Monday, September 1, 2008

Lebanon Syria normalisation

A New Dawn in Lebanon
New Indian Express (Channai), 2 September 2008
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman made history when he visited Damascus on August 13.

The visit not only marked an end to recent tensions in the region but also transformed the very nature of relations between the two Middle East neighbours. Despite some scepticism the visit is truly historic and signals a formal end to Syrian denial of and disregard for Lebanese independence. During the visit Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Suleiman agreed to establish normal diplomatic relations and initiate the process of border demarcation.

Even though Syria and its leadership have to take a lot of concrete measures, a good beginning has been made.

First and foremost, Suleiman’s visit and his earlier meeting with Assad in Paris a few years ago clearly indicate a fundamental change in Syrian attitude towards Lebanese existence as a sovereign entity.

Syria had a historic grievance against the French when the Mandate authorities carved out Mount Lebanon and its surrounding areas to form an independent Lebanese state in 1943.

Such historic claims over others are not new to the Middle East. For long, other countries such Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Iraq had coveted their weaker neighbours. What however made the Lebanese case rather unique was the steadfastness with which Damascus maintained its opposition to recognising Lebanon as a sovereign entity .

For over six decades Damascus had political influence, economic interests and strategic presence in Lebanon but not diplomatic representation. When the Lebanese civil war broke out in 1975, Damascus found an opportunity. In the name of preventing a virtual blood bath, the Ba’athist leadership consolidated its presence. As the factional fight ended in 1989, Syrian presence and influence was legitimised and guaranteed.

Damascus ended up having thousands of troops in Lebanon but never an embassy . Its emissary in Beirut was ironically called ‘Governor’, thereby symbolising Syrian claims over Lebanon.

Such was its influence, Syria set the Lebanese domestic agenda and according to seasoned observers Bashar Assad was personally looking after the ‘Lebanon file’ prior to his election as president in June 2000. Disregarding popular sentiments in Lebanon, he ensured the re-election of President Emile Lahoud in 2004 through a constitutional amendment. Subsequent disputes over this election led to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. This was followed by the killing of a number of politicians and other Lebanese personalities who were critical of Syria and its domination. The needle of suspicion continues to point towards Damascus.

Popular revulsion over Hariri’s assassination eventually made the Syrian military presence untenable and forced it to pull out its troops from Lebanon in April. Despite this, as highlighted by the prolonged delay in the election of Lahoud’s successor, Syria continues to wield considerable clout in Lebanon, especially through its erstwhile proxies such as the Hezbollah.

Syrian recognition however was not forthcoming. Keeping up the pressure, in May 2005 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1680 that explicitly called on Damascus “to establish full diplomatic relations and representation” with Beirut. The resolution was endorsed by 13 members of the Council while China and Russia abstained.

Syria also faced criticisms from its erstwhile friends such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Hezbollah’s military activities culminated in the second Lebanon war of 2006 that brought further death and destruction.

Syria was not prepared to abandon the Hezbollah.
Syrian inflexibility over Lebanon dis pleased many Arab countries and resulted in their boycott of the Arab summit hosted by President Assad in March this year. Soon accusations were flying between Damascus and other Arab capitals. However, the Syrian leadership recognised that reconciliation with the wider Arab world depends on meaningful progress on Lebanon.

For its part, France the former colonial power, has been active in promoting Lebanese-Syrian reconciliation. As part of the Mediterranean summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hosted Lebanese and Syrian leaders in July . Though his dream of a photo opportunity involving Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Assad did not materialise, the Suleiman-Assad meeting broke the ice. This paved the way for Suleiman’s visit to Damascus a month later.
A modicum of relations with Lebanon would not only enhance Syrian influence in that country but also would increase its regional status.

For its part, this is a historic moment for Lebanon. The Syrian recognition is far more valuable than India’s recognition by Great Britain, Pakistan by India, Bangladesh by Pakistan in 1974 or the Israeli recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1993. Indeed one could even suggest that this is far more historic than the unlikely recognition of the breakaway Taiwanese republic by the People’s Republic of China.

To be meaningful, however, the Syrian recognition has to be formal and substantial. Recognition and normalisation would have to be accompanied by a formal Syrian renunciation of its territorial or other claims over Lebanon. Such an abandonment of past claims would have to be internalised through significant revision in the educational system. Otherwise, recognition would be no more than a political gimmick and would be a Damocles’ sword over Lebanon. Since Syria took more than six decades to recognise the independence of Lebanon, such a decision would have to be endorsed and guaranteed by the international community, especially the United Nations.
Likewise demarcation of borders would not be easy . For long Damascus has argued that the disputed Sheba farms currently held by Israel is a Syrian territory. However, during Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, both Syria and Lebanon claimed this to be a Lebanese territory. Syria even claimed that it had ‘transferred’ this to Lebanon. So far Syria has not provided any legal documents substantiating this claim. Given the recent tension and acrimony, Damascus would be in no hurry to resolve the problem.
Syrian recognition, normalisation of diplomatic relations and the presence of a full-fledged embassy would not however change the fundamental problem facing Lebanon. It is haunted by factional interests and infighting among the three principal groups, namely, Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims. Hence, Lebanese ability to enjoy the fruits of this historic moment ironically depends on the leeway and space provided by Damascus. Hence, at least in the short run, Lebanon would continue to be at the mercy of Syria.

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