Syrian Games Without Frontiers


The ongoing impasse over the appointment of the next Lebanese president, after Emil Lahoud stepped down on November 24, is the product of Syrian machinations and interference in Lebanese politics. The agreement reached on Sunday in Cairo may finally ensure the appointment of General Michel Suleiman as president, but it is unlikely to bring the crisis in Lebanon to an end. The nature and extent of Syrian involvement can only be understood in the context of the larger, region-wide rivalry between US-led and Iranian-led blocs that is shaping and defining the politics of the region.

Tiny Lebanon is one of a series of theaters in which the complex games of this rivalry – some call it a new Middle East cold war – are being played out. The overarching choice now facing the west in Lebanon is between accepting Syria’s right to foment political instability in its neighbor, and adopting vigorous counter-measures.

Syria had been expected to regard the proposed appointment of Suleiman to the Lebanese presidency as a significant achievement for its own cause. Suleiman was appointed to his position during the period of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, and is well known to the regime. Instead, the Assad regime in Damascus supported additional opposition demands for prior agreement on the structure of a government of national unity that would guarantee a third of cabinet seats to the opposition. This would give Hizbullah veto power over the governmental decision-making process. In addition, the opposition demanded a government commitment to electoral reform, and agreement on Suleiman’s successor as head of the army. Granting such demands would represent unconditional surrender on the part of the Lebanese government.

Syria has thus been pushing either for the granting of Hizbullah veto power over the Lebanese government, or for a continuation of the standoff, in which no effective central government is permitted to exist in Beirut at all. The apparent acceptance by Syria in Cairo on Sunday of a proposed compromise to settle the issue should be treated with caution. Hizbullah is known to be unhappy with the proposed Arab League plan, and may well work to torpedo it (very possibly under Syrian direction).

Underlying Syria’s stance is Damascus’s determination to prevent the emergence of the international tribunal to investigate the murder of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri. For this to be achieved, a Hizbullah-led government, or continued political stalemate, and/or general chaos will do. In support of the latter goal, Syria is the likely force behind the mysterious assassinations of a string of prominent pro-government figures in the last 18 months. The latest to die was Brigadier-General Francois al-Haj, a staunch opponent of Syrian interference in Lebanon, who had been tipped to succeed Suleiman as chief of staff.

The boldness of this strategy evidently derives from the Assad regime’s assumption that no serious response from the western and regional backers of the March 14 government is likely. There is, unfortunately, a considerable body of evidence to support this assumption.

The recent harsh criticism of Syria by Presidents Bush and Sarkozy notwithstanding, there is as yet no evidence of a major change of direction in western thinking regarding Damascus. The dominant view of Syria in western capitals is that since Damascus has invested heavily in supporting organizations fomenting instability, it must be offered incentives to induce it to abandon this investment. Thus, EU aid and technical assistance to Damascus have continued regardless of Syrian machinations in Lebanon. And the wooing of the Assad regime by parts of the US establishment is also ongoing – see Annapolis and the recent visit to the Syrian capital by senator Arlen Specter.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the depth of the political fissure that divides Lebanon. To take the two-hour drive from downtown Beirut to the border villages of the Shia south is to pass from one political universe into another. Two societies based on quite irreconcilable principles currently exist in the country. The first is a place of enormous entrepreneurial energy and verve. It is not immune to the political pathologies of the region, but ultimately, the triumph of the Cedar revolution in 2005 still represents perhaps the only unambiguous success for the project of spreading something resembling liberty to the Arabic-speaking world. The second is a closed, Islamist society, whose icons – displayed everywhere in the south – are Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei, amid endless reproductions of the visages of Hizbullah fighters killed in the 2006 war with Israel.

Since Hizbullah began its push for power in November 2006, Lebanese society has been in a state of high tension, looking into the abyss of civil war between these two very different political cultures. Syria’s overt and covert promotion and support for the zero-sum demands of the opposition makes renewed violence more likely. If Lebanon falls off the knife-edge and renewed civil strife takes place, the result will be uncertain, but the process will be without doubt disastrous. The Saudis – backers of March 14 – are understood to be furious at the regional role being played by Syria. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has rejected in the starkest terms the Hizbullah demand for veto power. Lebanon will not be handed to the Iran-Syria alliance without a fight.

There are no easy solutions. But appeasement of Syrian – and Iranian – machinations in Lebanon has produced the current situation. The EU and the US possess a wide array of options – economic and diplomatic – to put real pressure on Damascus to back off from its very dangerous stirring of the pot in Lebanon. It is time for these options to be used.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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