With usual pomp and circumstance, November 22 featured parades, parties, and grandiose rhetoric to mark Lebanon’s Independence Day. Against this backdrop, and just in time for the winter holiday season, Lebanese leaders - at each other’s throats merely six months ago – have discovered dialogue.
In short, Lebanese politicians continue to adjust to Syria’s return from the wilderness. While Syria was able to impact politics in Lebanon over the past few years, the Asad regime had to rely on assassinations and overt political obstruction to salvage its interests, having lost a structural advantage to the Cedar Revolution of 2005.
As recently as June 2009, Syria had seemingly failed to reclaim political spance. Then, the pro-Western coalition’s victory in parliamentary elections, combined with the strong position of Hizbullah and the Free Patriotic Movement within the opposition itself, had dealt a blow to Syria’s traditional allies in Lebanon.
However, Syria soon found some breathing room. Since the elections, the Lebanese political class has scrambled to adjust to changes in American, French, and Saudi foreign policy.
Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts to reassure Lebanese politicians of a lasting American commitment to Lebanon, U.S. pursuit of engagement with Syria – and negotiations with Iran – have had the effect of discouraging a bellicose anti-Syrian posture. The understandable goal of mending ties with the broader Arab and Muslim world has upset the calculations of politicians in Lebanon, which until now has been a relatively successful area of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
In a similar vein, jealously guarding its political relevance in the Levant, France has continued to court Syria. Entry into a relatively untapped Syrian market, home to some 22 million people starved of enterprise, infrastructure, technology, and services, is also important in French calculations. Finally, to a lesser degree, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s vision of a Mediterranean Union as a platform for French power would doubtlessly benefit from broader inclusion of the Levant.
Saudi Arabia – wary of Iran, concerned with Iraq, troubled by Yemen, and anticipating a shift in Western policy – has moved to mend ties with Syria. Instead of engaging in proxy confrontations in Lebanon, the Saudis and Syrians seem keen on restoring the division of labor that existed before the assassination of former Premier Rafic Hariri.
First, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt left the March 14 coalition. Though Jumblatt’s attempt to balance conflicting threats to communal and self-preservation has been awkward at best – the chieftain fears Hizbullah, cannot lose support of Lebanese Sunnis, relies on Saudi financial support, and needs access to Syria if he is to remain relevant now - progress on the Saudi-Syrian front continues to ease his burden.
Meanwhile, Zghorta chieftain Suleiman Franjieh, a stalwart of the pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon, has become more assertive within the opposition. Further, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri remains a reliable ally of Damascus, and President Michel Sleiman’s role as an internal “swing” actor will depend on accommodating Syria and the pro-Syrian camp.
Thus, an effective (albeit small) pro-Syrian bloc has emerged in Lebanon. This will allow Damascus to return to a subtle, and highly more effective, approach to influencing events, especially given the fluid Lebanese context that prevails today.
The Division of Labor
Under the arrangement that existed in Lebanon from 1992 until the earlier part of this decade, the Saudi-backed camp and politicians close to the late Prime Minister controlled fiscal and economic policy while the Syrian-backed camp and the Lebanese-Syrian security apparatus held sway over the security sector.
At first glance, desertions from March 14 coalition and disruptions within the opposition have created an environment for such a division of labor by making individual parties, with narrower support bases and more particular political visions, prone to their respective patrons’ influence.
The sudden formation of a Lebanese government after five months of gridlock seemingly illustrates the Saudi-Syrian ability to jointly shape politics in Lebanon by exerting pressure on their respective proxies. Yet, things are not so simple.
Much has changed since the pre-2005 period, when harmonious Saudi-Syrian relations were enough to keep Lebanon under wraps.
First, current U.S. policy in the region – including policy towards Syria and Lebanon - differs markedly from that of the 1990s.
Second, international investigations of the Hariri assassinations will have an unforeseen effect on Lebanese politics and Saudi-Syrian relations.
Third, the political landscape in Lebanon is more complex now than it was before 2005: Hizbullah is more assertive and increasingly tows the Iranian line; Christian infighting has replaced Christian impotence as a factor to consider; and the July 2006 War has kick-started a more aggressive Israeli posture towards its neighbors.
And so, it appears Lebanon’s Sister has returned home - with a brother, a cousin, a neighbor, an acquaintance, and a stranger. Whether they play nice remains to be seen.