Apologies for the brief hiatus in blogging. I’ve just returned from a trip to Beirut, arriving just in time for the start of the academic semester here, so things are quite busy. I’ll try to do some catch-up over the next few days, but in the meantime, here’s a brief comment on a couple items from the latest Wikileaks cable dump.
Some of you will recall our discussion of Michel Aoun’s return to Lebanon in 2005, as recounted in Karim Pakradouni’s book Sadma wa-Sumud. Pakradouni claimed that Aoun cut a deal with the Syrians, whereby he could come back to Lebanon provided that he did not call for Emile Lahoud’s impeachment or the disarmament of Hizbullah. Naturally, Aoun has denied this story and Pakradouni later recanted it.
We may never know exactly what the terms of the agreement were, but two diplomatic cables from 2005 shed a little bit of light on Aoun’s transformation from a fire-breathing, Hizbullah-disarming, UNSCR 1559-championing anti-Syrian oppositionist to a fire-breathing, Hizbullah-championing, UNSCR 1559-decrying pro-Syrian power-broker.
On March 21 2005, one week after the landmark million-strong rally in downtown Beirut, Aoun met with the US Deputy Chief of Mission in Paris to offer some thoughts about the situation in Lebanon. Here’s the gist of what he had to say:
- I represent the true opposition to Syria in Lebanon. I helped bring about the Syria Accountability Act and I was the only Lebanese politician to publicly support UNSCR 1559. The current members of the opposition are still afraid of Syria after 30 years of “hostage mentality”. They need time to become fully liberated.
- Hizbullah needs to be disarmed. There are no grounds for maintaining its militia, and the pretext of Shebaa is ridiculous. However, the best way to disarm the party is through negotiation and soft power rather than full-on confrontation. If the US can give some guarantees that Hizbullah officials will not continue to be targeted by US courts, then Nasrallah may be willing to deal on military issues.
- Syria’s regime will fall after it withdraws from Lebanon. It will probably be replaced with a majority Sunni government, and this will dramatically impact Hizbullah’s power in Lebanon.
A month and a half later, Aoun met with the US Chargé d’affaires three days before his return to Lebanon. The content of their conversation was similar to the previous discussion with the DCM, but there were a few key differences:
- The current March 14 opposition has rebuffed my appeals to join them in an electoral alliance. They are trying to prevent me from returning to Lebanon, and so there’s no way for me to work with them. So unfair! I hate them!
- Hizbullah, on the other hand, is an honest and reasonable party and so I’ve decided to ally with it. BFF!
- I’ve come to an agreement with Lahoud allowing me to return to Lebanon (but I’m not going to divulge the details of that agreement).
We might conjecture, therefore, that the period between March 21 and May 4 2005 was critical to the post-Hariri-assassination history of Lebanon. Had the anti-Syrian opposition made room for Aoun, things might have developed in a very different way than they did.
On the other hand, we know that contacts between Aoun and the Syrians had begun long before these conversations even took place. Aoun sent an envoy to Damascus in January 2005 to discuss a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the relations between the two countries. What seems most likely to me is that the Assad regime was looking for a way to bring Aoun back to Lebanon as an ally, in order to provide a counterweight to the political opposition that was coalescing in advance of the 2005 elections.
Rafiq al-Hariri knew all about Aoun’s maneuvers and probably guessed what the Syrians were up to, which was why he devoted so much time in his discussion with Walid al-Muallim attacking the “radical Christians” and pretending like he had nothing to do with 1559. If the Syrians did in fact take the decision to kill Hariri, it would have been because they had lost faith in their ability to control him, whereas Aoun, ironically, seemed like someone they could work with.