The Syria-Lebanon Connection

Historically, Syria has tried to influence events in Lebanon. But why? Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, explores the relationship between the two countries with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's examine two things that are said again and again about the Middle East. These are basic statements that turn up in news coverage, not always with much explanation. One statement is about Iran, and we'll get to that in a moment. The other involves Lebanon, which is in the news this week.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We support the Lebanese people's desire to live in peace, and we support their efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria, Iran and allies to foment instability and violence in that important country.

INSKEEP: President Bush was responding this week to the assassination of a Lebanese politician. The politician was an opponent of neighboring Syria, and the president, like many officials, mentioned Syria's attempts to influence Lebanon. That leads to the basic question of why Syria would try to influence Lebanon.

Theodore Kattouf, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, traces Syria's interest back to the period after the First World War. That's when colonial powers ruled the area.

Mr. THEODORE KATTOUF (Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria): Cities that are considered Lebanese today on the coast, such as Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre, were considered geographically, and even administratively, to be part of Syria. So when the French and the British carved up the region, they basically carved large sections that most of the people in the region thought of as Syria and gave it to this little entity that had been Mount Lebanon.

INSKEEP: From the very earliest days that there was a Syria, Syrians were saying that Lebanon should have been part of their country.

Mr. KATTOUF: They felt that. In 1945, they certainly felt that when they got their independence and the Lebanese got their independence. And the Syrian government never established a formal embassy in Beirut. And you know, they would use a rationale that, well, we're so close to one another, we're such brotherly peoples, we don't need embassies speaking for us. But a lot people believe that it was because Syria had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that large swaths of Lebanon were at one time considered Syrian territory.

INSKEEP: Granting that that kind of history is important in the Middle East, what has kept that dispute fresh and kept Syria continually reaching into Lebanon with troops or intelligence agencies or other methods?

Mr. KATTOUF: Well, what has kept the dispute fresh is the ongoing state of war with Israel - Syria and Israel. The Syrians were very, very alarmed way back in the 1975-76 period, when right-wing Christian militias were making common cause with Israel against Palestinian and leftist Lebanese organizations.

INSKEEP: These Christian militias were in Lebanon, so suddenly you have a friend of Israel inside Lebanon right next to Syria.

Mr. KATTOUF: Exactly. And you have all this fighting going on. And that was very unacceptable to Syria. So Syria was very pleased when offered a green light by then-Secretary Kissinger in the Nixon administration, with the acquiescence of the Israelis, to go into Lebanon and stop the bloodshed.

INSKEEP: So Syria came in, its troops came in, its intelligence agencies came in, and that leads to the next question. Those troops were forced to leave last year. The main headquarters of the Syrian intelligence agency in Beirut was famously left vacant. So why are we now, again this week, hearing about Syrian influence in Lebanon? What remains?

Mr. KATTOUF: Well, what remained was a lot of influence that I think the U.S. administration overlooked or chose not to emphasize. Syria had benefited a lot from having its intelligence services in Lebanon, from having rackets going on in Lebanon, and people were getting wealthy, frankly, from it. And plus, Syria saw Lebanon as a feeder from which it could put pressure on Israel.

INSKEEP: So Syria's army is gone, Syria's intelligence agencies are gone, but it still has a lot of friends in Lebanon, and therefore a lot of influence.

Mr. KATTOUF: Yes. Syria had a lot of ability in the years it was in Lebanon to work with the Lebanese Army, work with various Lebanese intelligence services, protect Hezbollah from the Taif Agreement, which called for the disarming of all militias. But Hezbollah, quote, "as a resistance organization," unquote, was allowed to keep its arms and became a state within a state. So the degree of Syrian influence is very, very strong and the Syrians seem to be reminding everybody these days of just how strong that influence is.

INSKEEP: Theodore Kattouf is a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. He served during the Bush administration, 2001-2003. Thanks very much.

Mr. KATTOUF: Thank you.

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