Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon
Creative Syria, run by Kamil-Alexandre, asks several Syrianists to answer the question: “Improving Syrian Lebanese relations ... whose responsibility is it?”
Here is my answer:
Why Lebanon is Not Likely to Win Full Sovereignty Soon
By Joshua Landis
Published by The Syrian Think Tank
June 21, 2006
In an ideal moral universe, the answer to the question of which country – Lebanon or Syria – is responsible for improving relations between the two is simple. It is Syria’s duty. Syria must satisfy a long checklist before having restored full sovereignty to Lebanon. It must clarify ownership of Shabaa farms, stop arms transfers to Palestinian militias and Hizbullah, stop threatening Lebanese politicians, account for missing and imprisoned Lebanese, and establish an embassy in Beirut.
But we do not live in an ideal universe, much as we would like to. International relations are contingent. It is unproductive to consider Syro-Lebanese relations in isolation from those of the greater Middle East, as we are now doing. Most important are Syria and Lebanon’s relations with Israel and Iraq. Because Lebano-Syrian relations are part of an international relations subsystem, it is necessary to review how Lebanon became entangled in this system as an adjunct of Syria in order to figure out how to disentangle it and build an independent status for it.
Lebanon first became hostage to the greater Arab-Israeli conflict when it entered the 1948 war as an adjunct to Syria and the Arab League. This was largely the doing of the Sunni elite that was pan-Arab and led by Riad al-Solh. The arming of the PLO in the camps and collapse of Lebanese national consensus led to the Civil War. Syria was forced to intervene in order to stop the sectarian bloodbath which threatened Syrian unity, but most importantly, Syria had to keep Israel from intervening and establishing hegemony over Lebanon. Had Israel filled the Lebanese vacuum and installed a friendly Maronite government, Lebanon would have become a launching pad to destabilize Syria. The Golan would have been lost forever. Syria had to protect its flank and Lebanon lost its independence.
Iraq became entangled in Lebanon in a serious way at the very end of the civil war, when General Aoun substituted Israeli support with Saddam Hussein’s. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US finally gave Asad the green light to end the Lebanese civil war and wipe out Aoun’s forces in exchange for Syrian backing in the Gulf War. US recognition of a Pax-Syriana in Lebanon was traded for Syrian recognition of a Pax Americana in the Gulf. It was not a perfect world, but everyone got more or less what they wanted save for the Aounists and Saddam Hussein.
Syrian suzerainty in Lebanon afforded it augmented leverage in its relations with Israel and the US. The emergence of Hizbullah in response to Israel’s occupation of the South of Lebanon was a Godsend to Syria. By harnessing Hizbullah to its campaign to pressure Israel for a return of the Golan, Syria finally achieved the firepower needed to get Tel Aviv’s respect and attention, something it had never been able to do. By mastering Lebanon, Syria achieved what Sadat accomplished with the crossing of Suez in 1973. Prime Minister Rabin began negotiations for Golan. Not only were the Heights back in play, but Syria’s hegemony in Lebanon and backing for Hizbullah were also on the bargaining table.
I do not know which country is most responsible for the failure of the Golan talks, but Prime Minister Barak made the determination that Syria was asking more than Israel would give. Instead he unilaterally withdrew from Lebanon in the hope that Hizbullah would wither away, for the lack of an enemy. The Shabaa Farms pretext was hurriedly establish to provide a continuing rational for preserving the lines of battle and pressure on Israel. Although Israel’s hand was somewhat strengthened by its withdrawal, the borders remained disputed and the circle of enmity continued.
This brings us to the new world of George Bush, the status quo crusher, and the war on Iraq. President Bush, by destroying Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, dreamed of completely reversing the regional status quo and building a new subsystem of international relations in the region. In one blow, he hoped to destroy Arab nationalism as an ideology and roll back the power of anti-American and Israeli states such as Syria, if not change their regimes.
He was able to get Syria to withdraw its remaining forces from Lebanon and was instrumental in shifting Sunni ideological allegiance away from Syria and Arabism toward Lebanonism. All the same, the Bush revolution has largely foundered and may be in retreat.
Arabism did not die and the Syrian regime has survived. On the contrary, Bashar has consolidated his power and his regime is strengthened since the initial report on the Hariri killing. Hizbullah assumed the mantle of Arab nationalism in Lebanon and won new recruits, namely General Aoun and his followers. Lebanon remains deeply divided. One must speculate that it can only give Washington minimal help in any continuing efforts to role back Syria and Arabism.
