Lebanon, March 14, Syria

Moving On

View over the Litani dam towards the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.

It had to happen sooner or later. I can imagine that when Majd al-Assad died last week, Saad Hariri’s advisors all reached for their cell phones at the same time and called Qoreitem. “This is our chance. Let’s get it over with.”

On the occasion of Hariri’s visit to Damascus, I found myself reflecting on the developments of the past five years, trying to assess what had changed in Lebanon since the Syrian withdrawal. Have we returned to where we started? Is Lebanon today in more or less the same position that it was in on the morning of February 14, 2005?

On the one hand, many of the same internal power dynamics are in place. A Hariri leads the most powerful Sunni political party; AMAL and Hezbollah monopolize the support of Lebanon’s Shiites; Jumblatt remains the strongman in the Chouf and a mercurial kingmaker; Hezbollah remains armed and unchallenged; the Christian anti-Syrian opposition (Kata’eb and LF) is politically weak; and Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are the dominant foreign players on the Lebanese stage.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that the landscape has been altered in fundamental ways. Syria, for all of its influence among certain political groupings in Beirut, no longer has the Lebanese parliament on a leash, as it did from 1990 to early 2005. Many who once supported Syria (Sunnis in particular) today regard their eastern neighbor with a great deal of suspicion — brotherliness and Arabism be damned. Michel Aoun is back, and his movement had become a political force to be reckoned with. There are Lebanese and Syrian embassies in Damascus and Beirut. A new electoral law was implemented last year that was not drawn up by Rustom Ghazali in a smoke-filled office somewhere in Anjar, and Lebanon’s civil society is pushing for many more reforms for 2013. Hezbollah, despite maintaining its weapons, has been constrained in its activities both by UNSCR 1701 and by its own political calculations. In short, this is not the same Lebanon that Syria controlled so effortlessly less than five years ago.

Many March 14ers I know have been feeling sorry for themselves since the cabinet was formed. With every piece of news that suggests improved relations between Syria and the West or warmer relations between the parliamentary majority and minority blocs, my M14 friends grow slightly more bitter.

I feel that such an outlook is entirely counter-productive. It’s time for people to stop grumbling, stop pining for revenge, stop waiting for Bellemare to ride in on a white horse and have Bashar drawn, quartered, and replaced with Farid Ghadry. This doesn’t mean that we should welcome a Syrian strong hand in our politics again. But I think that it no longer serves anyone’s interests to keep banging the drum.

**

Lebanon Drama Adds Act With Leader’s Trip to Syria

By ROBERT F. WORTH | The New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In any other part of the world, a new prime minister’s visit to a neighboring country would be a fairly routine event. But Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s trip to Syria over the weekend has been treated here as a kind of Lebanese national drama, the subject of almost endless commentary in newspapers and television shows.

It is not that anything really happened. Mr. Hariri and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria exchanged some thoroughly forgettable diplomatic banter and posed for photographs.

Instead, the trip epitomized a national story with anguished, almost operatic dimensions: a young leader forced to shake hands with the man who he believes killed his father. And it served as a reminder of this region’s deep attachment to political symbolism.

For many Lebanese, the visit was a measure of Syria’s renewed influence over Lebanon after years of bitterness and struggle since the Syrian military’s withdrawal in 2005. That withdrawal came after Mr. Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a car bombing that many here believe to have been ordered by Syria.

The withdrawal was a blow to Syrian prestige, and afterward Saad Hariri seemed to have the entire Western world at his back as he built a movement for greater Lebanese independence and pushed for an international tribunal to try his father’s killers.

But since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it. And Saudi Arabia, which has long backed Mr. Hariri and competed with Syria for influence here, reconciled with the Syrians earlier this year, leaving them a freer hand to guide politics in Lebanon as they once did.

All this has been known for months, but it was still tremendously important for Mr. Hariri to actually cross the mountains — in his first visit since before his father’s killing — and pay his respects in Damascus.

