The Tishreen Palace in Damascus is usually reserved for entertaining presidents and royalty, in contrast to the People's Palace, where mere heads of state and other notables are received. But Syrian President Bashar Assad made an exception last weekend when he hosted Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at his most exclusive venue.
The visit - which included a private meeting that lasted more than three hours, a sumptuous dinner and Assad physically embracing Hariri in public view - was the signal Lebanese and Syrian newspapers had been waiting for, and they immediately interpreted it as a new leaf having been turned in Syrian-Lebanese relations.
But Hariri came to Assad, not the reverse. While Hariri explained that if he didn't want to start a new relationship with Syria, he would not have taken on the role of prime minister, whoever wants to be Lebanon's head of state is obliged to have good relations with Syria. That is, to obey.
Five years ago, Saad Hariri's father Rafik, then prime minister, opposed extending the presidential term of Emile Lahoud, and resigned his post when Syria engineered it. Two months later, Rafik Hariri was murdered. Under the pressure of Lebanese public opinion, Syria was forced to withdraw from the country and undergo both the scrutiny of an international legal offensive and a serious United Nations investigation into its possible role in the assassination. It also had to deal with Saudi Arabian and Egyptian hostility, a French boycott and American pressure - but Syria's stubbornness, accompanied by diplomatic finesse, has paid off.
Lebanon's long period of political stagnation following the Second Lebanon War was the result of cooperation between Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Saad Hariri's bloc controlled a government which could not function, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France and the United States, which supported Hariri, were unable to bring about a reconciliation. When Syria decided a year ago to allow Qatar - a small, diplomatically unimportant but very wealthy state - to instigate the Doha Agreement (in exchange for generous financial aid), it became clear to Saudi Arabia and Egypt that the rules of the game had to change.
The Doha Agreement gave Hezbollah veto rights, in essence returning control over the Lebanese government back to Syria, and indirectly to Iran. The results of the parliamentary elections this past June - which once more granted a majority to the Hariri bloc and marked a defeat for Hezbollah - did not change the balance of power in the government. Without an agreement with Hezbollah as well as the cooperation of Michel Aoun, a Christian political leader, Hariri would not have been able to form a government.
Lebanon, a marginal state in strategic terms, has become a test laboratory for regional political power: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States on one side, facing Syria, Iran and Russia (from a distance) on the other. Saudi Arabia decided to break away from the old formula when its King Abdullah, in a strategic move to check the spread of Iranian influence, reconciled with Assad and even made a royal visit to Damascus in October.
While the Saudi Arabian king had wanted Hariri to accompany him to Damascus, he was told it would be better for Hariri to form a government first. Syria, for its part, promised to help in the speedy formation of a Lebanese government and was even rewarded with American praise. The very fact of Abdullah's visit to Damascus signaled to Hariri that the time had come to end the struggle with Syria that he had inherited from his father, a Saudi Arabian protege. One has to move forward, the Saudi Arabians told Hariri, to connect Syria to the Arab and Western worlds, because an effort must be made to neutralize Iran.
Egypt has not joined the Saudis in taking steps toward reconciliation, and its President Hosni Mubarak has still not exchanged a word with Assad, but Syria achieved what it wanted: The concept of Syrian isolation has disappeared from the lexicon, in both regional and international contexts.
Hariri has personally thanked Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for his support of the government, and Lebanese President Michel Suleiman has made clear to Washington that Hezbollah's weaponry is part of the Lebanese defense system along its southern border. But the rapprochement between Syria and the United States, and discussion of a renewal of negotiations with Israel, are worrying to Hezbollah. Nor is the statement made by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, that "Lebanon can't be sovereign while Hezbollah holds a greater amount of weapons than the government," comforting to the organization.
According to reports on Suleiman's visit to America, President Barack Obama did not rush to promise that the United States would pressure Israel to withdraw from the Shaba Farms area. An American diplomatic source told Haaretz: "The Shaba issue is on the agenda, but not such a high priority that it would lessen the pressure for a settlement freeze and negotiations with the Palestinians."
During the same visit, Washington made a commitment to provide Lebanon with more military equipment and weaponry, but not any of an advanced grade or any airplanes, based on suspicion that the arms might be turned over to Hezbollah, and also because it does not want advanced weapons placed on the border with Israel. "The American working assumption is apparently to balance the Israeli-Hezbollah threat in order to prevent an additional war in the near future," a Lebanese source said. "In any case it is not possible to disarm Hezbollah; therefore, it is important to Washington to remove the motivation for the group to use such weapons by pressuring Syria to pressure Hezbollah," the source added. If this is indeed the explanation, it is hard to understand why Washington is not acting now to cause the Israel Defense Forces to withdraw from Shaba.
From Hariri's point of view, if Washington draws closer to Syria, and Saudi Arabia reconciles with Syria, it is better to be on the "good" side of the balance of power. For him, one personal question remains. Will the investigation into his father's murder be buried as a result of the hug he received from Assad? Hariri said this week that the investigation will continue, and the suspects tried in court. Or not.
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