Global Politician 08/08/2008
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman is to visit Syria next week, to discuss the opening of diplomatic relations between the countries, a Lebanese official told reporters this week. French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month hailed President Bashar Assad’s expression of willingness in principle to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon as “historic progress.”
The establishment of a first-ever Syrian Embassy in Beirut is probably not imminent, for various reasons. Nevertheless, the signs of normalization in relations between Syria and Lebanon are significant. They are the latest indication of Syria’s growing confidence, and far from being a harbinger of more peaceful times in the neighborhood, they offer clues as to the shape of possible further strife.
The formation of the new Lebanese government after the Beirut clashes in May represented a very significant gain for the pro-Syria element in Lebanese politics. Hizbullah now controls a blocking 11 of the 30 cabinet seats. With a Lebanese government of this type, there is no reason for Syria to be in dispute there. The short period when Damascus felt the need to express its will in Lebanon solely in a clandestine way is drawing to a close.
Still, Western hopes for the rapid establishment of formal relations between the two countries are probably exaggerated. Damascus is in no hurry. Syria’s return to Lebanon is a work in progress. Assad has listed the preconditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations to become a real possibility. These include the passing of an election law, and the holding of the scheduled May 2009 general election.
Behind Assad’s honeyed words, one may glimpse the contours of Syrian strategy in the next stage. The election of May 2009 will be conducted under the shadow of Hizbullah’s independent and now untouchable military capability.
Intimidation will go hand in hand with the real kudos gained by the movement and its allies because of recent events – including the prisoner swap with Israel, and the Doha agreement that followed the fighting in May. The result, the Syrians hope, will be the establishment of a government more fully dominated by Hizbullah and its allies, in which the pro-Western element will have been marginalized.
Such a government would mark the effective final reversal of the events of the spring of 2005, when the Cedar Revolution compelled the Syrian army to leave Lebanon. Damascus would then go on to conduct friendly and fraternal relations with the new order in Beirut. Mission accomplished.
If this strategy plays out, however, it will represent not the normalization of Syrian-Lebanese relations, but rather the enveloping of Lebanon into the regional alliance led by Iran, of which Syria is a senior member.
On the ground in Lebanon, this regional alliance is still engaged in consolidating its gains. The lines separating the official Lebanese state from the para-state established by Hizbullah continue to blur. The new government’s draft policy statement, which is still to be discussed by the parliament, supports the “right of Lebanon’s people, the army and the Resistance to liberate all its territories.”
This statement thus nominally affords the Resistance. i.e. Hizbullah, equal status with the Lebanese Armed Forces, and appears to consider it an organ of official government policy.
The new organ of government policy, meanwhile, is building its strength. Ostensibly for the mission of “liberating” 20 square kilometers of border farmland, Hizbullah has built a capability of 40,000 missiles and rockets, is frenziedly recruiting and training new fighters, and is expanding and developing its command and logistics center in the Bekaa.
The latest talk is of Iranian-Syrian plans to supply Hizbullah with an advanced anti-aircraft capacity that would provide aerial defense to the investment in rockets and missiles. Such a move would represent a grave altering of the balance of power. Serious moves towards it could well prove the spark for the next confrontation.
In all its moves, the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah alliance has known how to combine brutal military tactics on the ground with subtle and determined diplomacy. Its willingness to throw away the rule book governing the normal relations between states has been perhaps its greatest advantage. While the West sees states as fixed entities possessing certain basic rights, Iran and Syria see only processes of rising and falling power. They see themselves as the force on the rise, and the niceties of internationally fixed borders as a trifle unworthy of consideration.
The region has known the rise of similar systems of power and ideology in the past. Experience shows that such states and alliances have become amenable to change and compromise – if at all – only after experiencing defeat, setback and frustration.
The Syrians and their allies, of course, are far weaker in measurable military and societal terms than their rhetoric would suggest. Western (including Israeli) actions over the last years have tended to blur this fact. The general acceptance of the transformation of Lebanon into a platform for this alliance – and the lauding of it as ‘historical progress’ – is the latest example of this. The re acquaintance of rhetoric with reality on all sides is long overdue.