Syrian troops may no longer be in Lebanon, but none of its most important Lebanese revenue streams have been cut. Drug producers in the Bekaa Valley and corrupt bankers in Beirut will continue paying off the Syrians as long as Damascus can guarantee that the authorities in Beirut leave them alone. Syrian farmers will continue to export tariff-free produce into Lebanon until the authorities block their smuggling routes. Most Syrian workers will remain in the country until the Lebanese government starts limiting and regulating their presence.

Lebanon's new government will face tremendous domestic pressure to act against Syrian interests in all of these areas. However, the threat of assassination will continue to loom over Lebanese elites who defy Damascus, and the Assad regime will remain capable of fomenting instability in the country.

That said, Assad has to contend with the fact that, justly or not, the international community will blame Syria for any assassination, especially if Lebanese politicians are killed after taking actions that hurt Syrian interests. More importantly, fomenting instability in Lebanon could damage an economy in which the Syrian officials are heavily invested and undercut demand for and security of Syrian workers. Assad will have to use violence more selectively than did his father if he is to preserve Syrian interests in Lebanon.

Syria's financial dependence on Lebanon also poses a problem for the United States. While the White House has signaled its desire for fundamental change in Damascus, a sudden erosion of Assad's grip on power might encourage him to embark on diversionary adventures, spark a Sunni Islamist uprising against his minority ‘Alawite regime, or precipitate a coup by the so-called "Old Guard." Assessing the impact of reduced revenue from Lebanon on Assad's regime is complicated by the fact that it is hooked on income from its Lebanese interests in different ways. Worker remittances flow to a large segment of the Syrian population, for example, while kickbacks go directly to the regime or constituent factions. Produce smuggling benefits both farmers and smugglers, but the exact dispersal of proceeds between the two is not entirely clear. If the Bush administration seeks to change Syrian behavior, it would do well to order a thorough assessment of Syria's financial balance sheet in Lebanon to clarify the motivation of various Syrian factions as well as subtle pressure points that could help to ensure that Damascus does not interfere in Lebanon's fragile independence.

Gary C. Gambill is a political analyst for Freedom House and former editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin.

Posted by: madmousell at October 4, 2005 01:55 AM

Victorino,

Censorship? Please. My Web site is not a platform for your pro-Saddam propaganda. Take it elsewhere.

A few nights ago I had drinks with some other Lebanese bloggers from different religious sects. We argued about politics, which is the national sport here. One thing we all agreed on: you are an idiot. Congratulations on making yourself infamous.

My patience with you is wearing very, very thin.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 4, 2005 02:31 AM

"Paleo-conservatives" or isolationists are not conservatives really - at least not economically which is ironic that Victorino is so eager to refer to NRO writers as Marxists. The Marxists write for real Marxists mags.'
Buchanan wants to roll back to 1920 when there was no global economy and the US could just impose tariffs and cut itself off except when it didn't have to from the outside world. Those days are ovvver. So what Victorino is saying is he is a racist elitist and isolationist. Buchanan also has no problems with farm subsidies and other huge gov't bureaucracies, hardly conservative theory. And as far as your jibe about "calling anti-semites" which is comical already... Bill Buckley - one of THE most respected conservatives in the country - said that much of the Paleos are anti-semitic....

When the blood wasn't even dry in Harriri's murder and Buchanan already is penning a piece saying that Israel is probably responsible you know the guy has a fin problem.
Victor now I'm sure you'll enjoy plent of "anti-war" sites that are obssessed 24/7 with "neo-cons" "Israel" and "joooos" do you need some pointing over there?

Mike

Posted by: Mike Nargizian at October 4, 2005 10:07 AM

Victorino, enough with your delusions. Kassir was a respectable humanist, even if I didn't share his liberal credo. He did not deserve to be assassinated by your panarabists fascistic pals.

I'd like to add that paleo-conservatives are as dead as they can be and the fact that some neocons were trotskysts in their youth only means that they are smart enough to change their minds.

Posted by: Vox P. at October 4, 2005 12:01 PM

I took this business of a few possibly kind words for dear old (hopefully not much older) Sadam a little differently. To me it just illustrates that politics are convolluted over there. And the history of connections and conflicts looking backwards is also twisty. Syria and Sadam's Iraq were both Baathist, but often on the verge of war. That Sadam and France were working together at one time trying to thwart Syria seems to make sense given France's recent support of Sadam in the runup to the invasion of Iraq.
Also note that terrorists and Syria pushed the United States effectively out of the area and the terrorists (Hezbola) and Syria prospered.
This is one of the things that convinced Al Queda that attacking the United States in NY would be effective.

Now given the cred that comes with forceful actions in Iraq, the US has forced Syria to release part of their hold on Lebanon. The rest of the path to freedom will require good men in Lebanon who are willing to die to make it so.

Hopefully, the fundamentals have changed enough that people of good will who have made mistakes in the past will choose to lead Lebanon in a constructive direction in the future. The key question is what are they doing now!

The post by Gary Gambill is a wonderful resource, providing insight into the major disruptive forces that Lebanon will have to deal with.

Posted by: Rob at October 6, 2005 11:32 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Pajamas Media BlogRoll Member



Testimonials

"I'm flattered such an excellent writer links to my stuff"
Johann Hari
Author of God Save the Queen?

"Terrific"
Andrew Sullivan
Author of Virtually Normal

"Brisk, bracing, sharp and thoughtful"
James Lileks
Author of The Gallery of Regrettable Food

"A hard-headed liberal who thinks and writes superbly"
Roger L. Simon
Author of Director's Cut

"Lively, vivid, and smart"
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere


Contact Me

Send email to michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com


News Feeds




toysforiraq.gif



Link to Michael J. Totten with the logo button

totten_button.jpg


Tip Jar





Essays

Terror and Liberalism
Paul Berman, The American Prospect

The Men Who Would Be Orwell
Ron Rosenbaum, The New York Observer

Looking the World in the Eye
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

In the Eigth Circle of Thieves
E.L. Doctorow, The Nation

Against Rationalization
Christopher Hitchens, The Nation

The Wall
Yossi Klein Halevi, The New Republic

Jihad Versus McWorld
Benjamin Barber, The Atlantic Monthly

The Sunshine Warrior
Bill Keller, The New York Times Magazine

Power and Weakness
Robert Kagan, Policy Review

The Coming Anarchy
Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic Monthly

England Your England
George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn