Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

LEBANON: Syria Comes In From the Cold

Mona Alami

BEIRUT, Jul 25 2008 (IPS) - Syrian skies seem to be finally clearing after a very long storm and the virtual shunning of President Bashar al-Assad from the international political scene for almost three years. Many may perceive the recent rapprochement between Syria and France as a mere dalliance, but others believe it can herald a new – and more peaceful – dawn in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s fate has traditionally been linked with Syria’s, which has used the Land of the Cedars numerous times in recent history to gain leverage regionally and internationally. At the end of the eighties, after Syria supported the first U.S. war on Iraq, Syria was handed an implicit mandate over Lebanon, one that ended in February 2005 with the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, for which the Damascus regime was widely blamed.

Although Syrian troops are no longer present on Lebanese soil, much of the country’s turbulence over the past three years has been largely attributed to Syria’s indirect intervention, leading to a collective Western snub of Assad’s government.

The tide now seems to be shifting again. Syria seems to be slowly emerging from its three-year isolation since Hariri’s death because of its softening stance on Lebanon, beginning with its approval of the Doha agreement, which put an end to the one-week Lebanese civil war in May, and led to the election of President Michel Suleiman. As a result, French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Assad on Jul. 14 to attend the Mediterranean summit in Paris and the festivities for France’s independence day. It was the highest profile diplomatic visit by a Syrian official to France since the Hariri assassination.

The apparent reconciliation between France and Syria is reinforced by the announcement that Sarkozy will visit Damascus in September. After meeting with Assad, Sarkozy announced that Syria and Lebanon had decided to establish diplomatic relations by opening embassies.

“We have witnessed historic progress, with Syria and Lebanon intending on having mutual diplomatic representation in their respective capitals. It’s never happened before,” said Sarkozy, who presided over the first round of talks between the new Lebanese president and Assad. The meeting in Paris was also attended by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Qatari emir who brokered the Doha agreement.

Political scientist Walid Moubarak from the Lebanese American University says Syria’s rapprochement with France is positive. “It has become clear that international powers can’t ignore Syria any longer, especially in light of its influence on political factions, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and its role in the Iraqi political scene. Syria has certainly been able to capitalise on U.S. problems in the Middle East.”

Signalling a possible shift in its support for Hezbollah, Syria has also engaged in indirect peace talks with Israel. The two neighbouring countries, which have been ‘at war’ since 1948, have held three rounds of indirect talks since March under the auspices of Turkey, increasing the chances of a possible peace treaty.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem’s meeting with President Suleiman Jul. 21 in Beirut also promises better relations, with the establishment of diplomatic ties, the demarcation of Lebanon’s borders with Syria (which has never been done) and addressing the issue of Lebanese detainees still missing in Syrian prisons, all of which point to a new détente.

According to Prof. Hilal Khashan, chairperson of the political science department at the American University of Beirut, Syria is indirectly approaching the U.S. through its talks with France and Israel. “The Damascus regime will only conclude a peace deal with Israel that is overseen by America,” he says. Any peace agreement, however, hinges on Syria’s position on Hezbollah. After Syria ended its occupation of Lebanon under intense foreign pressure, the Baathist regime realised that Hezbollah was becoming too powerful. “The Syrian regime has always relied on a ‘divide and conquer strategy’ that is no longer effective in Hezbollah’s case, as it has become too powerful since Syria’s departure from Lebanon,” says Khashan.

“However, in light of the current Syrian-Israeli negotiations, Hezbollah’s situation in Lebanon has become precarious. It is more probable that the May 7 conflict reflected Iran’s position to show that the ‘Party of God’ is still a force to be reckoned with.”

The analyst believes that Syria’s alliance with Iran remains solely tactical – a marriage of convenience that is slowly dissolving as a result of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Syria feels would relegate it to the insignificant role of a satellite state.

In recent days, tensions seem to be progressively decreasing in Lebanon, as witnessed in the more conciliatory stance between the pro-Syrian parliamentary minority Hezbollah and anti-Syrian majority leader Walid Joumblat.

Hezbollah’s softening towards the majority acknowledges the changes in regional politics and mirrors the party’s readiness to use diplomacy instead of war. “Hezbollah is aware that Syria has decided to make peace with Israel and wants to survive a subsequent and potential Syrian onslaught in case a deal is made,” Khashan says. Hezbollah, being a regional creation, can only be reined in or toppled by a regional power, he says.

Both Khashan and Moubarak believe that despite conciliatory actions, the Middle East political environment remains volatile, and the slightest change could affect the course of history. For now, though, it seems that all is quiet on the Lebanese front.

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