Why Lebanon Should Repair Relations with Syria
“Why Lebanon should accept Saudi mediation to end its cabinet crisis and repair relations with Syria”
By Joshua Landis
January 28, 2006
Many in Lebanon found my last post: “Hariri in US: What will he Get?" objectionable. Kais, who writes at “From Beirut to the Beltway,” said this:
I found Joshua Landis's commentary on Saad Hariri's visit to the US rather insulting. Joshua continues to interpret events through the Syrian regime's prism, which is unfortunate. This particular piece contained many presumptions and factual errors.I appreciate Kais’ refusal to see the Jeddah agreement to settle the cabinet crisis in Lebanon and the Saudi attempt to broker a modus vivendi between Syria and Lebanon as being of a piece; nevertheless, I believe that the two are intimately related; one cannot be achieved without the other. Clearly Saudi Arabia sees them as two cars pulled by the same engine, meant to pull us out of the Lebanon crisis. Hizbullah does as well. So, undoubtedly, does Hariri.
According to Landis, "Hariri wants to go back to Beirut. He will need Bush's help to do it, unless he is to accept the Jeddah formula and make peace with Bashar al-Asad and Hizbullah, which seems to be off the table for now. Junblat undercut that move quickly, but it looked as if Saad Hariri was ready to sign onto the Saudi deal and bow to Hizbullah."
Of course Joshua is conflating two separate things: the Saudi proposal to end the "crisis" between Lebanon and Syria and the Jeddah agreement to settle the cabinet crisis, which has to do with Hizbullah's status in the country. Saad may have backed out on the second after giving what could best be described as a conditional approval, but he never agreed to the Saudi proposal, which would have given Syria control of Lebanon all over again.
To make peace with Hizbullah means accepting two conditions. First, Hizbullah demands that its "resistance" to Israel and its military status be recognized by the Lebanese government as legitimate national policy. Second, it “rejects agitation in Lebanon for any war against Syria,” referring to calls for regime change in Damascus.
These demands are also Syrian demands for they would have the result of undercutting UN resolutions 1559 and 1663, which target Syria. Resolution 1559 targets Syria, despite the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, because it calls for the disarming of Hizbullah (see Bolton's most recent demand that “Syria disarm Hizbullah” in compliance with 1559). 1663 targets Syria because it demands compliance with the Hariri murder investigation under threat of economic or military punishment. Hizbullah withdrew its members from the government in protest over Siniora’s demand to broaden 1663 to include all the recent assassinations as well as to establish an international court to convict the guilty. In order to end the cabinet crises and get Hizbullah to return its ministers, the March 14 alliance and Hariri are being asked to go easy on Syria. Syria’s main foreign policy goal is to get out from under these two UN resolutions, which could result in further economic or military harm to it.
It will be very difficult for Hariri to end the present cabinet crisis without consenting to these two Hizb demands (and also Syrian demands), both of which will put him at odds with the US, with his own followers, and with his conscience. I fully appreciate the difficult spot he is in.
I also do not believe that General Aoun is pro-Syria in the sense that he welcomes Syrian occupation. We all know of his long, and yes, honorable stand for Lebanese independence. On the other hand, his actions make it clear that he distinguishes between independence and accommodating Syrian interests. Now that Syrian troops are out of the country, he is looking for an accommodation. This is aided by his desire to become President, for which Shiite votes are crucial, being that he does not have the backing of either the Future Current or the US. In this sense, Aoun is seen to have become pro-Syrian by American authorities because he is proposing a "temporary" accommodation with Hizb, which puts him at odds with both Hariri’s and US policy. Syria appreciates Aoun’s position; the US does not. Hariri is the odd man out in this combination, hence the pressure on Hariri to come to an accommodation with Hizb and thereby push Aoun aside. Both Aoun and Hariri need to woo Hizb, Syria's ally, which brings us back to the connection between Saudi's two related attempts to patch up a truce between Hariri and Hizb and Hariri and Syria. Saudi wants its Lebanese ally, Hariri, to win by going back to Lebanon and dominating politics there. It wants Lebanon to prosper. We should not forget that Saudi Arabia is the country that will be footing the bill for Lebanon’s debt renegotiation and not the US.
Syria will not let Hariri return to Lebanon and dominate politics there unless Hariri separates himself from the two UN resolutions which target Syria.
Here we get back to Saad Hariri's dilemma. He has two choices. He can go back to Beirut if Asad is overthrown or placed in prison, or he can go back to Beirut if he accommodates Syrian and Hizb demands. In the first instance, he will have complete justice for his father's murder, in the second, he will not.
Now we must consider the likelihood of both outcomes. Will Resolution 1663 and the UN investigation of his father's murder result in Asad's downfall or imprisonment, which would be 100 percent justice? The probability is very small. Moreover, it is not clear that Washington is actually interested in Asad's downfall or imprisonment. Most analysts suggest Washington hopes only to weakening Asad, which - let us say - is equivalent to 70 percent justice. (By weakening, we would have to mean ensuring that Syria was not strong enough to threaten Saad on his return to Beirut and could not prevent the disarming of Hizbullah - both highly unlikely outcomes.)
