Government must demand Syrian retreat from Lebanon


Successive governments have for three decades refused to condemn Syria's occupation and severe breach of human rights, writes Rory Miller.

The massive street protests in Beirut against Syrian occupation are increasingly giving credence to the view that what is happening in Lebanon is akin to last year's "Orange Revolution" in Kiev and even to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Although such sentiments are premature and the ethnically diverse make-up of the Lebanese population means that inter-communal violence is always a possibility, there is no doubt that the people of Lebanon are no longer willing to be dominated by Syria.

In late February, at the request of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, the Irish Government agreed to send Deputy Garda Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald to Beirut to head a team that would investigate the murder of ex-Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri - an event that sparked the present popular protest against the continued Syrian occupation.

In a report presented to Annan last week, the team said Lebanon's own inquiry into the killing was serious flawed and that Syrian military intelligence bore primary responsibility for the lack of security, protection, and law and order in Lebanon.

Unfortunately, the Irish Government's gesture in acceding to Annan's request for Garda assistance, however sincere, does not change the fact that over the last three decades successive governments here have not only refused to condemn Syria's occupation of Lebanon, but have also turned a blind-eye to the severe breach of human rights and to the suppression of fundamental freedoms that have defined Syria's creeping annexation of the country.

Syria always considered Lebanon a part of "Greater Syria" and the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 provided Damascus with a pretext for reigning in Lebanese independence in the name of preserving stability.

By 1977 the number of Syrian troops exceeded 30,000. By 1984 the UN estimated that there were more than 40,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and that they controlled about 65 per cent of Lebanese sovereign territory. By 1990 the de facto Syrian conquest of Lebanon had been completed.

From that time until the recent resignation of the cabinet, in response to the popular protests, the grip of Damascus over her neighbour has been tightened and institutionalised. For example, candidates for top political office in Lebanon are thoroughly vetted by Damascus.

Nor has this been a benign occupation. It is estimated that Syrian forces have been responsible for approximately 100,000 deaths in the country and for the flight of up to half a million civilians from their homes. In particular, there have been numerous cases of mass killing by Syrian forces. For example, according to one 1986 Amnesty International report, Syrian troops entered the town of Tripoli and executed hundreds of civilians, including numerous women and children.

Yet Ireland has been silent about all of this. It has been willing to watch Lebanon become a satellite of Syria devoid of fundamental freedoms and true sovereignty.

It is not as if we did not know what was going on. Though Syria entered Lebanon at a time when Irish UN peacekeepers were absent from the country, by 1978 we were back on a significant scale with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).

Indeed, between 1978 and 2001, an astounding 38,100 Irish troops served in Lebanon as part of Unifil. This commitment meant that we prided ourselves on having what the late Brian Lenihan once termed a "special interest" and what one Irish UN ambassador called a "particular interest" in the country.

Moreover, over the course of the Syrian occupation, numerous Irish public figures, including successive ministers of defence, church leaders, members of the Dáil, journalists and even the odd president, travelled to Lebanon to meet government officials and visit our troops.

On none of these occasions did these various public representatives take the opportunity to express their opposition to the continuing Syrian occupation.

As a researcher who has thoroughly examined Dáil debates and Irish UN statements on the Middle East over the period in question, I can vouch for the fact that while numerous hours have been spent on the issue of the Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of part of southern Lebanon, between 1982 and 2000, there has been an almost total absence of discussion on the illegal nature of Syria's presence in Lebanon, not to mention its abuse of human rights while there.

I would go further: the Dáil has dedicated more time to discussion of the western Sahara question than the Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

More cynically, Irish governments have used the fact that successive Lebanese governments have provided, under duress, constitutional cover for Syria's military dominance of the country as a way of defending their own failure to take Syria to task.

For example, following the adoption of the Taif Accords by the Lebanese parliament in 1989, the government drew on this document - which called for the assistance of the Syrian army in disbanding militias - to dismiss claims that Syria was occupying Lebanon.

On the eve of his June 2003 visit to the Middle East, which included a stopover in Damascus, then foreign minister Brian Cowen noted the "positive profile of Ireland, particularly [ in Lebanon] and Syria".

Why wouldn't we have a "positive profile"? For 30 years we have ignored, and even excused, the worst excesses of the Syrian occupation in Lebanon.

Recent events may or may not mark a new dawn for democracy in Lebanon. But we must hope that they rouse our politicians - who for so long have presented Irish foreign policy involvement in moral terms - to take a public and outspoken stance in support of those now calling for Syria to leave their country.

Dr Rory Miller is senior lecturer in Mediterranean studies at King's College, London. His book Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004, has just been published by Irish Academic Press.