Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Syria’s Message: Lebanon, Despite All, Is Still Ours

By Joseph Bahout
When Lebanon’s Hariri government fell earlier this year, a new prime minister, Najib Mikati, was quickly appointed by the majority coalescing around the March 8 Forces. Analysts speculated that Lebanon was entering a long political vacuum and that the prime minister-designate would take a long time to form his government. The speculation then was that Syria and Hezbollah, the two main actors behind the maneuver, wanted to get rid of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s majority in order to deal from a more comfortable position with the anticipated Special Tribunal for Lebanon indictment in the assassination of Saad’s father, Rafik, in 2005.
A lot of surprises followed, however, and provided additional explanations for the subsequent limbo of five months during which Mikati seemed either unable or unwilling to form a Cabinet. The “Arab Spring” revolutions erupted, first not only ignoring Syria but ironically seeming to play to its advantage, then ultimately reaching its soil and spreading from the remote province of Deraa to the entire country. Syria’s initial unwillingness to shape the political landscape of its Lebanese backyard by pushing for formation of a Cabinet morphed into paralysis induced by the stunning way in which the Syrian uprising confronted the Damascus leadership.
Then, all of a sudden, the March 8 Forces and Michel Aoun finally ended their bickering on ministerial quotas, and a new team was announced. This took place just days after Walid Jumblatt’s visit to Syrian President Bashar Assad, the day after the decisive events in Jisr al-Shoughour in northwest Syria, and on the day of the Turkish elections. True, there is a classic Lebanese reflex that reads all local details through the prism of regional affairs. But most analysts linked the sudden formation of a Cabinet to the Syrian turmoil.
In explaining the haste and speed with which this government was eventually formed, the Syrian parameter is indeed more than central and the Syrian context predominant. After having ousted Saad Hariri and neutralizing him in anticipation of the conclusions of the tribunal, and having tilted the Lebanese political balance of power by pushing the Jumblatt bloc toward March 8, Syria’s regime – now facing an existential battle – was badly in need of a secure Lebanese neighbor (along with additional tools) for confronting one of the most acute crises of the Assad era. Confronted with Arab ignorance, Turkish defiance and growing isolation and threats by the West, Damascus’ message was “Lebanon is, despite all this, still ours.”
This was meant as a message that Syria’s capacity to generate movement outside its frontiers – today in Lebanon and tomorrow in Iraq – was intact. It was also designed to signify that Lebanon could now be added by Syria’s antagonists as yet another theater of confrontation with Damascus.
Syria was in fact sending a message very similar to the one sent in September 2004, where in forcibly extended President Emile Lahoud’s mandate. The message was directed at the international community, and specifically at France and the United States that had then sought to impose Security Council Resolution 1559 on Syria. Hezbollah at the time was a crucial and effective ally and enforcer. The latest message aims to inform those pressuring Assad that the alliance with Iran is, despite troubled times, stronger than ever and effective enough to produce a political reality in Beirut.
Still, despite the overwhelming Syrian parameter, internal Lebanese considerations also have to be factored into any explanation of the sudden government formation. These are mainly related to Hezbollah, which once again helped its Christian ally Michel Aoun grab the lion’s share in the new coalition, including strategic portfolios essential to the mission of cleansing the civil and security administration of residual pro-Hariri personnel.
Then, too, we need to grasp an interesting sign of Shiite tactical political flexibility: the “gift” made by the Amal-Hezbollah tandem to the Sunnis, who received one more portfolio than traditionally permitted under Lebanese custom, at the expense of the Shiite share. By offering this concession, the allies of Damascus and Tehran were of course showing sectarian “generosity” and openness. But were they not also helping Damascus send a signal that its Lebanese – hence, Syrian – policies are not anti-Sunni in essence?
All this leads to the crucial question looming today in Lebanon in light of the Syrian quagmire. If the Syrian regime gets weaker, will Hezbollah gradually become more flexible in terms of its “Lebanonization,” or integration into Lebanon, and its transformation into a non-military party? Or, on the contrary, will it become more radicalized and bitterly defend its share of the Lebanese system while echoing Tehran’s dictum that Assad’s rule in Syria is a red line?
-This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 06/07/2011
-Joseph Bahout is a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and researcher at the Academie Diplomatique Internationale. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter

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