Lebanon’s emancipation: an obituary?


Allow me, despairing reader, to cite from Bashar Assad’s speech of March 5, 2005, before the Syrian Parliament. You may re­member it as the one in which he mocked the allegedly few Lebanese at Martyrs Square condemning him for Rafik Hariri’s murder – before March 14 proved how mistaken Syria’ president was. But Assad also said this about Lebanon’s politicians: “Some declared they were Syrian allies and used its name, and some were merchants of political positions – they bought and sold these positions depending on their personal interests. Trading in merchandise is respectable, but trading in political positions is like the slave trade.”

What a pity that four years later, Assad, so wrong about the Lebanese in general, proved right about many of their leaders. After watching Walid Jumblatt take his community a significant distance back into the Syrian fold, we can now pick from lesser instances of buying and selling – most recently former minister Michel Murr’s announcement that he too would be calling Damascus to get an appointment. Murr was alarmed when Wi’am Wahhab, Syria’s ventriloquist dummy in Lebanon, hinted that the Assad regime had a problem with Elias Murr, which might hinder his ministerial ambitions. So even though the Syrians once tried to kill Elias, his interests now require that his father pick up that phone.

What a sordid irony that the Syrians are making a comeback in Lebanon, even though the June 7 elections confirmed how politically weak they were in the country. What brought about this state of affairs – the sudden Lebanese sprint to be on Syria’s good side, the abandonment of the consensus that took shape in 2004 and 2005 and that endured during the years of assassinations by Syria and its allies, and the nauseating mortification of Walid Jumblatt, who finds himself having to deal as an equal with Wahhab, a sub-product of Syria’s intelligence agencies?

Doubtless, threats were part of it. The Saudis have been willing to cut a deal with Damascus to contain Iran, while the US has been engaged elsewhere, so Syria saw that it could take advantage of this absence of political cover to bully Jumblatt and others who don’t have the luxury, they or their sons, of the protection afforded Saad Hariri. Samir Geagea, by his nature and past, is a tougher nut to crack, which is why Syria and its local peons are preparing to isolate him. How Geagea emerges from this campaign will determine the safeguards he enjoys.

But beyond the threats there is politics. In a situation as volatile as the one in Lebanon today, no leader wants to be marginalized. Take Jumblatt’s turnaround. For him the real danger is that if Syria does not manage to restore a measure of its past hegemony, then his opening to its regime and his desire to play an axial role in a Syrian-dominated Lebanese order will have all been for nothing. Jumblatt will have placed himself and the Druze community at Syria’s mercy without any palpable political gains in return. So, far from being a mere victim of Syria’s newfound power, Jumblatt may become one of its promoters.

The Syrians always understood that there was much to be derived in Lebanon from those who believed that Syria could be “broken off” from Iran. Assad realized that he could sell a Syrian revival to the Arabs and the West as the best way to contain Hizbullah, and through it Iran. Not that Syria has any intention of severing its close relationship with the Islamic Republic, or for that matter putting an end to Hizbullah’s rearmament. What Assad wants, quite simply, is to call the shots in Lebanon himself instead of Iran, albeit in the context of continued cooperation.

One reason for this is that the Syrians want to gain the Lebanese card before the possible resumption of US-sponsored peace negotiations between Syria and Israel on the one hand and Lebanon and Israel on the other. The reality is that Damascus is politically vulnerable today, much too vulnerable to enter peace talks without fortifiers. For starters, it has largely lost its influence over the United States in Iraq, and the prospect of sectarian warfare there can only alarm the Assad regime if the outcome is the radicalization of Sunnis throughout the region.

On the Palestinian front Syria, with Iran, has influence over Hamas, but if Palestinian-Israeli negotiations resume seriously, as the Obama administration would like, Assad could be caught between two contrary logics: He would have to square Syria’s participation in such negotiations with Iran’s desire to derail them, while Hamas would be caught somewhere in the middle. Even if the Syrians were to encourage Hamas to place obstacles before the negotiations in order to increase their own leverage over Israel, there are no guarantees they could later persuade the movement to compromise if the Iranians insisted that Hamas stand tough. After all Iran, not Syria, helps finance the movement.

And in Lebanon, Syria’s political power rests on shaky institutional foundations. The Syrians can kill, they have influence over officers in the army and intelligence services, but they no longer have a vast military and security network in place – while the elections showed that their sway over Lebanese society is negligible. What the Syrians have done successfully, however, is fill the spaces intentionally or unintentionally opened to them by the Saudis, the Americans, and the Lebanese themselves.

On top of that, the Syrians have a friend in Israel, which would like nothing more than to push Lebanon back to the predictable days of Syrian rule. Those were the days when the party began arming massively and killed more Israelis than ever before, and yet the Israelis feel they can intimidate Syria better than they can Iran, whose influence expanded in Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. It hasn’t occurred to Israeli leaders that a resurgent Syria would have a great interest in reopening the southern Lebanese border militarily to strengthen their bargaining position when it comes to a final settlement over the Golan Heights.

These are the dynamics of the Syrian return to Lebanon. Do they mean that Assad will drive his tanks back into the country? The president would love to, but for now that seems unlikely. However, he is compensating through Lebanon’s leaders, who, in pursuing their personal and political survival, have succumbed to Syrian blackmail while disregarding all those assassinated in recent years for refusing to do so.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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