An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

24/10/2008

The decree by President Bashar Assad announcing the establishing of full diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut represents the latest stage in the emergence of Syria from diplomatic isolation.

On a symbolic level, the announcement appears to suggest Syria’s reconciliation with the fact of Lebanese independence, after 60 years of rejection. However, the move should be seen in the context of realpolitik, rather than simply in terms of its undoubted historic symbolism.

Syrian relations with Lebanon have been in the process of warming since Assad’s meeting with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in Paris in July. The meeting was rapidly followed by the announcement in August of a joint intention to establish diplomatic ties. Assad’s announcement Wednesday is the latest move in this process.

Assad has been willing to move forward on this track because it is bringing tangible results for the Syrian interest. Last spring, a violent trial of strength between Lebanon’s pro-Western government and pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian opposition resulted in an advance for the opposition. The Doha Agreement of May 21, 2008, saw Hizbullah successfully defending its independent military capacity, while at the same time gaining its key demand of veto power over cabinet decisions.

The Doha Agreement thus gave Syria’s chief ally in Lebanon power to stop any decision by Beirut not to its liking. With this gain secured, Syria found itself offered an exit from the international isolation to which it had been consigned since the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy seized the initiative in reaching out to Damascus following the opening of indirect talks between Israel and Syria in Istanbul. The Syrian president found himself feted in Paris. Lucrative trade associations with the EU were dangled.

The official normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon was clearly a key goal of the French president. Assad’s announcement indicates that the Syrian leader has looked at the situation and concluded that – given the fruits to be reaped from the current process – compliance with the French leader’s wishes was in the Syrian interest.

The question now being asked is: Does the Syrian announcement mean that ties between Damascus and Beirut will be normalized? Will the traditional Syrian attitude toward Lebanon as an arena properly dominated by Damascus be replaced by regular diplomatic relations between neighbors?

Lebanese commentators are expressing cautious optimism. However, the more likely prognosis is that Syria will continue to exercise its will in Lebanon through a combination of diplomacy and other means. Syria apparently expects that the Lebanese opposition will make significant gains in the elections scheduled for March.

Damascus is also understood to expect that a Barack Obama victory in the US presidential election will mark the end of Syrian international isolation.

The independent military capacity wielded by Hizbullah – pointed at Israel and, where necessary, at pro-Western forces in Lebanon – continues to be supplied via Damascus. This capacity holds the final word in Lebanon. Nothing can happen without its consent.

The combination of the campaign of violent subversion waged by Syria and its allies in Lebanon over the last three years, and the smooth diplomatic response to the overtures of Israel and France in the last months, is thus paying dividends. Syrian influence in Lebanon has been rebuilt, while Damascus simultaneously emerges from international isolation. The Syrians know that the iron fist works best when concealed in a velvet glove. The latest announcement by the Syrian president reflects this understanding.

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