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Q&A: What is Syria's role in Lebanon?

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Since the Feb. 14 bombing that killed Rafik Hariri, the popular opposition leader and Lebanon's former prime minister, thousands of Lebanese have poured into the streets to protest Syria's military presence in their small Mediterranean country. The world, too, has turned its attention to Syria's role there. Correspondent Annia Ciezadlo looks at the historical roots of the tension between these two countries.

Q: Why is Syria in Lebanon?

A: The short answer: Syria was invited by Lebanese Christians in 1976 to stop a brewing civil war. But even with 27,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, the war that started as skirmishes between Muslims and Christians continued for 15 years. It eventually involved the country's other religious factions, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israel, and the United States.

While Syria intervened on the side of the Christians, it switched allegiances to Yasser Arafat's PLO, which was using Lebanon as a base to attack Israel, and the PLO's Arab nationalist allies, mostly Muslim and Druze. In the end, Syria aligned itself with the Shiite Amal and Hizbullah parties. Because Syria is now the main power broker in Lebanon, these parties have an advantage in the constant shuffling of Lebanon's balance of power.

But the long answer to Syrian involvement in Lebanon - like many issues in the Middle East - goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, when the European victors divided the Ottoman territories, the French ended up with what was then called Greater Syria, which encompassed Syria and Lebanon. The French, aligned with the Maronite Christians (originally followers of a 4th-century Syrian hermit priest named Maron) of Lebanon and created an autonomous region for the Maronites in their ancestral home of Mount Lebanon.

To give Lebanon greater economic viability, the French combined the predominantly Muslim Bekaa Valley and the ancient coastal cities with the mostly Christian enclave of Mount Lebanon.

Q: How many religious groups are in Lebanon?
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