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Why is Syria so deeply involved in Lebanese affairs?

Syria has been occupying Lebanon for decades. It started innocently enough, with the infiltration of Syrian games, television and handicrafts. Then, in 1976, Syria began occupying Lebanon with soldiers.

The reason: In 1975, Lebanon collapsed into a civil war resulting from rivalries that simmered for years between Lebanon's then-politically dominant Christians and its Muslim and Druze communities (the Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam that dates to the 11th century).

That the long-standing rivalries turned into civil war was in large part the result of Lebanon's proximity to another war - between Israelis and Palestinians. Yasser Arafat and the cream of the PLO's fightin' force showed up in Lebanon after being violently ejected from nearby Jordan in September 1970. The violent ejection is known as Black September.

The reason Jordan's King Hussein kicked them out was that they were destabilizing Jordan by A) provoking Israel to attack Palestinian targets in Jordan, and B) usurping the king's authority in large parts of the country.

Big surprise - once they resettled in Lebanon, Arafat and the PLO tried the same thing they tried in Jordan. They began to assert political and military control over parts of Lebanon, particularly the parts of southern Lebanon near Israel's border, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees were shacking up.

From Lebanon, the PLO launched raids against Israel, many of which prompted retaliatory Israeli military strikes. The PLO attack against Israel during this period that you're probably most familiar with was the 1972 attack on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, Germany. Do you remember what the little gang that carried out the Munich massacre called itself? That'd be Black September. Give yourself a gold star.

The Lebanese civil war started in 1975 when a Lebanese Christian militia attacked a busload of Palestinians to avenge a Palestinian attack on a nearby church. As fighting dragged on into 1976, the Lebanese Christians found themselves on the verge of defeat by an alliance of Lebanese Muslims and Palestinians.

It was right around the spring of 1976 that Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad went to his mailbox one morning and found an invitation. The gist of the invite was, "Mr. Assad, please invade Lebanon and save us from a PLO/Muslim takeover. We'll provide hummus, falafel and tabouli if you bring drinks. RSVP, regrets only."

And so Syria invaded. They were, by and large, successful at keeping the Palestinians confined to the southern part of the country. In 1978, Israel joined the war, on the side of the Lebanese Christians, to retaliate against Palestinian attacks coming from Lebanon. In 1982, Israel intervened again, this time launching a full-scale invasion of Lebanon with the goal of either killing off or driving out the PLO and Arafat. Israel's current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was in charge of the invading force. The Israeli force was largely out of Lebanon by 1985, but some remained in the south until 2000.

The Syrians, however, still haven't left. In 1990, the warring Lebanese parties worked up a power-sharing agreement. Enforced by the Syrians, the agreement ended the civil war. With the militias largely disarmed, the two major fighting forces in Lebanon are now the Syrians and Hezbollah, the Iranian-funded Shi'ite group backing Palestinian attacks against Israel.

The Syrians have taken advantage of their strength in Lebanon to perpetuate their occupation. Last year, they bullied Lebanon's parliament into extending the term of Lebanon's pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. And the just-assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was the country's most prominent politician opposing Syrian occupation. If it turns out that Syria ordered or condoned his assassination, it likely was an attempt to silence Lebanon's anti-occupation movement.

The Syrians have stuck around because occupying Lebanon hasn't been so bad for them. Lebanon is a regional commercial hub on whose metaphorical economic buffet the less-than-affluent Syrians like to feast. Lebanon is also a battlefield from which Syria can antagonize Israel by supporting, along with Iran, the actions of Hezbollah.

There's also a pissing-match quality to Syria's occupation. President Bashar al-Assad has staked his credibility within Syria's ruling establishment on his ability to hold on to Lebanon. If pressure mounts and Syria is forced out, it's likely that Mr. Assad will be deposed and perhaps forced to return to his pre-governmental profession, ophthalmology.

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