Friday, January 21, 2011

Lebanon, Between Partnership And Unilateralism

By Walid Choucair
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 21/01/2011

The Lebanese opposition is insisting on preventing Saad Hariri, the caretaker prime minister and leader of the Future Movement, from returning to his post in the new government, whose formation is unlikely in the first place. This can only signal two extremely dangerous things for the future of the open conflict that Lebanon is now experiencing.

The first is that the Syrian-Saudi dispute over Lebanon has returned to its peak level. The second is that the old rupture has returned to relations between Syria and Hariri; or rather, the situation has reverted to the phase preceding the assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri in 2005, when the elder Hariri and Damascus differed over its direct management of the Lebanese domestic situation.

The stances of the concerned parties and leaders have so far avoided using the language and methods of the dispute prior to the Saudi-Syrian reconciliation of 2009 at the Kuwait Economic Summit, which was followed by the reconciliation between Hariri and Syria that took place at the end of that year, when the former visited Damascus. This is due to several reasons. First, the issue is connected to the maneuvering by each side over blaming the other. Second, the heated struggle over Lebanon might require that some lines of communication remain intact. Finally, the stances of external parties toward the Lebanese situation are expressed by domestic parties, particularly with regard to the Syrians.

Although many hope that things will not return to the state of boycott that existed in the past between Saudi Arabia and Syria, and between Syria and Hariri, the developments in the ongoing struggle indicate that all of the elements of tension that have accompanied the negotiations conducted in recent days might push the parties in the direction of something worse than this boycott. However, the return of crisis in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, and between Syria and Hariri, is not the only aspect of the Lebanese crisis. Other, extremely important points include the dispute over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and its indictment, the regional-international struggle in the region between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, and Syria’s position when it comes to its alliance with Iran and its relationship with the West and other countries in the region.

However, the danger of the first aspect of the escalating crisis lies in a prolonged Saudi-Syrian struggle that leads toward ending any type of partnership between the two countries in their stance in Lebanon. Thus, if things move in this direction, even if temporarily, this will render Lebanon an arena for the most dangerous struggle it has faced in decades. This partnership arose following the reconciliation between Riyadh and Damascus, over preserving stability in this small country and taking part in mutual efforts to contain the explosive elements and defuse the situation, since it is an area to test cooperation on other issues, such as Iraq and elsewhere. Sacrificing this partnership means that it will be difficult to contain tension on other levels.

If this partnership falls apart, will it be in the unilateral interest of Syria, or benefit a new kind of chaos, which spurs intervention by even more countries in the crisis? This will lead to further internationalization of the Lebanon issue, which each country views based on its own interests, to trap its rivals. Will the small country of Lebanon be able to tolerate the tension between the huge magnitude of foreign interests on its territory, so that the country loses its political cover, with the disappearance of the partnerships that could construct a formula that provides stability?

Meanwhile, there is the other aspect of the ongoing struggle, related to the possibility of ending the effects of the reconciliation between Syria and Hariri, via the continued rejection by Damascus of seeing Hariri return to the prime minister’s post. It symbolizes not only the struggle between Riyadh and Damascus after the collapse of the reconciliation, but also the collapse of the partnership, with the fall of the national unity Cabinet headed by Hariri, and also means that there is preparation underway for a clear type of unilateralism in the make-up of the Lebanese domestic scene, irrespective of the cover that is provided.

It is not back to square one, but back to square minus one, at a time in which unilateralism is receding at the international level.

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