As always: It’s the Syrians, stupid!


So it’s as clear as a bomb explosion on St. Valentine’s Day: Lebanon’s government crisis is and always was about Syria and its yearning to regain the power over Lebanon that it lost in 2005. Prime Minister-elect Saad Hariri’s decision to present a cabinet lineup to President Michel Sleiman, by provoking an angry reaction from Syria’s allies, tore away the ambiguities surrounding the government formation process. The Syrians don’t want a government unless they can be seen as having blessed it themselves – which means Hariri must make a notable act of submission to Damascus. The Americans are telling Syria that its failure to facilitate a government will harm US-Syrian relations. And the Saudis have remained publicly quiet, but only because while they disagree with Syria over Lebanon, they appear to have an implicit understanding with President Bashar Assad in Iraq, where both countries, each for reasons of its own, seek to prevent stabilization of the country.

The latter detail may explain why Hariri himself did not press the cabinet issue very hard until this week. Perhaps he was hoping for a Saudi-Syrian breakthrough that would spare him headaches; or maybe he simply sought to avoid a Saudi-Syrian row, knowing Riyadh didn’t want one. Whatever the reason, to understand what is happening today we should watch closely what develops on the Saudi-Syrian front, and then see whether all the others involved in Lebanon accept it.

It was no coincidence that Walid Jumblatt sent Ghazi Aridi to Saudi Arabia on Monday to discuss Lebanon with Saudi officials. Nor was it surprising that the Parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, met with the kingdom’s ambassador in Beirut on Tuesday. Jumblatt has insisted, echoing Berri, that a solution to the deadlock requires concord between Syria and Saudi Arabia. The Druze leader was forced to backtrack on his “withdrawal” from March 14 last month, but hopes to reposition himself as a middleman, along with Berri, to facilitate a government. This means the two must channel and reconcile the Saudi and Syrian mood.

The situation in Iraq has complicated matters in Beirut. The Maliki government’s decision to confront Syria over its support for Al-Qaeda and for former Baath members violently undermining Iraqi normalization has made Syria more obstinate in Lebanon. Nor has this been alleviated by the fact that the United States, which initially (and mildly) advised a diplomatic resolution of the crisis between Baghdad and Damascus, is now gravitating toward greater criticism of the Syrian regime. The irony is that Iraq’s animosity toward Syria means the Saudis may be less eager to clash with Assad in Lebanon. The flip side of this is that it may facilitate a Syrian-Saudi arrangement over a new Lebanese government.

That’s what Jumblatt and Berri are wagering on. Jumblatt was much criticized for his turnaround against March 14. His reading of the situation at the time was that the Saudis, keen to firm up their reconciliation with Syria to better contain Iran, were willing to hand Assad much leeway in Lebanon; not what Syria held before 2005, but more than it had after its withdrawal. Jumblatt assumed that part of the arrangement would be Hariri’s ascent to Damascus, so the Druze leader calculated that to remain politically relevant, he had to make it there first, or at least show a deep change of heart toward Syria first.

Then something happened. Apparently the United States, with Egypt, blocked Hariri’s visit to Damascus before he became prime minister. The Saudis stepped back. A scheduled meeting between Assad and King Abdullah was cancelled, and when Jumblatt made his Beau Rivage speech the Saudis sent their information minister, Abdel-Aziz Khoja, to Beirut to bring the Druze leader back into line – mainly to avoid undercutting Hariri. However, judging from Jumblatt’s subsequent behavior, the Saudis never opposed his rapprochement with Syria, which Jumblatt has justified in the framework of improved Syrian-Saudi ties.

However, the new situation led to deadlock, exacerbated by inter-Lebanese discord. Aoun, sensing Syria’s displeasure, decided to take advantage of this by pushing for Gebran Bassil as a minister and demanding a “sovereign ministry.” Hizbullah, which had promised Hariri that it would mediate with Aoun once cabinet shares were apportioned, instead did nothing at all, respecting Syria’s desire to obstruct an accord. Nonetheless, the party probably prefers that a government be finalized soon, both to gain legal cover for its weapons and to create a situation more propitious for addressing financially the Salah Ezzedine fiasco, which depends on a functioning state being present. The question today, therefore, is what will the Saudis give Syria so it can sign off on a new government, and will the Americans, Iranians and Egyptians accept?

The Iranian role is more subtle. Iran and Hizbullah, not Syria, hold real power on the ground. Where Syrian interests have been protected in Lebanon, they have been protected by Hizbullah, so that Iran has gradually sidelined Syria as the main opposition sponsor. In the June elections the extent of Syrian weakness was obvious, though the Assad regime tried to use the Hizbullah-led opposition’s setbacks to regain the influence it lost to Iran after 2005. This it did by packaging its prospective Lebanese return as a case of curtailing Iranian influence. Little has come of this scheme because Syria is weak and Iran won’t surrender to Assad its Lebanese card.

All sides have an advantage in reaching a settlement at some stage over a new government. The Syrians don’t want an outright divorce with the Saudis and still hope to advance their dialogue with Washington; the Iranians need a new government in place to legitimize Hizbullah’s weapons at a crucial time in the nuclear standoff; and Saudi Arabia and Washington want to avert a conflict in Lebanon that might hinder their other regional priorities – most importantly inhibiting Iran and advancing regional peace talks. That means a government may come sooner than we think, but you would be right in keeping your wager low.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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George Kronfli
George Kronfli
14 years ago

As always: It’s the Syrians, stupid!
Michael Young seems to know a lot, but is unable to assimilate this knowledge and understand it fully. He is stuck in the past, keeps repeating the same mantras, and is incapable of moving forward and keeping abreast with the changing political spectrum. Surely not the right place for a senior journalist and a political commentator. Is he past his sell by date?

Imad Saoud
Imad Saoud
14 years ago

As always: It’s the Syrians, stupid! It is amazing how much insight Mr. Young has into Lebanese and regional politics. I am surprised he has not been offered a top position at some international think tank. He is so sure of his analysis of the situation that he writes it as if it were the complete and irrefutable truth. Could he not at least have moderated his diatribe with words like “possibly”, “probably” etc. It is probably because of op-eds like him that the daily star has lost readership. It is also possible that he might have sold his ethics… Read more »


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