Pro-Syria supporters show might

Syria’s supporters in Lebanon struck back against the “cedar revolution” this week with a show of strength that easily dwarfed anything their opponents have been able to muster.

They drove into Beirut in cars, waving Lebanese flags, and in battered buses decorated with pictures of the Syrian-backed President, Emile Lahoud.

Half an hour before the rally was due to begin, Riad el-Solh Square, one of the largest open spaces in Beirut, was already full, but more kept coming, often several hundred at a time.

Many shops closed and streets were almost deserted in the city centre. Large numbers of troops stood by on the fringes of the demonstration.

Trying to estimate the number was futile, but 500 000 would be plausible and one million not unbelievable.

From a distance it resembled a larger version of Monday’s opposition rally. As on Monday, they patriotically waved the Lebanese flag and the national anthem blared out several times over the loudspeakers.

But they also waved pictures of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad and his Lebanese counterpart.
There were even a few pictures of Assad’s late and largely unlamented father.

Much of the language, unless decoded, sounded similar. One of the slogans was “sovereignty, not foreign intervention”. But the foreigners referred to were the Americans, the Israelis and the French — anyone but the brotherly Syrians.

Looked at more closely, this was a very different crowd. The anti-Syrian protesters who have attracted worldwide attention were mostly Christians, Sunni Muslims and Druze, and they were generally from the better-off sections of Lebanese society. This week’s masses were overwhelmingly the poorer — and historically downtrodden — Shia, who form 40% of the population. All, ostensibly, had turned out to show their gratitude to Syria for its efforts in Lebanon.

  • Meanwhile, Julian Borger reports from Washington that United States President George W Bush has portrayed the anti-Syrian protests in Beirut as a decisive moment for the spread of freedom across the Middle East and one in which the international community had high stakes.

    He rejected Syria’s troop redeployment in Lebanon as “delaying tactics and half measures” and repeated his demand for a total withdrawal before Lebanese elections in May.

    Bush told an audience of military scholars at the National Defence University in Washington: “Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon’s future belongs in your hands.

    “The American people are on your side. Millions across Earth are on your side. The momentum of freedom is on your side. And freedom will prevail in Lebanon.’‘

    In his speech Bush did not refer directly to this week’s pro-Syrian, anti-American demonstrations in Beirut, other than to declare that in a “generational commitment” to democratic reform in that region there would be times “when the headlines aren’t so good”.

    The most pointed words were reserved for Assad, who last Saturday announced the start of a redeployment of 15 000 troops in Lebanon to the east of the country, but set no date for the complete withdrawal demanded by the US, France and Saudi Arabia.

    Martha Kessler, a former CIA expert on Syria, warned that US pressure could produce a backlash. “The challenge here is for America not to go over a point where we are seen to impose a Pax Americana on the region. There is a huge constituency out there that sees this as a real power play. It’s a very difficult line.” — Â

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