Syria’s stake in Lebanon

The Syrian regime may have had plans for Lebanon, but clearly none envisaged the scenario that developed over the last weeks or correctly assessed the current regional mood. Having failed to realize that frustration and resentment were mounting in Lebanon, especially after the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term, Syria became inextricably entangled in the most shocking event of these recent weeks, the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, whose death shook the very foundation of Syria’s presence in Lebanon.

No one expected Syria to leave gladly, certainly not completely. The troops are a mere logistical detail and their numbers would not have been reduced from a peak of 40,000 had they been the real guarantors of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Syria’s real power brokers are the numerous elements in an extensive intelligence network, as well as the myriad Syrian and Lebanese political and economic contacts. These are what most Lebanese (and most Syrians) really want to see end; simultaneously, this is precisely what a minority will be sorry to let go.

Undeniably, a number of individuals in the Syrian regime will always resist attempts to uproot their authority and business interests from Lebanon. But for every Syrian profiteer, there are dozens of Lebanese associates who have made this situation possible. A rushed Syrian exit will harm their stakes and they will try to prolong this mutually beneficial relationship, especially as long as Syria’s closed economy makes abuses viable. Moreover, with as much as 20 percent of deposits in Lebanese banks allegedly Syrian, and Lebanon’s reconstruction manned primarily by countless cheap Syrian laborers (who, with over 30 killed so far, have paid the ultimate price of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon), suddenly cutting these economic ties may cause agitation, which is in no one’s interest.

But it would be a mistake to interpret Syria’s stakes in Lebanon purely as vested economic interests and to forget the major political dimensions to the issue. This is not to give credence to the notion that Syria still adheres to the idea of Greater Syria (an idea which would then encompass much more than Lebanon and include other parts sectioned under Sykes-Picot); nor is this to credit a simplistic Baathist or pan-Arabist ideology advocating a common front.

The Golan Heights, indeed the entire Arab-Israel conflict, is a straightforward issue that exists outside the framework of colonial or ideological considerations. Until they are settled, Lebanon’s fortunes will be intrinsically linked to those of Syria (and, to a lesser degree, Palestine).

Accordingly, a resurrection in one form or another of the May 17, 1983 US-sponsored accord between Israel and Lebanon is not an eventuality Syria could entertain while the Golan remains occupied (and annexed) by Israel. Some Lebanese feel this is an excessive burden, but Lebanon is not the only country hostage to regional circumstances. As long as a state of war prevails with Israel, Syria will remain politically entrenched in Lebanon, more or less overtly, even after a full withdrawal.

That said, any implied equivalence between Syria’s presence in Lebanon and Israel’s occupation of Arab territories, including the Golan, is unwarranted. This is why Syria is reluctant (but obliged) to cite UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338 when pointing to western double standards that demand Syrian compliance with UNSC Resolution 1559, but ignore Israeli snubs to international law.

In fact, current depictions of the 30-year (or even 15-year) Syrian occupation of Lebanon do no justice to its history or to Syria’s contribution to ending the civil war. Even allowing for the Taef Agreement, no political analyst would seriously argue that a Syrian withdrawal could have been strategically possible before May 2000, when Israel ended its 22-year occupation of Lebanon (but has since then continued flexing its muscles with daily violations of Lebanese air space as reminders of its might).

Likewise, allegations that Syria intends to ignite civil strife as it withdraws, in apres moi, le deluge mode, are dangerous; Syria needs a stable and peaceful Lebanon, especially when instability in Iraq still has the potential to overflow. This doesn’t mean that Syria did not foolishly contribute to a rekindling of tensions, but rather that this was (hopefully) unintended.

However, the seeds of discord have long been sown, and Syria needs to consider its next steps in Lebanon carefully. While future relations will depend largely on intra-Lebanese politics, Syria’s internal affairs matter. Even if Syria were to develop into a Swiss-style democracy with the economy to boot, or, more realistically, just a more open system, it would still try to maintain its influence in Lebanon, which would itself still need Syrian political and (macro)economic support.

As things stand, a gradual but real metamorphosis is needed from current Syrian micromanagement of daily Lebanese affairs into a more mutually-consultative role. The Syrian regime must rein in the individuals who have exploited people and institutions on both sides of the border, and give the Lebanese people back the right to work out their own affairs–just as Syrians wish they could work out theirs. A more egalitarian relationship can do wonders for both, but it will take time for past mistakes to be forgiven.

The road to redemption is within reach: as a first gesture of goodwill, even if initially symbolic, diplomatic relations must be established between the two countries. This is a journey Syrians and Lebanese can take together, one step at a time.