A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

Syria After Lebanon, Lebanon After Syria

Former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri’s tragic assassination capped a series of events that carry the potential of fundamentally altering not only Lebanon’s future, but also Syria’s and the broader regional landscape as well.

Executive Summary

Former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri's tragic assassination capped a series of events that carry the potential of fundamentally altering not only Lebanon's future, but also Syria's and the broader regional landscape as well. For now, most international and Lebanese actors have acted with welcome wisdom; the prospect of Syria's long-overdue withdrawal from Lebanon and of Lebanese elections free from outside interference appears closer than ever. But risks of serious violence remain very real. The Syrian regime, sensing its survival at stake, may lash out using its remaining instruments and allies in Lebanon and beyond; the U.S., feeling its broader regional goals within striking distance, may well over-reach, triggering violent reactions from Syria, Hizbollah or militant Palestinian groups; Lebanon's political class, notoriously fractured, could create fresh opportunities for outside interference and pave the way for domestic chaos. What happens in Lebanon likely will have momentous regional implications -- certainly on Syria and Hizbollah, possibly on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and even Iraq. But dealing with those matters before getting the question of Lebanon right is the surest way to get it all wrong.

Whatever the intent, Hariri's assassination heightened pressure on Syria, bringing together once disparate actors and objectives: the U.S., which had given priority to ending Syrian support for militant Palestinian groups, Hizbollah and the Iraqi insurgency; France, which was most interested in Lebanon and still invested hopes in Syria's president; and Lebanese activists, who traditionally had been unable to agree on much. Because Hariri's influence far exceeded Lebanon's confines, and he embodied its links with much of the outside world, his killing accelerated the -- at least temporary -- convergence of the Syrian regime's multiple foes on a set of demands: complete withdrawal of Syria's military and intelligence (mukhabarat) from Lebanon; the truth on Hariri's assassination; and free Lebanese elections under international supervision.

The Lebanese opposition, in the main, has sought to stress national unity, de-emphasise the underlying confessional dimension and avoid overly provocative positions that could alienate the powerful Hizbollah or the large Shiite community. Hizbollah has tried both to evince solidarity with Syria and urge a national dialogue, in effect acknowledging that Syria's time in Lebanon is over, that it has nothing to gain from civil conflict and that its priority is to preserve its position in the domestic arena. After some hesitation, Washington also displayed noteworthy restraint, intent on working closely with the French, focusing for now on the Lebanese arena and resisting the temptation to drag in broader (and evidently connected) regional and international dimensions, such as disarming Hizbollah, prosecuting the war against terrorism or changing the regime in Damascus.

Writing in early 2004, Crisis Group argued that, in order to avert a U.S.-Syria crisis, both needed to alter their approach, Washington by clearly articulating what it expected and what Damascus could expect in return; Syria by unequivocally demonstrating a decision to change course. But while neither paid heed, it is hard to dispute that a U.S. strategy of firm pressure and refusal to negotiate its demands appears to have paid off. The Baathist regime is more isolated than ever, on the verge of losing a major regional asset, and with serious questions about how long it can survive as is. From the perspective of the Bush administration, this is the time to squeeze, not to talk.

Still, neither the U.S. nor the rest of the international community can afford indifference to how Syrian and Lebanese actors react. That Syria should and will leave Lebanon is now certain but not how it departs and what it leaves behind. Many of the most apocalyptic post-withdrawal scenarios -- chaos and civil war; full-scale confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah -- appear, today, either no longer relevant or exaggerated from the start. But ingredients of violence remain. Seen from Syria's vantage, sudden excitement over Lebanon's sovereignty is just the latest U.S. ploy to destabilise it and usher in a new regional order; although significantly weakened, its regime retains instruments and allies to create havoc in the region should it conclude its survival is at risk. Seen from Hizbollah's perspective, the withdrawal is only chapter one; what comes next on U.S. and Israeli agendas is its disarmament which, in the short run at least, it is likely to resist, if necessary by force. Seen from the angle of Lebanon's fractious groups -- whether in the opposition or loyal to Damascus -- the end of Syria's presence means re-opening issues suppressed since the close of the civil war, from sectarian relations and the distribution of power through to Hizbollah and Palestinian refugees. All these are combustible elements that disgruntled Lebanese and outside actors will be tempted to exploit. In a country awash with weapons, accustomed to being a theatre for proxy wars between Arabs, Palestinian and Israelis, and on the verge of a major redistribution of power and resources, the means and motivations for violence abound.

The temptation for the U.S. in particular to use the current situation to achieve larger objectives is understandable. But it also is dangerous, for none more than the Lebanese. The guiding principle ought to be to separate the reestablishment of Lebanon's full sovereignty, independence and stability -- including the holding of free elections without delay and with international monitors and an international investigation into Hariri's assassination -- from broader issues that could impede achieving that goal. That will require the U.S. to curb its appetite, Lebanon's opposition to maintain its moderation, and Syria to avoid a scorched-earth policy.

Beirut/Amman/Brussels, 12 April 2005

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