By Alison Shim
For the past 30 years, the seven-times-smaller Lebanon has lived under Syria’s military and political domination. Long-lasting tension between the two has developed a long and tumultuous history of Syria often meddling into Lebanese affairs. Specifically, Damascus has often created tension within Lebanon’s explosive mix of Muslims and Christians in order to further its personal regional interests. Syria’s strong ties with the Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah has only led to further conflict between the two nations. However, is Syrian occupation of Lebanon to blame or the French imperialism that dominated the two in the mid-twentieth century? While many point the finger at the over-whelming influence of Syria’s own instability, the root cause of conflict in both nations lies in oppressive French imperialist rule plaguing both nation’s history.
Upon the decline of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Syria was placed under French rule as a mandate of the League of Nations in the Skyes-Picot Agreement. The Skyes-Picot agreement gave France absolute control over the lives of the natives both in Syria and Lebanon. The French chose to take control of the region in order to protect the Christian Maronites inhabiting the area. However, ultimately the interests of both Syria and Lebanon as a whole were completely disregarded when deciding their fate in the aftermath of World War I. Arab armies led by Faysal Husayn entered Damascus in 1918 and declared an independent Arab kingdom. At the same time, French military forces landed in Syria and Lebanon. The ruthlessness of French military and economic policies radicalized the Syrian population. From its very beginnings, the oppressive militaristic French imperial rule was faced with opposition from the native people with a strong sense of nationalism in mind. This anti-imperialism sentiment would only escalate as the French mandate continued to establish the basis for all the country’s modern conflicts. One of the radical Arab nationalist parties was called the Ba’ath party, the main actor in all of Syria’s modern day problems. Every anti-colonialist movement that came about in Syria in the 20th century was based upon some variant of Arab nationalism as its prime political principle. The religious conflict between the Christian Maronites and Lebanese Muslims that sparked the Lebanese civil war of 1975 resulted in political and religious turmoil that continues to contribute to the instability the country faces today.
The instability in Syria and strong support of Arab nationalism as a result of the French imperial rule gave the Arab Baath party and Hafiz Al-Assad an opportunity to seize power in 1970. Syria came under the authoritarian rule of President Hafiz Al-Assad and faces many conflicts today as a result. The authoritarian regime, continued by Hafiz’s son Bashar al-Assad, is challenged by daily pro-democracy protests throughout the country. As a result, al-Assad has increased government ordered security and kills approximately 40 people a day in order to suppress the revolts, worsening living conditions for the Syrian population as a whole. Uprisings are met with Syrian security forces beating and killing protestors and even firing indiscriminately into crowds of people. As the government enhances its efforts to suppress the protestors and build up the military force, the strain on Syria’s economy and the national budget increases as well. Such modern conflicts are a direct result of the repressive French mandate that increased support for Arab nationalist parties like Al-Assad’s Baath party.
Bashar Al-Assad has been the president of Syria since 2000, when he succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for over a quarter of a century. The al-Assad regime has ruled with repressive policies and tyrannical rule since it first came into effect directly after French imperial rule. The nationalist sentiment and growing instability that was established under imperialism has resulted in the totalitarian regime under which Syria now resides. Furthermore, the United Nations notes that protests against the al-Assad regime in March 2-11 were quickly met with violent action. Al-assad had used forces to suppress the revolts by killing over 25,000 people and detaining tens of thousands more. In response to the demands behind the uprising, Mr.Assad’s government has adopted few insignificant acts of political change, while still ignoring the sweeping reforms that have the potential to defuse public riot. By October 2012, war has spread to the country’s main urban centers of Aleppo and Damascus and the government has taken even more extreme measures.
The danger with Lebanon lies in the spill over effects of Syria’s conflicts. The New York Times found that spillover from the Syrian conflict hit Lebanon in a frightening new way in August 2012 with the abduction of more than 30 Syrians inside Lebanese territory, which was what their captors called revenge for the kidnapping of a relative inside Syria.
Today over 100,000 Syrians have fled westwards, including 7,500 Palestinians who had been refugees in Syria. The bloodshed in Syria has drawn next-door Lebanon deeper into the unrest – a pressing issue for a nation that has suffered its own 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990 and contains a polarized mix of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Palestinian refugees, in addition to severe divisions between pro- and anti-Syrian factions.
While hope for the future of the two nations remains yet to be seen, both nation’s tumultuous history under French imperialist rule gives us greater insight into the cause of the modern day instability plaguing in both regions