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Lebanon: Under the Sword

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The Struggle for Lebanon
by Patrick Seale
It does not look as if the long-running Lebanese crisis will be resolved any day soon. The main reason is that the election of a Lebanese President is not a purely Lebanese affair. Numerous external powers want a say. To arrive at a consensus between them is no easy task. It will almost certainly need more time.

Amr Moussa, the Arab League secretary-general, has exhausted himself in a valiant attempt at mediation between rival Lebanese factions and their external backers -- so far, without success.
 
 
[Republished at PFP with express Agence Global permission.] 
 
Syria has vital security issues with regard to Lebanon, and sees its lesser neighbour as an essential geo-political partner. And Syria's security necessities could help stabilize Lebanon's political crisis, if the Arab World -- particularly Saudi Arabia -- can come to terms with Damascus.
 
 
These external powers include such regional rivals as Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also Egypt, France, the United States and even Israel (operating through the United States).

However, in the Lebanese context, the most important of these external actors is Syria, because Syria views developments in Lebanon as a matter of life and death. Rightly or wrongly, Syria feels it needs to exercise veto powers over the choice of a Lebanese President.


The rumour in Damascus is that President Bashar al-Asad has asked Amr Moussa to travel to Riyadh in order to convey a conciliatory message to King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia. President Bashar is even quoted by some sources as saying that he will make no move without first securing the backing of the Saudi Kingdom.


If these rumours are confirmed, they may signal a détente in inter-Arab relations -- and therefore hope for a breakthrough in Lebanon. President Bashar attended the Arab Summit in Riyadh in March 2007, when he conferred at length with King Abdallah. Lebanon was then the main issue, as it is today. Détente between Damascus and Riyadh is absolutely necessary, because the current coolness between them, verging on hostility, is one of the main impediments to a Lebanese settlement.


Some observers say that the Arab Summit next March may provide an opportunity to unblock the situation and allow a Lebanese President to be elected. Others believe, more pessimistically, that a decision may have to be postponed until after Lebanon’s legislative elections later this year, which may change the current balance of power between majority and opposition.


A key problem would seem to be that Syria has lost confidence in General Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese army commander who, it was hoped, would be a President acceptable to all sides.


General Suleiman developed close ties with Syria in the 1990s when the Lebanese army was being rebuilt with Syrian help after the civil war. Last year, when Lebanon was battling a violent Islamic faction entrenched in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Barid in northern Lebanon, Syria supplied the Lebanese army with much-needed ammunition.


In a word, General Suleiman’s candidacy for the presidency of Lebanon was seen as a concession to Syria. But that was last year. Syria seems no longer to trust him, believing that he has moved into the Saudi/US camp. Another Damascus rumour is that the General paid a recent secret visit to Saudi Arabia, when he is said to have given pledges about his future alignment.


In any event, the General is no puppet, having emerged strengthened from the fierce battles at Nahr al-Barid. If elected, he is likely to be an independent President. This is a risk Syria seems unwilling to take.


What does Syria want in Lebanon? This question is being asked in every local and foreign capital. It is best to begin by attempting to define what it does not want. It does not want to send its own army back into Lebanon, where it was for 29 years from 1976 to 2005. But nor can it tolerate a hostile, provocative government in Beirut, which would poison Syria’s life on a daily basis.


Syria wants a guarantee that whatever ruling establishment emerges in Lebanon, whatever President is elected and government formed, will recognize and respect Syria’s vital interests -- be they political, economic or strategic. That is the bottom line for Syria's consent to a Lebanese settlement.


Syria seems to have three immediate preoccupations. The first concerns the international tribunal set up to try the men who killed Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister, on 14 February 2005. The killers have not yet been identified, and indeed may never be, such is the complexity of the case.


Syria is, in fact, less concerned about the possible verdict of the tribunal than about its proceedings over the coming months and years. The tribunal will have the right to call dozens, perhaps hundreds, of witnesses. Its proceedings will be long-drawn out and will inevitably be politicised. They are likely to be used by Syria’s enemies as a means to attack, and even destabilise, it.


Syria suspects that the Tribunal will turn out to be a sort of ‘Sword of Damocles’ suspended over its head by a single horsehair -- as in the legend -- paralyzing all movement by the fear that it might fall.


A second Syrian preoccupation is that a hostile regime in Lebanon might, with international support, seek to disarm Hizbullah, the Shi’ite party and militia allied to both Iran and Syria, which fought Israel to a standstill in the summer war of 2006. In Syrian eyes, the Tehran-Damascus-Hizbullah axis is the only force able to hold in check Israeli and American pressures and aggressions.


A third major Syrian preoccupation is of an even more radical shift in the regional balance. Its fear is that if the anti-Syrian 14 March coalition consolidates its position in Lebanon, it may be tempted, or pressured, into concluding a separate peace with Israel, on the model of the American-brokered 17 May 1983 accord, which was concluded after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.


That separate peace threatened to draw Lebanon into Israel’s orbit -- a mortal danger, from Syria’s point of view -- which was only avoided when the late President Hafiz al-Asad managed to destroy the 17 May accord.


Syria’s enduring obsession is that Israeli influence will enter Lebanon, one way or another, if its own influence in Lebanon is eliminated or reduced. With Damascus a mere stone’s throw from the Lebanese border, that would be a lethal threat.


Syria is therefore demanding that Syria and its Lebanese neighbour be joined together, not in any formal political sense, but in a single geo-strategic space, able to confront external enemies.


This is one of the fundamentals of Syria’s external policy. But it carries a heavy price-tag. It has prevented an entente with France, and with its impatient President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has devoted enormous efforts in recent months to achieving a Lebanese settlement. His Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has traveled to Beirut no fewer than six times. But since France sees itself as a champion of Lebanon’s independence, Syria interprets its efforts as a threat to its own vital interests.


There is also a heavy domestic price to pay for Syria’s security obsession. All opposition is crushed -- including the so-called ‘patriotic opposition’ of intellectuals, civil rights activists, leftists and moderate Islamists. Such repression deals a heavy blow to Syria’s image and reputation in the West. Freeing these well-meaning patriots from jail and engaging them in dialogue should be a Syrian priority.


Syria’s concern with regime survival is understandable: The US has smashed Iraq; it threatens Iran; it turns a blind eye to Israeli slaughter of Palestinians; it apparently gave its approval to Israel’s air strike last September against a mysterious military installation in north-east Syria. Moreover, Washington continues to impose unilateral sanctions on Syria and refuses to put Syria’s Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in1967, on its agenda.


Only a lessening of regional tensions and real progress with Arab-Israeli peace making might allow the ‘Damascus Spring’, such a welcome feature of President Bashar al-Asad first months in power, to flower again.




Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.


Copyright © 2008 Patrick Seale

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Released: 22 January 2008
Word Count: 1,274
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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mona Eltahawy, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

 
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Released: 22 January 2008
Word Count: 1,274
Rights & Permissions Contact: Agence Global, 1.336.686.9002, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  
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