October 20, 2010

Syria flexes it muscles in "the province" of Lebanon

Never count Syria out when it comes to being a power broker in Lebanon. After the Syrians were forced by public demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri in Beirut, it seemed that Syrian influence was either over or on the wane.

Since then, the long arm of Damascus appears to have extended itself back into Lebanese politics. It has been coming for at least the last few months. It became readily apparent when Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri reversed himself on his earlier accusations that Syria was involved in the murder of his father Rafiq. He claimed that he was mistaken in those accusations. In his words, "We made a mistake. At one point we accused Syria...that was a political accusation, and that political accusation is over." See my piece from last month,
Syrian influence returning to Lebanon.

Political expediency at its finest. Whether it was Syrian military intelligence or Hizballah that conducted the actual operation against the elder al-Hariri, it had to be done with Syrian complicity. Nothing happened in Lebanon in 2005 that did not have Damascus's stamp of approval. It had been that way for almost 30 years. I remember vividly the day when Syrian tanks rumbled into downtown Beirut and established pax syriana.

All that changed with the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. The Lebanese Christians and Sunni Muslims were finally galvanized into public demonstrations against the Syrian military presence in their country. In what became known as the "Cedar Revolution," the demonstrations forced Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to withdraw his forces from the country, ending an almost 30-year presence, or as some called it, an occupation. It appeared that Syrian influence in the country was near over.

Many Syrians regard Lebanon as a part of "greater Syria," the province of the former Ottoman Empire that ruled the area until the end of World War One. It was only in the aftermath of the war that the area was divided into countries. France was given the mandate for the Syrian area, from which they created the modern countries of Syria and Lebanon. The "Syrians" were not consulted on the creation of what was supposed to be a Christian enclave called Lebanon.

In a somewhat surprising move, a Syrian official this week said that Lebanon "must make a deep change in Lebanon. Sa'ad alHariri is the only obstacle to reconciliation between the Syrian and Lebanese people." Let me translate that into what he really meant: We are not satisfied with Sa'ad al-Hariri's progress on bringing Lebanon back into the Syrian sphere, so we'll replace him with someone who can.

The current situation in Lebanon is tense. The Lebanese expect that soon the United Nations will accuse Hizballah of the murder or Rafiq al-Hariri. That will set off recriminations throughout the country. It is serious enough that Saudi King 'Abdullah visited the country in an attempt to urge restraint. Of course, that visit was followed by a visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has more than likely added to the tension.

Who gains from all this? Syria. Bashar la-Asad will be the new power broker in the country. Hizballah will always be a consideration, but the real power will be wielded from Damascus.

Who loses? Sa'ad al-Hariri was convinced to forgo vengeance on Syria for his father's death in return for a chance to lead Lebanon. That appears to have been a major miscalculation. However, the real losers are the Lebanese people.

It would appear that Lebanon is being returned to its status as a virtual province of Syria.