What do the Saudis offer Hariri if he patches up relations with Hizb on the one hand and Syria on the other? They are offering him 50 percent justice. The UN investigation will go forward and continue to isolate, embarrass, and discomfort Syria, but President Asad will not be asked to testify and presumably he and his family members will avoid conviction, and Syria will avoid UN sanctions. This is what most Middle East states seem to be pushing for and what is most likely to be the outcome of the investigation. Let us suppose that Syrian security chieftains, such as Ghazale and Juma Juma, will be convicted. Hizbullah will also be allowed to keep its arms into the immediate future, and Hariri will have to write off the remaining articles of Resolution 1559. He will also have to soften his demand for an international court even though Western leaders believe, Mehlis has stated, and most Lebanese aver that Asad ordered his father’s death.
This may seem like scant justice to many Lebanese for Rafiq Bey’s murder, and they will argue that it is not equivalent to 50 percent justice. But we should also take into account that Rafiq was killed because he supported resolution 1559, which called for the complete withdrawal of Syrian troops and the disarming of Hizbullah and an end to resistance against Israel. Syrian troops are out of Lebanon and the country is no longer occupied, which is a lot. Rafiq’s death had a great deal to do with Syria’s withdrawal. It mobilized the Lebanese against Syria. Many see him as a martyr who gave his life for Lebanese independence, which in many respects he did. Syria paid a large price for Hariri’s death; it was not in vain.
Of course, some will argue that gaining independence from Syrian occupation is not sufficient. Why? Because Hizbullah remains armed, the resistance against Israel continues, and Syria retains residual influence over Lebanese politics through its Lebanese allies. Thus, Hariri’s goals were not fulfilled, they will argue.
The only response to this is that Hariri was never opposed to Syrian influence, as such; rather, he was opposed to Syria hindering Lebanon’s development and prosperity. That is why he worked closely with Syria during the 1980s, when Syria offered Lebanon a security umbrella and assisted its resurrection from civil war, and why he began to fall out with Syria during the 1990s, when Syria’s occupation became stifling.
It is clear where I am going with this argument, and we needn’t argue about percentages, no matter how distasteful they are in discussing justice. I don’t believe Lebanon will get 100% justice. I don’t believe it will get the 70% justice that some believe the US can deliver. I don’t think the US has a plan for getting Saad back to Beirut or for unseating Asad. I believe Bashar al-Asad is in a fairly strong position and will be ruling Syria for some time to come. One Lebanese said to me: “Washington is willing to fight Syria to the last Lebanese.” This is a glib summation, but it contains an element of truth. Some of the reasons the US is trying to weaken Asad have nothing to do with Lebanon or its present interests. The US did a tremendous favor to Lebanon by helping to push Syrian troops from its soil. It is not doing Lebanon a favor by pursuing the conflict with Syria ad-infinitum.
I think Saad Hariri should accept the 50% justice that Saudi Arabia believes it can attain. This will mean a big compromise on Hariri’s part, but it is one, I think, his father would have approved of. First, it will bring Saad back to Beirut where he is needed. Only the Sunnis can lead Lebanon now, but they must come to an accommodation with the Shiites. To do this, Saad must also find a way out of his war with Asad, which the Shiites insist he do. This will be the hardest part, but it can be done because Syria needs Hariri if it wants to get out from under the intense pressure of the UN, the threat of sanctions, and US cross hairs. Syria may have Hariri boxed out of Lebanon, but Hariri has Syria boxed out of world affairs. An accommodation does not have to be surrender. Syria will never control Lebanon as it did when its troops occupied the country. Hariri has bargaining power.
What is more, only Saad’s return and an end to the cabinet crisis will mean progress and prosperity for Lebanon, two things that Rafiq held higher than even his own welfare and safety. Those are the goals that Saad should be willing to sacrifice a hundred percent justice for. In the end, they are achievable and they are the ultimate recompense for his father’s death. The welfare of Lebanon is justice. That was Rafiq Bey’s goal and wish.
Some commentators have claimed that my suggestion that Saad Hariri compromise with Hizbullah and Syria is motivated either by a perverse love of Asad or hatred for Bush and American policy. It is neither. I do think that US policy is misguided because it is unrealizable. I believe that by pursuing confrontation and demanding 100% achievement of American goals, the US will attain much less, than the 50% it could get if it were willing to bend and compromise. Force is sometimes necessary. I don’t dispute that. But in this instance, it will fail.
By creating the sharp dichotomies between good and evil and by constantly relegating whole nations to catagories like the “axis of evil,” the United States has lost chances to reach accommodations that are acceptable. It has made perfection the enemy of the good. This was the case in Iraq with the disbanding of the army and demonization of Baathists. This uncompromising policy caused needless bloodshed and the likelihood of failure because it radicalized so many and created more enemies than America can defeat. Recent elections in Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt have demonstrated that the extremists have multiplied, not decreased. American militancy has provoked greater extremism. In all likelihood, Washington and Tel Aviv are now making the decision to cut crucial subsidies and funding to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, which will starve Palestinian society further. This will make a mockery of democracy. It will incite more radicalism. It will strengthen support for Hizbullah and Damascus and make them more certain of their success.
Sometimes, it is better to accept half a loaf than to insist on a whole one. Unilateralism cannot always work. That is why I believe the deal Saudi Arabia and Egypt are trying to obtain for the Lebanese and Syria is worth pursuing. I think the Lebanese who shoot it down are being unrealistic. They will not topple Bashar or disarm Hizbullah by fiat. Setting such goals is to court failure. Saad Hariri, I think, understands this. His supporters need to give him the maneuvering room to make a deal, come home, and continue his father’s legacy and vindicate his death by fixing an independent Lebanon.