From Riyadh to Jeddah

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Will this week’s Arab summit breath new life into a Saudi-Syrian understanding over Lebanon?


One politician who will be closely watching the Arab League summit in Jeddah this Friday is the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt. That’s because he surely must recall what happened to his father, Kamal, after another Saudi summit, in Riyadh, on October 16, 1976.


At the time, Kamal Joumblatt had traveled to Cairo to secure Egyptian assistance against Syria, whose army had entered Lebanon in June 1976 to fight the Palestinians and their allies in the Lebanese National Movement (although Damascus had deployed units of the pro-Syrian Palestine Liberation Army earlier that year). Syria and Egypt were divided over then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad’s efforts to bring the Palestinian factions to heel. Joumblatt, who was aligned with the Palestinians, found a sympathetic ear in Cairo, where officials suggested he also travel to Libya to ask for help from the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. While Joumblatt was in Tripoli, the Egyptians and Syrians reconciled at the Riyadh summit. Joumblatt returned to Cairo and was brusquely put on a ship home by the Egyptians. A few months later, the Syrians assassinated the isolated Druze leader.

The message was that inter-Arab reversals invariably upend political calculations on all sides, and many people get ground down in the process. The latest Arab reconciliation with Syria, which the Jeddah summit this week will consecrate, rests on a tapestry of corpses. Worse, until now it appears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has surrendered little to be invited back into the club of Arab leaders. Damascus continues to resist the return of the millions of refugees it created; the Captagon trade is still thriving, even if there is a possibility that Damascus, for reasons of convenience, helped Jordan to kill a major drug trafficker recently; and Iranian forces and pro-Iran militias remain present in Syria.

What is equally worrisome is that the Gulf states may be seeking to return to Lebanon through Syria. Their assumption is probably that nothing will encourage Assad to push back against Iran and its allies as much as to be given a greater say in Lebanese affairs. We will see what happens after Jeddah to the presidential fortunes of Suleiman Franjieh. More than anyone else, he embodies the leftovers of Syrian influence in Lebanon.

One of the questions raised by the possibility of a partial Syrian comeback is whether Damascus has Lebanese networks on which it can rely to reassert some of its power? Assad can count on a non-negligible number of Sunni parliamentarians, particularly from Tripoli and Akkar, as well as on some so-called independent parliamentarians, the two Ahbash parliamentarians, and three from the Tashnag bloc, not to mention members of Nabih Berri’s bloc, even if the speaker of parliament may maneuver between Syria and Hezbollah.

Assad also happens to have sway over a large number of Syrians in Lebanon. Not all are hostile to the Assad regime, and some might see advantages in working on its behalf. This may not be enough to give Assad a dominant role, at last separate from Hezbollah, but it could mean the Syrians will henceforth have more of a voice in what happens in Beirut.

The absence of a security apparatus to back up Syrian demands will mean that Assad will continue to rely on Hezbollah to impose general policy directions. The Syrians might also have less latitude to benefit from Lebanon’s corruption networks, though Syria’s reconstruction, once it begins, will generate major revenues that help make up for this. The Syrian leadership will not soon be returning to their golden years of plundering Lebanon.

Let’s recall the last time that the Syrians and Saudis collaborated over Lebanon. It began in January 2009, when King Abdullah reconciled with Assad at the Arab Economic Summit in Kuwait, four years after Rafiq al-Hariri’s assassination, which the Saudis and the former prime minister’s family had blamed on Syria. Walid Joumblatt must have drawn parallels with his father. He realized that Abdullah’s move would compel Saad al-Hariri, Rafiq’s son, to make his peace with Assad. The Druze leader did not want to be left out to dry, as Kamal Joumblatt had been. So, in April 2009 he apparently leaked a video of himself, taken at the home of a Druze sheikh, in which he disparaged the Sunnis and seemed to call the Maronites a “bad sort,” or a “bad seed.” This was his signal to the Syrians that he was ready to lower tensions with the Shia and Syria, and reconsider his relations with the Sunnis and Maronites.

Ultimately, Joumblatt was proven right when Hariri followed the Saudi lead and visited Damascus in December 2009. Joumblatt had to wait a bit longer, meeting with Assad on March 31, 2010, before having dinner that night, irony of ironies, in an Iranian restaurant. But at least he had maneuvered away from his post-2004 hostility to Syria without leaving any feathers, until the Syrian uprising in 2011 led to a new break. This reminded me of something Joumblatt had told me soon after Hariri’s assassination: “We must cut a deal with Syria; those who went after Hariri won’t leave Lebanon so easily.” The Syrians actually did withdraw soon thereafter, but Joumblatt didn’t revise the rationale behind his remark.

A Saudi-Syrian understanding has been a mainstay of Saudi Arabia’s, and therefore the Gulf states’, approach to Lebanon. Things began at the Riyadh summit of 1976. The Saudis had pressured Hafez al-Assad into participating in the gathering, which the Syrian leader was reluctant to do because it would have stopped his offensive in Lebanon and forced him to defend himself against the Arab leaders backing the Palestinians. Once Assad accepted, however, he was more than compensated with the creation of the Arab Deterrence Force, in which Syrian troops made up the largest contingent. After that, the Saudis never challenged Syrian hegemony. When Rafiq al-Hariri became prime minister after the war, he stood at the intersection of Saudi and Syrian interests. While his assassination led the Saudis to reconsider their arrangement, four years later King Abdullah would reverse his position.

That is not to say that this week’s summit will in any way replicate the outcome of 1976. Iran’s grip over Lebanon really does not make that feasible. However, the Saudis and the Gulf states in general may be on track to return to familiar terrain, which involves using Syria as a wedge to enlarge the Arab stakes in Lebanon, regardless of what the Lebanese prefer. In the Arab world, throwing out the old rarely means replacing it with the new.

Carnegie Diwan


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