Syria has massed 10,000 Syrian troops on the Lebanese northern border, which is raising fears among the Lebanese people about Syria’s intention to re-enter the Lebanon after it was evicted in humiliation in 2005 by massive grassroots demonstrations across Lebanon.
Syria says that the deployment is to prevent cross-border smuggling of weapons and terrorists, something that the international community has been asking the Syrian regime to do for years. However, the timing of this deployment is clearly related to the tensions in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between the Lebanese Alawi community (the Assad dynasty and dictatorship is itself from the Alawi minority of Syria) and the Sunni community.
The Syrian regime has been playing both sides of the geopolitical game, alternating overnight between an apparent openness to the West (including peace overtures and indirect negotiations with Israel, exchange of visits between Paris and Damascus at the highest levels of government) on one hand, and an escalating hostility (including a blatant support to Russia’s intervention in Georgia, support to Iran’s bellicose posturing on the nuclear issue, continued support to Hezbollah with weapons and gunmen across the Lebanese border)
Beirut and Damascus have in recent months been working to improve relations, which deteriorated sharply after the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister - an act widely blamed on Syria. However, those improvements in relations were only cosmetic, since even a visit by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman to Damascus last month failed to achieve any substantive progress on the major contentious issues between the two countries: The hundreds and thousands of imprisoned and missing Lebanese in Syria, exchange of diplomatic missions, and Syria’s reluctance to officially cede the Shebaa Farms back to Lebanon which is a pre-requisite for an Israeli withdrawal from this disputed border area between Israel, Syria and Lebanon near the Golan Heights.
Damascus retains influence through its support for political forces in Lebanon including Hezbollah, the armed Shiite movement heading the opposition." There are fears that Syrian influence is growing again," said one European diplomat in Beirut. "The Syrians are determined [that their proxies] win the upcoming 2009 parliamentary elections in Lebanon - the stakes are high."
Nevertheless, a significant number of Lebanese remain skeptical about whether Damascus is finally prepared to recognize Lebanon as an independent and distinct nation. Ever since the two countries were born between the two world wars of the 20th century, Syria has entertained the ambition of annexing its smaller neighbor Lebanon. Some politicians believe that the recent sectarian fighting in the northern port city of Tripoli between Alawis and Sunnis was fueled by Syria, looking for an excuse to re-enter Lebanon. Many in Lebanon – except Hezbollah – are of the belief that Lebanon will never know stability and peace as long as the Syrian Baathist regime remains in control in Syria.