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    Middle East
     Dec 23, 2009
Hariri's Syria visit sets Lebanon on track
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASACUS - Saad Hariri, the new prime minister of Lebanon, made more than headlines with his groundbreaking visit to Damascus at the weekend. Hariri, who has been at dagger point with Syria since 2005, decided to turn a new page before landing at Damascus International Airport on Saturday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad treated him royally, embracing warmly, followed by three kisses, as customarily done in Lebanon. They then went into a closed session, which lasted for over three hours, for an open and frank talk about "everything" related to Syrian-Lebanese relations, according to a senior advisor to the Syrian president.

Following the meeting, Assad held a dinner in honor of his

  

Lebanese guest, attended by top Syrian officials including the prime minister and speaker of parliament. Hariri was then hosted at a palace usually reserved for kings and heads of state, rather than prime ministers, before meeting Assad again on Sunday before holding a press conference at the newly opened Lebanese Embassy in Damascus.

During the press conference, Hariri said that the "skies were blue" between Syria and Lebanon, promising a new phase of cooperation between the two countries that were once one an entity before being divided by European colonizers only 90 years ago, after World War I.

Hariri tried to put an end to the debate about his visit, saying that it should not be seen as one party scoring a point over the other, "otherwise, we will never move forward". Many in the Lebanese press said he has made a grand concession by coming to Syria, given accusations in Beirut that the Syrians were responsible for the murder of his father, Rafik, in February 2005.

The Syrians, however, see things very differently. They are convinced that they had nothing to do with the Hariri murder, meaning it is only natural for Hariri to come to Syria since they had done nothing to make him upset in the first place. Every Lebanese prime minister since the 1940s, after all, has made the trip to Syria, even Hariri's predecessor and protege, Fouad al-Siniora, who came during the lowest points in Syrian Lebanese relations, in 2005.

If Hariri wants to rule Lebanon - and succeed - he needs to have good relations with Syria. Syria after all, according to what he said shortly before heading to Damascus, was Lebanon's "only neighbor".

If this relationship was not mended, Hariri realized, his standing would always remain strained with Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun. And in order to rule, he cannot have the Shi'ites or the Maronites at odds with his cabinet. Simply put, a cabinet with no Hezbollah or its sister party, Amal, means one with no Shi'ites - meaning an unconstitutional one.

Hariri tried, with the help of particular strongmen in his March 14 Alliance, to confront the warriors of Hezbollah on the streets of Beirut in May 2008. His men were rounded up in a matter of hours, proving how poorly prepared they were for battle and how powerful Syria and its allies were on the streets of Beirut. This was in response to an attempt by the Hariri-dominated Siniora cabinet to dismantle Hezbollah's telecommunications network at Beirut International Airport.

Before that, according to Hezbollah, members of his team urged Israel to carry on with its 2006 war on Lebanon, hoping that it would succeed at breaking, or at least weakening, Hezbollah. Hariri after all is an extension of Saudi influence in Lebanon, while Hezbollah is an extension of Iranian weight in Lebanese affairs.

During the heyday of Hariri's father, an understanding had been reached between the two countries, whereby Rafik Hariri ruled Lebanon and was supported by Hezbollah, who in turn obtained greater decision-making powers along with their allies in the Lebanese state, and were allowed to keep their arms to fight the Israelis.

Now, after trying and failing to get rid of Hezbollah, Hariri has decided to court them - and their Syrian patrons - which partially explains why he landed in Damascus.

Shortly after emerging victorious in the June parliamentary elections, Hariri held a reconciliation meeting with Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah aimed at breaking the ice between both men. He then agreed to all of Hezbollah's demands, mainly related to accepting big names from Aoun's list of proposed cabinet ministers, including granting the Ministry of Telecommunications post to a member of the Hezbollah-led opposition.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs position in the Hariri cabinet also went to a pro-Hezbollah political science professor, Ali al-Chami, who, living up to his background, declared shortly before Hariri's Syria visit that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah, was "gone and dead".

Hezbollah also got to name one of the five ministers allocated to the independent President Michel Suleiman, the Shi'ite minister of state. That gave the Hezbollah-led opposition control of 11, rather than 10, ministries, effectively granting them the much demanded and controversial "blocking third power" in the Lebanese cabinet. That gives them the authority to veto any legislation that they do not support, although they do not command a parliamentary majority granting them this political right.

Cuddling up to the Syrians and Hezbollah infuriated members of the March 14 Alliance, particularly Christian warlord Samir Gagea. He had teamed up with Hariri in 2005 to achieve immediate short-term objectives; getting the Syrians to leave Lebanon and coming to power within a strong parliamentary bloc. Ultimately, Gagea wanted to rise on Hariri's shoulders and make it to the presidential palace. He did not make it to the presidency, however, and nor did any of his allies, in 2008.

Quite the contrary, Hariri supported Suleiman, who was acceptable and close both to Hezbollah and Syria. Gagea blames Rafik Hariri for sentencing him to life imprisonment in 1994, during Rafik's premiership, and for keeping him behind bars until 2005. Hardline Christians like Gagea, who waged war against Lebanese Muslims in the 1980s, have a futuristic vision for Lebanon that is very different from that of Sunni Muslims.

They want a Francophone Lebanon that is detached from the Arab world; Hariri wants one that is deeply rooted in its Arab environment. Now, Hariri is once again taking Lebanon down a path that Gagea dreads. It is likely that Gagea, infuriated by the cuddling up to the Syrians and Hezbollah, will soon walk out on the March 14 alliance.

So will ex-president Amin Gemayel, who like Gegea is furious with policy statement of the Hariri cabinet, which promises to "protect and embrace" the arms of Hezbollah. He is equally angry that his Phalange Party was not consulted before being given the relatively unimportant Ministry of Social Affairs, believing that they deserve more for their support of Hariri since 2005.

What is bad for both Gemayel and Gagea is that along with a rapprochement with Syria and Hezbollah, Hariri will soon be opening up to their Christian ally, Michel Aoun - who is more popular in Christian districts of Lebanon than Gemayel and Gagea combined. Aoun, who has clear presidential ambitions, will easily make it the next time elections arise, given that he would enjoy the backing of Sunnis, Shi'ites, Druze, Syrians and Saudis combined.

Regional influences cannot be dislocated from Hariri's Damascus visit. Saudi Arabia wanted it because the Saudis want Hariri to succeed, realizing that he could not do so without strong backing from the Syrians and Hezbollah. Having them on the offensive, clear from the tenure of Fouad Siniora, was not going to work.

If the price of success meant giving into all of Hezbollah's demands and returning to the status quo that prevailed in the 1990s, then this was a price Saudi Arabia was willing to pay to see normalcy restored to Lebanon and to see Hariri sworn in as the fully fledged prime minister. Not only did the Saudis encourage Hariri to go to Syria, but they are now preparing to welcome Nasrallah to Saudi Arabia for a groundbreaking visit for the Iran-backed Hezbollah leader.

On another front, Iran, too, is supportive of Hariri, now that he has promised to "protect and embrace" the arms of Hezbollah, meaning that the regional neighborhood is well placed at this stage, like no time since 2005, to help Saad Hariri succeed in his job as premier. He has Iran and Saudi Arabia behind him, and now the Syrians, and is already backed by big-hitters in the international community such as France and the US. Times could not be better for the 69th prime minister of Lebanon.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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