“The image of Syrian soldiers retreating was a huge blow to them,” said Elias Muhanna, a political analyst and the author of the Lebanese blog Qifa Nabki. “So the image of Hariri coming over the mountains means they’ve come full circle. It demonstrates to all the power centers in Damascus that Bashar has restored Syria’s position of strength vis-à-vis Lebanon.”

The visit also has vivid historical echoes for many Lebanese. In 1977, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt visited Damascus just weeks after his own father was killed in a car bomb that is believed to have been set by Syria. Like Mr. Hariri, he had little choice: he had to reconcile with Syria if he wanted to continue playing a political role.

“The stability of Lebanon always depends on its environment, and basically this environment is Syria,” Mr. Jumblatt said in an interview on Sunday. “For the sake of Lebanese stability, we have got to put aside personal animosity.”

It is difficult to say exactly what Mr. Hariri’s visit portends in terms of Lebanese-Syrian relations. By one measure, he has already achieved his most important goals: the Syrian Army is gone, and no one expects it to return. The two countries restored diplomatic relations this year. The international tribunal that was formed in 2005 under United Nations auspices to try the elder Hariri’s killers continues its work here and in the Netherlands, where it is based. It could still indict high-ranking Syrians, although most analysts say that seems less likely than it did four years ago.

But most agree that Syria will once again have a powerful, undisputed voice here on issues ranging from cabinet positions to the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah, which Syria supports. The influence is not likely to be as crude as it was during the 1990s, when Syrian officers strutted through Beirut and were accused of raking profits from Lebanese industries. To some here, that is improvement enough. To others, Mr. Hariri’s trip across the mountains was a tragic concession.

“Whether Saad Hariri admits it or not, it was a severe setback to everything that happened starting in 2005,” said Michael Young, a Lebanese columnist who has long been critical of Syria’s role here. “I think he did it reluctantly, but he never had a choice.”

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Discussion

36 thoughts on “Moving On

  1. Good post.
    The last paragraph would have easily been equally valid back in 2005, after the elections.
    I believe the FPM had taken that same stance since 4 years back, although they have been at times a bit too lenient on the “Syrian strong hand” issue.

    Posted by mas | December 20, 2009, 8:38 pm
  2. QN,
    Pragmatism is all fine and dandy, but pragmatism by hindsight is suspect. If your goals were always pragmatic and you planned all along just to limit the Syrian influence but recognized that they would still hold all the cards regarding Lebanon’s well being, than what you say makes sense. But on the other hand, if you are asking for a pragmatic approach as a cover up for not being able to reach certain goals then I don’t buy it.

    And the fact is real change cannot be brought on by pragmatist. It is only revolutionaries that bring change by taking chances (and of course often failing).

    Frankly, I find Hariri cozying up with the murderer of his father appalling. This is the ultimate acceptance of the laws of the jungle INSIDE Lebanon and it is the utmost betrayal of his father’s memory. If I would have done what Hariri did, I would not be able to look myself in the mirror.

    Posted by AIG | December 21, 2009, 1:16 am
  3. AIG – “If I would have done what Hariri did, I would not be able to look myself in the mirror.”

    Maybe, just maybe, that’s why you ain’t no statesman, and Hariri is trying to be.

    Posted by Doc | December 21, 2009, 4:50 am
  4. Lebanon has never had the choice of acting unitlaterally without Syria. That hasn’t changed, and that won’t change for a long time to come.

    If you weigh the consqeunces of him going to Syria and not going to Syria … If he didn’t go to Syria, he would’ve been tooken for granted… he can’t play the “courageous son who didn’t go to his [probable] pa’s killer’s brother’s funeral” because that would’ve infuriated Syria. But by going to Syria he rapproaches Assad and opens up future possibilities in maintaining workable relations..

    Not that I think it’s moral or “right” that Saad went to Syria. He probably bit his tongue at the thought of it. It was strategic, calculative. and I think Walid is saying, inevitable.

