December 16, 2008

Michel Aoun: A Lebanese Politician Faces Reality

Click for larger imageLast week's visit by former Lebanese anti-Syrian military leader and current member of Parilament Michel Aoun (Mishal 'Awn) to Damascus for an audience with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad undescores the fundamantal changes in Lebanese politics since the Israel-Hizballah confrontation in 2006.

There is no longer any doubt that Hizballah has emerged as the major power broker in the country. When a respected Maronite Christian leader - almost an icon in the anti-Syrian ranks of Lebanese politicians - makes the two hour drive to Damascus to meet with the president of the country that symbolizes the very antithesis of his being, there has been a dramatic shift in the basic paradigm of the political landscape in Lebanon.

Aoun started a "war of liberation" against Syrian occupation forces in Lebanon in 1989. A year later, he was forced into exile in France as his forces could not gain the military advantage over the much better equipped Syrians. Aoun remained in exile until the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005.

Aoun shocked many of his Christian colleagues when he entered into a political alliance with the Iranian- and Syrian-supported radical Shi'a group Hizballah. Since the end of the Israel-Hizballah war in the summer of 2006, Hizballah's star has been on the rise. Since there was no clear Israeli victory over the well-trained and well-equipped Islamic militia, the group gained popular respect among Lebanese Muslims, and commanded increased wariness among rival Christian and Druze political factions.

In the aftermath of that conflict, Hizballah sought to increase its political power in the country, bullying and extorting the duly-elected Lebanese government to bestow on the group extraordinary powers, including veto power over proposed legislation. Surprisingly, the Lebanese government caved in to these demands, making Hizballah the undisputed arbiter of power in the country.

Aoun is a political creature - he understands power and how it is wielded. His agreement with Hizballah was only the first step in his quest to be be relevant again in Lebanese politics. His trip to Syria is another step in that process.

While in Syria, Aoun remarked, "We are turning a new page where there is no victor and no loser. This is a return to normal relations." In return, Syrian President al-Asad pledged that Syria has no desire to return to Lebanon.

I don't buy it.

Syria has always coveted Lebanon. For years, it was Lebanon's wealth (and accompanying Syrian corruption) that kept the Syrian economy from collapse. Syrian troops occupied the country for almost three decades.

I predict that sometime in the near future, there will be a Syrian-engineered security crisis in Lebanon. The sycophantic Lebanese government, with leaders like Michel Aoun and the Hizballah thugs, will "invite" Syrian troops to intervene as they did in 1976.

Despite the recent Lebanese-Syrian normalization of diplomatic relations, this is not over as far as Damascus is concerned.