Assad's death brings range of emotions for Lebanese

Syrian leader was seen as a protector by some, a nuisance by others

June 12, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Rumors of Syrian President Hafez el Assad's demise were so prevalent in the last decade, the premature mourning - and celebrations - so commonplace, that when death finally came to the strongman, the Lebanese simply could not believe it.

Shock, fear and uncertainty hung over this humid seafront capital yesterday as Lebanese Muslims and Christians struggled with what the passing of Lebanon's de facto ruler would mean for their country.

In the predominantly Shiite Muslim section of West Beirut, where there has been support for Syria's "protection" of Lebanon, there were expressions of grief and loyalty as youths hung posters of Assad alongside his son and heir apparent, Bashar.

"All my soul is for Hafez and Bashar," said Ahmed Sabbah, who bore his chest to display the bloody name "Assad," which he had carved into his flesh with a knife.

Relief mixed with apprehension in predominantly Christian quarters of the capital, where there has been strong opposition to Syrian domination. "I don't think Assad was very much in the heart of the Christian population. I don't see many people in mourning," said Dory Chamoun of the National Liberation Party.

Assad sent troops into Lebanon in 1990 in a bid to end the country's 15-year civil war, first siding with the Christian minority that traditionally ruled the country and later shifting his allegiance to the Muslim majority. He has micro-managed the country's politics and economy ever since and kept about 35,000 of his troops in Lebanon as a bulwark against Israel.

Assad also used Lebanon's Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas to fight a proxy war with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights, which the Israelis captured from Syria in 1967.

Resentment of Syrian dominance and of as many as 1 million Syrians holding jobs in Lebanon runs deep in many Lebanese. "The truth is, I feel relieved," said a Muslim businessman who asked not to be identified. "Assad was too heavy, from another era. Bless his heart and soul, but the age of Stalinism doesn't go with the world culture anymore."

Few political observers expect immediate changes in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship as the younger Assad tries to consolidate power at home. There is also no indication that he views Lebanon any differently from his father - as anything other than Syria's back yard and rightful protectorate.

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