    Posted by Won | December 21, 2009, 6:16 am
  5. Beautiful photo of the Litani…
    I had seen it only in school geography books, years ago.
    It illustrates elegantly your article, almost a poetic metaphore of syrian-lebaneese relationship!

    Palermo December 2009

    Posted by georges salameh | December 21, 2009, 6:51 am
  6. AIG

    I don’t know think I agree with you on this point. First of all, real change hardly ever happens as the result of a revolution. How many revolutions have taken place in recent memory? When they do happen (and are successful… never a guarantee) they represent sudden, explosive change. But most political change happens gradually, or at least through a process of punctuated equilibrium.

    My point is that people should be able to take stock of what advances have been made in the past 5 years, and what remains the same. Approaching political change as some kind of all-in bet is counter-productive, in my opinion.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 21, 2009, 9:13 am
  7. It feels as if Saad did not want to go but did so because Syria had again become a regional player with the backing of Saudi and U.S. Would Saad have still gone if Syria remained isolated, I don’t think so. So why would he swallow his pride? I don’t believe it’s so he is a true statesman, a true statesman wouldn’t visit an ‘accused’ murderer.
    I personally like Bashar’s admirable stance on pan-arab issues, however I think the visit was premature, not until Rafik Hariri’s investigation is finalised should the visit have been made, that said the investigation or tribunal is very over due.

    Posted by Moustafa | December 21, 2009, 9:26 am
  8. What is truly sad about the situation is that the Lebanese, in general, cannot be pragmatic; they are too emotional and often times too blindsided by their personal feelings to be able to move on.

    No one is really focusing on how the reports that “directly” linked Syria to the assassination have been discredited and that Mehlis’s findings were not carried on by the investigator’s after him. Also, now there is discussion, again, of the group of men that left to Australia without bags; of the assassination being linked to Al Qaeda affiliates, etc….With over 8 intelligence agencies in Lebanon and we still cannot have a clear story of what happened just makes you wonder. I am not saying that Syria may not have had a hand in it, but all of this is way too complicated but people just want a black and white picture.

    My point is that the March 14 group made a big mistake 5 years ago with their rhetoric and got too carried away with what they did and now the Lebanese people are paying the price. I am not arguing that they should not have demonstrated but like in 1958, Lebanese politicians again overestimated the importance of Lebanon in the bigger international relations arena. They did not calculate an exit strategy and this is why they find themselves in the predicament that they are in and even if the politicians are able to salvage the relationship with Syria, I am not sure their followers are ready yet. Five years of being spoon fed of “facts” that in the end are now being called “political charges” (iteham siyasi) is not going too well.

    Posted by Fate | December 21, 2009, 10:30 am
  9. The March 14 people go bitter by the day because they thought that normalization with the Zionist criminal entity is around the corner and that the road to Tel-Aviv will pass by Naqoura or through the Chebaa farms. No need to go by Damascus, thus dreamed AIG’s “revolutionaries!”

    To Fate: last week, in Al-Akhbar, Ibrahim Al-Amin wrote 3 new articles about Mehlis et al.

    Merry Christmans and a Happy New Year.

    Posted by Jihad | December 21, 2009, 12:03 pm
  10. QN,

    Good analysis. As for the STL; we will wait for its due process…Until completed I will reserve politicised comments.

    Jihad, anytime someone disagrees with your concept of “friendly relations” with Syria yu would call them traitors or zionist lackies. I think you should change your view of what freedom means!

    I guess the need to kiss the killer’s hand or ring on Damascus brings you glee…

    Merry Xmas and Hanukkah Baruch

    Posted by danny | December 21, 2009, 6:10 pm
  11. It showed maturity in the highest form…Even if the supporters of Future and the Psp are licking bitter lemons, when emotions cool down, and the clouds part, they will see clearly the fruits of this reconcilliation….but heres the lesson for all to see, especially the herds in Martyrs square on the 8th and 14th,Leave politics to the politicians, and dont get caught with the currents.

