Hariri visit seals a good year for Syria
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - Talk of a visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Syria has
been in the air since his March 14 Coalition emerged victorious in the June
parliamentary elections. Shortly after President Michel Suleiman asked Hariri
to create the new cabinet, speculation mounted on whether he would make the
Damascus visit, as customarily done by every Lebanese prime minister since the
The Syrians declared from day one that Hariri would always be welcome in Syria,
letting bygones be bygones, and scores of Lebanese politicians, eager to mend
relations with Damascus, began sending positive signals, hoping that the doors
to the Syrian capital would be opened to them as well, seeing that it
was political suicide to be at odds with Damascus now that George W Bush had
left the White House.
Hariri's ally, Walid Jumblatt (a former ally of the Syrians), went to great
lengths to do that and is expected to make an on-air live apology this week,
through the Doha-based channel al-Jazeera. Politicians like Jumblatt and Hariri
had wrongly bet on the Bush administration during the years 2005-2008, thinking
that the days of Syrian government were numbered.
They unleashed a war of words against Syria and its Hezbollah allies, calling
for the full implementation of United Nations Security Council resolution 1559,
which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah. In 2006, they were unimpressed by
the Hezbollah victory - realizing that it only strengthened Syria's influence
in Lebanon. Then came the mini-civil war of May 2008, when Hezbollah managed to
round up all of March 14's armed stalwarts in a matter of hours, proving that
it had the upper hand on the streets of Beirut.
That action was taken after the March 14 cabinet of then-prime minister Fouad
al-Siniora tried to dismantle Hezbollah's telecommunications network at Beirut
International Airport. The Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, came out with a
thundering statement, threatening to "cut the hand" of whoever tried to meddle
with the "arms of the resistance".
The Hariri team reasoned that Hezbollah was there to stay since it was so
deep-rooted in Lebanese society, especially in south Lebanon and the suburbs of
Beirut. Writing it off militarily had clearly failed, and relying on Israel to
do the job had also proved futile. Betting on the UN or the US was also no good
- the only way forward, Hariri reasoned, was to mend broken fences with
Hezbollah and Syria.
Earlier in 2009, Hariri met with Nasrallah - a cordial meeting that buried the
hatchet between the two men. After emerging victorious last June, Hariri
created a cabinet of national unity that answered all of Hezbollah's demands.
It gave the Ministry of Telecommunications to a Free Patriotic Movement (FPM)
candidate, Charbel Nahhas, which was a long-standing demand by both Hezbollah
and FPM leader Michel Aoun.
Hariri also agreed to name Aoun's son-in-law, Gibran Bassil, as a minister.
Then in a final gesture, Hariri pushed for a cabinet policy statement that
promised to protect and embrace the arms of Hezbollah. Hariri had no other
choice - he could only rule by consensus, and that consensus could not be made
unless he includes the Shi'ites, who are overwhelmingly supportive of
Hezbollah, in any cabinet formation.
This antagonized Hariri's relations with some of his Christian allies, like the
Phalange Party of ex-president Amin Gemayel and the Lebanese Forces of Samir
Gagega, a warlord. Hariri reasoned that Hezbollah's support was more crucial
for him at this stage than that of Christian statesmen who represented - at
best - only half of the Lebanese Christian community. The breakthrough came on
the heels of a royal visit by Hariri's patron, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia,
to Damascus where he, too, turned a new page with the Syrians after relations
had soured in 2005-2006. The Syrians and Saudis realized that what united them
over Lebanon and other regional issues, such as Iraq, was greater than what had
divided them since 2005 - mainly the issue of Hezbollah.
Now comes Hariri's visit to Syria, expected this December. It closes a troubled
chapter of Syrian-Lebanese relations that was imposed on both countries by the
Bush administration. That chapter began to turn when Syria and Saudi Arabia
reconciled at an Arab summit over Gaza, which took place in Kuwait last
January, symbolically on Bush's last day at the White House.
The Bush team - eager to punish Syria for confronting them in the 2003
occupation of Iraq - tried to isolate Syria, blaming it for the insurgency in
Iraq and the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005. It too reasoned, however, that it
could not obtain any breakthroughs in the Middle East without the cooperation
of Syria. The Syrians were needed after all, to moderate the actions of Hamas
in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, more importantly, the behavior of the
It all boiled down to one thing: if the Americans wanted peace and tranquility
in the Arab world, they had to deal with either Syria or Iran. Dealing with
both was too difficult for the Bush team and continuing to deal with neither
was clearly not working. The Americans reasoned, towards the end of the Bush
era, that dealing with Syria was less difficult, given that Syria had proven to
be a credible negotiating partner and did not have a history of
Then came President Barack Obama, who showed from day one that he was very
different from Bush in dealing with the Middle East. Obama began sending
official delegations to Syria to find common ground on Iraq, listening to
Syrian grievances while expressing their own, seeing the many ways forward for
both countries. Obama began to do away with some of the sanctions imposed by
the US in 2004, and in the summer of 2009 announced that he was going to send
an ambassador to Damascus to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005.
Obama's priorities, however, were very different from those of Syria. He was
clearly more interested in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan than in the
Middle East peace process. In as much as he would have loved to hammer out a
peace treaty between the Palestinians and Israelis, a troublesome US Congress
and a hardline Israeli government prevented him from achieving any of that.
The Syrians, however, wanted two things from Obama: jumpstarting serious talks
on the occupied Golan Heights and improving bilateral relations between the US
and Damascus. Neither the Syrians nor the Americans had Lebanon on their
priority list - although both continued to regard the Lebanese file as
Hariri and Jumblatt were among the first to realize how different the balance
of power had become in the Middle East in the post-Bush era. The US needed
Syria in Iraq and the Syrians needed the US to get back the Golan. A new
relationship of cooperation had flourished and if Lebanon did not blow with the
prevailing wind, now coming from Damascus, it would sink into oblivion in the
new Middle East.
Rather than beat Hezbollah and Syria, they decided to join them, restoring a
status quo that had existed during the 1990s between Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran,
the US and Lebanon. This means that the Saudis' proxy in the region, Hariri,
would co-rule Lebanon with Iran's proxy, Hezbollah.
Lebanon would no longer be used as a launching pad for anti-Syrian propaganda,
and the Syrians would be assured that no anti-Syrian cabinet would reign in
Beirut, now that its allies were strongly represented in the Hariri cabinet.
More importantly, the Hariri visit proves that all talk marketed by the US and
March 14, which blamed Syria for the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005, had now
Simply put, had the Syrians killed him, then evidence would have emerged to
incriminate Syria. The fact that nothing has emerged from the international
tribunal that began last March is testimony to Syria's innocence, so is the
honeymoon between Syria and France, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the US.
These are good days for Syria. Regional solutions have seemingly been
tailor-made to fit the liking of the statesmen in Damascus. A new US ambassador
will likely land in Syria before the end of this year, and the Americans are
still promising engagement and more results on the peace process.
The anti-Syrian craze in Beirut has been silenced - probably for good - and
relations could not be better between Damascus and Paris on one front, and
Damascus and both Ankara and Doha on another. Syria is playing a pivotal role
in the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah, and is using its
considerable influence to hammer out solutions between Hezbollah and March 14
From where the Syrians see things: only one breakthrough is still needed -
enough US pressure on Israel to cease settlement expansion and return to the
peace talks with the Arabs, for the sake of restoring occupied land to both
Syria and Lebanon. The year 2009 could not have been better for Damascus.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.