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After Syria

Alex Klaushofer
18 October 2005

Georges Ghostine is a happy man. This year, an event he has been waiting for half his life finally came to pass, something that had blighted his business and daily life for three decades. The Syrians left.

Ghostine lives in Bois de Boulogne, a village high in Lebanon’s mountains and a key base for the Syrian army and intelligence for the last twenty-nine years until their withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005. Most residents left during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war, leaving their homes to be taken over by the Syrian army. But Ghostine, the village mayor since 1963 and the owner of the Grand Hotel Bois de Boulogne, decided to tough it out, compensating for his loss of business by selling land.

“I took the decision not to leave the hotel, because I knew that, if I left, the army would occupy it”, he says. His initial expectations that the Syrians would leave after three or four months were dashed as they stayed on, even after the end of the war which they had ostensibly been invited to help resolve. “My children said, ‘They are never going to leave’. They lost hope. But I never lost hope.”

Also on Lebanon’s political tumult in 2005 in openDemocracy:

Hazem Saghieh, “Rafiq Hariri’s murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?” (February 2005)

Roger Scruton, “Lebanon before and after Syria” (March 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, “Lebanon’s pre-election hangover” (May 2005)

Paul Rogers, “Hizbollah’s warning flight” (May 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, “Lebanon’s election, no solution” (June 2005)

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Around 4,500 Syrian troops were based in the village, taking over the houses and hotels of this once-prosperous mountain resort. As each wave of soldiers finished their posting and left, they took something with them – furniture, fittings and window-frames.

Now the upper end of the village is full of decimated houses, their walls blackened with army campfires, their windows dead and empty. Their owners want to make them habitable again, but only some can afford to do so.

“We have had meetings, meetings”, says Ghostine. “But people need money to do the work. They may have been rich before the war, but thirty years of living on reserves, and they aren’t any more. There have been promises of money from the government but, so far, nothing.”

At Villa Jaber, a large elegant house used by the Syrians as an intelligence and interrogation centre, the work is underway. The Lebanese flag has been draped over its freshly sandblasted white stone, and construction workers are bustling about outside. They nod me into the house, where hanging wires and yellowing walls testify to decades of neglect. The owners have mounted an informal photo exhibition in the hallway which tells the tale of the house’s reclamation: there are pictures of people scrubbing its floors, burning Syrian slogans and a deliriously happy crowd picnicking on the floor of a dilapidated room.

A café owner on the village main street smiles sweetly when I ask her if things have changed since the Syrians’ departure. “It’s a bit different”, she says. “Not much.” Her concerns are largely economic, centring on whether the business she opened last year with her husband will prosper now that the village is once more open to tourists. “We hope that, next year, it will be better.”

Boulogne is a rare example of a place where ordinary people are directly feeling the effects of Syria’s departure from Lebanon. Although a belief that the tentacles of Syria’s influence extended far into the country’s intelligence and legal system was widespread, the evidence to back up the claim has been hard to find. It still is. Tufik Mashlawi, editor of the Middle East Reporter, a Beirut-based daily digest of the Arab press, has begun to reveal what is possibly the beginning of a stream of stories that will come out about Syria’s dominance.

One story, just printed in the Arabic weekly al-Shiraa, tells how a Lebanese officer called Mohammad al-Hajar stole a public artefact for Rustom Ghazali, the Syrian head of intelligence in Lebanon and got away with it (Ghazali’s predecessor in the post and later Syria’s interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, committed suicide on 12 October). Mashlawi says many such stories may emerge. “This is the reason I want to put it out”, he says. “We often talk about interference in Lebanon, but we don’t have specific examples.”

One area where the effects of Syria’s departure are clear is in Lebanon’s labour force. Before the Syrian withdrawal, the country had up to a million Syrian workers doing menial jobs on low pay, attracted by the comparatively higher wages and practically open border between the countries. Their presence was controversial, and many Lebanese discriminated against them, arguing they were taking local jobs in an already overstretched economy. When the ties between the two nations were cut after the murder of Lebanon’s former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February, a wave of attacks on Syrian workers followed. It is estimated that, in the space of a few months, at least 500 000 have left.

But the implications of even this, the most tangible effect of Syria’s departure, are disputed. Some, like Taha Awaida, a member of a family of influential pro-Hariri, anti-Syrian politicians, argues that the loss of Syrian workers is a good thing for Lebanon. “Now you will see there will be a middle class”, he says, citing a Lebanese painter at his mother’s house in Tripoli who, on $20 a day, is earning double what a Syrian worker would have done.

Others, like Nuhad Tomeh, associate general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches and himself half-Syrian, are less sure about the benefits. “The Lebanese will not go and work as garbage collectors”, he says. “Now we will get in more migrant workers.”

But nowhere is the effect of Syria’s departure on the ground more ambiguous than in the village of Anjar in the Bekaa valley, just over the mountains from Syria. Until this spring, Anjar’s exclusively Armenian community – non-Armenians are not allowed to buy land there – was host to Ghazali’s headquarters and a Syrian military base. Once the forces left, some members of this vulnerable community began to worry about their security. “Under the control of Syria, we are safe”, says Vicky Antablin, headmistress of the National Haratch kindergarten for the last forty-two years. “As the Armenian people, we are working with all these groups.”

Others give a different perspective. “We didn’t feel our security in Anjar was threatened by their departure”, says the Reverend Rafi Messerlian, head of the Armenian Evangelical Secondary School. “There are political tensions between Lebanon and Syria, but we are not involved, because usually our strategy as Armenians is that we are neutral.”

Both responses are symptomatic of a cautious and vigilant community which, in the wake of its own tragic history, puts its security above any kind of political involvement and adds an extra dimension to the already complex story of Lebanon’s life after Syria. When I ask Messerlian whether the Syrians’ departure has meant that people are now more open, his smile is hard to decipher. “I don’t know if they are still here or not”, he says. “They work in secret – that’s intelligence.”

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