For its part, President Asad realized that Syria was being directly targeted by Bush’s long-term plans for the region. He extended Lahoud’s term to put someone “strong” and dependable in the presidency. This forced Hariri to choose sides in a war he had hoped to avoid. His decision to join the Syrian opposition is widely believed to be the reason he was killed. This did not stop the Lebanese Sunnis from abandoning Syria and leading the Cedar revolution against Syria, but it did leave Lebanon leaderless and divided. Siniora, for all his excellent qualities, has not been able to command the same loyalty among Lebanese or unite the different communities as Hariri did. The Cedar revolution has collapsed and Lebanon finds itself only half liberated, with many unresolved problems.
How will Lebanon win full sovereignty? There are only a few options.
1) The United States continues to press forward with its revolution and finishes off the Asad regime, thereby throwing Syria into confusion and forcing a successor regime to renounce Asad’s foreign policy of using Lebanon as a card in its struggle to retrieve the Golan and promote its regional power. This is very unlikely.
2) The UN will prove that Syria assassinated Hariri and, based on this, the Security Council will win international and region support to sanction Syria so severely that it has the same result as option 1 and leads to Syria renouncing Hizbullah, Shabaa Farms, and its influence in Lebanon. Also, not likely.
3) The United States makes a deal with Syria on Lebanon’s behalf to buy Lebanese sovereignty from Syria. This would have to include successful peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which would bring a definitive end to the region’s border disputes and would serve to extinguish some of the principle demands of Arabism with the return of the Golan.
a. Another element the US would have to bring to the table is Iraqi relations with Syria. Right now, the US is using Iraq to pressure Syria – the Kirkuk oil pipeline is cut, trade is discouraged, and normal diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Damascus have been placed on hold.
b. Finally, the US would have to recognize the Asad regime and bring it back in from the cold, allowing it to trade freely with Europe and the West in general.
In order to cut a deal for Lebanese sovereignty, not all these things would have to be traded at once and unconditionally, but they would have to be on the table. US acceptance of the Asad regime’s legitimacy would have to be the starting point.
This option is also unlikely to happen. The Hariri murder investigation is on-going. Bush’s stated goal of advancing democracy in the region hinges on the Syrian example, as does his stated objective of reforming the Greater Middle East and putting Hizbullah and armed Palestinian militias out of business. Most difficult for Washington, however, is to put the Golan back in play. It is not clear at all that Washington has the capacity or political will to pressure Israel to give up Golan. Sharon said it was not worth giving up the Golan for peace with Syria. Other Israelis have suggested that Syria must have free elections before Israel can reenter peace talks. The balance of power between Israel and Syria is so tipped in Israel’s favor these days that Israel will continue to find a reason to put off talks. It is very difficult to envisage why Tel Aviv would want to give away the Golan.
4) There is a forth option. It is for Lebanon to go it alone, cut its ties to the US, and accept Egyptian and Saudi efforts to mediate between Syria and Lebanon. This solution is fraught with dangers for Lebanon. Hariri, Siniora, and the various groups allied with the Future Movement would not accept such a deal. Their government would not survive such an about face. They would be punished by the US. Hizbullah and Aoun would come out winners. Even if Saudi offered to promote and underwrite Lebanon’s loan rescheduling, the US would likely put Lebanon back on the terrorist list, proscribe trade, and prevent the World Bank, IMF and other international agencies from assisting Lebanon. There are no guarantees that Syria would actually offer Lebanon full sovereignty without the Golan back and US backing – two things that Beirut and Riyadh have no influence over. Syria might hand over the Shabaa Farms and sacrifice support for the Palestinian militias, but it would not help to disarm Hizbullah and cease to have an influence over Lebanese affairs through its Lebanese supporters.
For these reasons, it is hard to see how Lebanon is going to solve the long checklist of problems it has with Syria. The deep ideological and sectarian divisions in Lebanon will continue to frustrate government efforts to build a successful policy for sovereignty and will continue to leave the country vulnerable to outside manipulation.
The United States has done what heavy lifting it can, but its moral and military force in the region is largely spent. It will continue to use Lebanon as a card against Syria, but will be unable to deliver much of added worth to the Lebanese.
Syria will continue to hang on to its Lebanon card; Lebanon remains its most important asset in negotiating with Israel and the United States. It may make some minor concessions on Lebanese sovereignty in side deals with Europe, but it will not help disarm Hizbullah or fully recognize Lebanese sovereignty until there is broader regional peace and its interests have been taken into account. In the mean time, we can dream about an ideal moral universe.