    Posted by maverick | December 21, 2009, 6:44 pm
  12. Jihad
    Merry Christmas & Chag Chanuka Sameach from all of us Lebanese traitors 🙂
    God Bless America, Lebanon and Israel 🙂

    Posted by V | December 21, 2009, 7:59 pm
  13. V for “valavel” from chez Antoine Lahd!

    Posted by Jihad | December 21, 2009, 11:28 pm
  14. V as in “valavel” from Chez Antoine Lahd Restaurant!

    Posted by Jihad | December 21, 2009, 11:29 pm
  15. Jihad Chokesondick,

    Its people like you that make me hopeful that another revolution will come and sweep you away for making all those that disagree with you collaborators. That day will come. I promise. =)

    Posted by Purple Monkey | December 22, 2009, 1:03 am
  16. QN,

    The dynamics have changed with regards to Syria because it has given us half of what we wanted: withdrawal, and diplomatic exchange. The detainees and demarcation issues are pending and those could hopefully be solved diplomatically once there are friendly state relations between the two countries. Unless we start kidnapping Syrian troops to exchange them for our detainees (even then I dont think the regime would care enough to acknowledge them), the drums of war would be counter-productive, especially in light of the world’s willingness to engage in pacifying the Damascus front.

    Iran on the other hand, is where we should continue to bang, and harder than ever before. Today, through its proxies in Lebanon, Iran is the main obstacle to freedom, but thats not the only issue. Given the pressure its under, in terms of imminent sanctions, internal instability, and rising chance of war, Iran will have to mobilise Hizbollah soon to release some steam and move some attention to another front. We cant wait for that to happen.

    BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

    Posted by Purple Monkey | December 22, 2009, 1:27 am
  17. When the Lebanese failed to look after their own affairs and descended into chaos in 1975, President Franjieh begged the Arab League to pressure Syria into coming to the rescue of the losing Lebanese Maronite militias – it was a big risk (not for the Phalangist Lebanese Force, they were doomed to failure without Syrian rescue – no the risk was primarily to Syrian soldiers’ lives and the Syrian Treasury.

    So how did Lebanon’s military occupation by Syrian army (1976-2005) commpare with Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and Golan (1976-till today). They were annexed, the land stolen and the people ethnically cleansed in a never-ending programme of brutality where the rights of colonists surpassed the rights of the people of those regions.

    How did Lebanon’s occupation compare with the Israeli occupation of West Bank since 1967 – land-stealing and colonisation and ethnic cleansing – and all of the rest of it continues on a daily basis.

    I often thank God that President Franjieh asked for Syria to defend the Maronites and didn’t ask the Israelis.

    In December 2009 it is not a return to April 2005 – it is more like a return to 1950s-1960s: Syria’s national interest is that Lebanese hold themselves together in a balanced peace. Syria’s national interest is to stamp out any trouble makers that would destabilise Lebanon (i.e. Kamal Jumblatt in the 1970s was on a campaign to completely diminish the Maronites, he threatened the balance and Syrian interests; the PLO threatened the balance and Syria’s interests; Syria’s interest is that the balance is kept).

    Posted by Jean | December 22, 2009, 4:58 am
  18. wow! what a nice reality check. Delusions on both ends, demonstrated in a few of the previous comments, show us how far we still have to come.

    I’ve always felt that the extremists on both sides of any major conflict share more with their counterparts and the same rings true to the pragmatists/moderates. But the sad reality is that when the shit hits the fan, the latter tend to stick to their extremist corner rather than dropping them for a deal with pragmatists on the other side. In Lebanon it’s personified in the form of sticking with your sectarian party instead of joining a new truly multi-sect party.

    Posted by Innocent Criminal | December 22, 2009, 8:59 am
  19. AIG,
    “If I would have done what Hariri did, I would not be able to look myself in the mirror”
    all lebanese should not be able to look themselves in the mirror ,for they brought all this misery upon there beautiful land,Sunni for supporting fedayeen against Christians ,christians for fighting along side israelis,Shea for being a stooge for Iran.
    Syria Iran Israel and USA are all looking for their OWN national interest, when will you???

    Posted by 2 PACK | December 22, 2009, 12:38 pm
  20. things have not changed much,lebanese always looks for outside to gain the upper hand inside from Franjieh ,Kamal jumblat, bashir,Hariri,the General and list goes on.

    Posted by 2 PACK | December 22, 2009, 12:54 pm
  21. Interesting article in Ha’aretz showing (alledgedly) what Olmert proposed to the PA:

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1135699.html

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 22, 2009, 2:45 pm
  22. Jean states:

    …Syria’s national interest is that Lebanese hold themselves together in a balanced peace. Syria’s national interest is to stamp out any trouble makers that would destabilise Lebanon…

    Jean,

    And supplying an independent army like Hezbollah with missiles from Iran is supposed to accomplish that?

    The data doesn’t support your argument.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | December 22, 2009, 2:51 pm
  23. He who did not live the hellish set of interconnected wars that made history under the misleading name of “Lebanese civil war” between 1975 and 1990, feels attraction, from time to time, to take arms for another round of infighting in the name of God, Allah, the West, the Saudi royal family, the Iranian teocracy, Syria’s hereditary “republic”, among many others.
    It seems like generation after generation of Lebanese walk at a steady pace and with resolute will to perdition. Lost generations, lost families, divided and destroyed. And all of this in the name of what?

    It is as if there was a curse, a curse of biblical proportions, looming over Lebanon since time immemorial. It is a land of multiple owners and, therefore, with no owner at all: an ideal place to fight the battles of others. The land provides not only a perfect battlefield, but also voracious fighters who do not ask questions when they are urged to take up arms: they are authentic “cannon fodders” ready to kill and die under the orders of authentic feudal lords. Lords that behave like roosters in their yards, but who are humble servants, despicable servants of foreign and infinitely more powerful masters, who by their turn make use of them and their followers by sending them weapons and cash whenever there is a convergence of their multiple internal and external arrangements and interests.
    In this maelstrom of wars, conflicts and disputes, a multiconfessional and multicultural Lebanon tries to be a full member of the community of nations, based on an outdated client and sectarian system, which its proponents call “consensual democracy”. Poor Lebanon and poor Lebanese who still believe in this fallacy, whose defenders fight to avoid, at any price, its replacement by a modern, fair and functional democracy. Full democracy? Secularism? Meritocracy? These things do not go through the heads of the very people that reign over this tiny piece of land squeezed like a sandwich filling between two heavy-handed and bully countries. Secularism and meritocracy mean the end of irresponsible leaders who play the fear card one against the other in order to perpetuate a system that is relentlessly self-destructive.
    The core of Lebanon’s main problem is not religious. It is essentially political, ideological. The poor Lebanese, after emerging from a decade and a half of widespread killings and destruction, are nowadays facing schizophrenically a new existential crisis, which is plunging the country into a fracture line, not of civilizations, but of ideologies, where battles are often fought not in the field of arguments, but under the spectre of more wars and bloodshed. Lebanon does not need to be in a fracture line, it could bridge it with the diversity and sense of unity of its inhabitants.

    In the name of the crazy and murderous game that is going on in the Middle East, enemies of yesterday become today’s allies and so on. In this quagmire, the only chance of Lebanon’s survival is to become a neutral country. A small country – surrounded by neighbours with bellicose and antagonist projects in terms of expansionism and hegemonic interests – can only breathe freely and live in peace if it advocates a neutral stance, a kind of political and military neutrality that needs to be respected by all and guaranteed internationally. To attain this condition is not dependent only on the Lebanese. Until conditions are reap enough – with comprehensive, just and lasting peace accords in the Middle East, for example – it is left to the Lebanese to think about their immediate future: history shows that violence is not the solution to their problems. No community will be able to impose itself at the expense of others. All are doomed – or intended – to coexist in a Lebanon that is a country for all its citizens. Or the country will not be for anyone. How many wars and deaths and menaces of more bloodshed and discord do we need to realize that Lebanon antagonists’ behaviour is self-destructive! Why do the Lebanese accept to be driven to the slaughter in the name of causes that do not concern them directly? Wake up, Lebanon! Be pragmatic for your own sake.

    Posted by Voice From Brazil | December 22, 2009, 4:09 pm
  24. Purple monkey (or “valavel” in Tel-Aviv), it appears that your masters treated you to a nice gift these holidays. As they say, when purple monkey flies or “chokeson….s.”

    Posted by Jihad | December 22, 2009, 4:44 pm
  25. It was not only Sulaiman Franjiyi who asked for Syrian military intervention. It was Pierre Gemayel himself who begged for Hafiz Assad’s army to officially enter Lebanon (after their unofficial entry through As-Sa’iqa). Elie Aswad, the former high-ranking militiaman in both Cham’oun’s family party,”Al-Ahrar”, and the Lebanese Forces in the mid-1980s, wrote about it in details in As-Safir about 3 years ago and how Syrian forces entered East Beirut on their way to Palestian refugee camps in Tal Al-Za’tar in full coordination with the Lebanese army.

    Posted by Jihad | December 22, 2009, 4:50 pm
  26. I could not find Elie Aswad’s article in my archives. But its title is: This is what happened in 1976.

    Posted by Jihad | December 22, 2009, 5:08 pm
  27. Jihad,

    What were they; the Syrian Army doing in Tal-Al-Za’tar; just curious…Be careful how you answer please to spare us some rib cracking laughter…
    Also, refer back to history and feel free to check the archives of the year’s newspapers and announcements to see that Syria entered Lebanon “legally” becuase they were asked by SF senior; the president of Lebanon!

    Posted by danny | December 22, 2009, 5:42 pm
  28. Jihad/Jean,
    So what is your point? I hope that you are not suggesting that whenevr someone asks a neighbour/friend for help and assistance that should turn into servitude and occupation.
    Of course Kamal Jumblatt was trying to destablize the country and so were the Kataeb/Ahrar/LF’rs. A democratic and independent Lebanon does not need any of these traditional feudal lords and or fascist organizations but by the same token this does not mean that Syrian occupation and exploitation are to be tolerated either.

    Posted by ghassan karam | December 22, 2009, 5:50 pm
  29. Voice from Brazil,

    You are the voice of wisdom. All of what you said so eloquently is spot on. Lebanon’s recent history has been nothing but a tragedy of major proportion for the ones who paid a heavy human price and a heart break for the ones who care.

    I for one pray for better days and years ahead, and hope the stars line up for Lebanon to get there.

    Merry Christmas to all.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | December 22, 2009, 9:39 pm
  30. “Many March 14ers I know have been feeling sorry for themselves since the cabinet was formed.”

    Let me guess, they wanted a regime change in Damascus?

    Posted by offended | December 24, 2009, 3:47 am
  31. Uterly disgusted by our ENTIRE politcal class nevertheless just wented to leave you and my readers my warmest wishes for a very merry Christmas filled with joy.

    Posted by marillionlb | December 24, 2009, 4:54 am
  32. Correction. “wanted” and “your readers”.

    Posted by marillionlb | December 24, 2009, 5:52 am
  33. Laurent & Basbous (1987) argue convincingly Syria fuelled the war and armed all sides in the 70s. In other words, its entry in Lebanon should not be seen from the lens of an innocuous offer to save the christians.

    Posted by Ramzi | December 24, 2009, 6:32 am
  34. Thank you QN. And Voice from Brazil and Ras Beirut for your responses, encouraging the possibility that the bleakest strands of Lebanon’s history need not be its fate. Holiday wishes.

    Posted by j anthony | December 25, 2009, 2:44 am

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