Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family

Hazem Saghieh
14 December 2005

A tumultuous year in Lebanon is ending as it has begun, with an assassination to shock and frighten the nation. The killing of the prominent journalist and politician Gebran Tueni in Beirut on 12 December MP was in itself a terrible act – Tueni , publisher of the newspaper an-Nahar and a strong critic of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs, was blown up by a bomb placed in a parked car, one day after he had returned from Paris after a four-month self-exile. It has also reconfirmed how long, difficult and costly the achievement of Lebanon’s “second independence” will be.

It seems obvious that the timing of Tueni’s murder was carefully chosen: to divert attention from the second report by United Nations investigator Detlev Mehlis into the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. Both reports have condemned Syria while complaining of Syrian obstruction in discovering the full facts of the murder. Indeed, Damascus always has something it wants to conceal; and it always does so in the most cruel and violent way.

The “Lebanese spring” of public demonstrations that followed Hariri’s murder was enough to force Syria to make a long-delayed withdrawal of its military forces from the country, but not to stop its security and intelligence agents continuing to conceive, plan and execute operations designed to eliminate some of the most vital and vigorous Lebanese critics of Syrian influence.

Gebran Tueni’s killing is only the latest in a melancholy line of murders that includes the journalist Samir Kassir on 2 June and the leading communist George Hawi on 22 June, and the attempted assassination of TV presenter May Chidiac and ministers Marwan Hamade and Elias al-Murr.

Lebanon’s predicament

The immediate origins of this cycle of death lie in the character of the Ba’athist regime that rules in Damascus. But its deeper roots belong to the history of the relations between Syria and Lebanon, which in traditional Arab rhetoric are always described as “brother states”. Such putatively familial status, however, is combined with a reality that may be unique in the world: Syria and Lebanon have never opened embassies in one other’s territory.

The countries of the European Union, for example, have never considered doing away with their diplomatic representation. The national sovereignty of each member-state, of which embassies are a crucial symbol, is considered important despite their ever-closer political association. So why have Syria and Lebanon never used embassies to organise their relations ever since the two modern states were established, and entered the United Nations, in the 1940s?

Also on Syria and Lebanon in openDemocracy:

Roger Scruton, “Lebanon before and after Syria” (March 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, “Lebanon’s pre-election hangover” (May 2005)

Alex Klaushofer, “After Syria” (October 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work

From the outset Syria always insisted that it and Lebanon had no need for embassies because they were “sisters”. This argument (based on a tribal vision of the modern world) had two sides to it: ideological and functional.

First, Syria was bound to an ideological view that saw Lebanon as a part of Syria, whose own statehood was formed on the basis of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. In Syrian eyes, moreover, what was true of Lebanon also applied to Jordan and Palestine; but as Syria and Lebanon were subject to the French mandate in the 1920s while Jordan and Palestine fell under British rule, it was always easier for Damascus to maintain a more proprietorial view of Lebanon than it did of the other areas.

In any event, such arguments were false, since all the countries in question were only established after the first world war brought about the collapse of Ottoman imperial governance in the region. But the fact that the Syrian claim was spurious proved did not stop it from being used as a weapon in Lebanon’s internal sectarian divisions. Those sections of Lebanon’s population which felt cheated or marginalised under current arrangements placed their bets on the idea of “national salvation” through their ties with Syria.

Second, there was always a less obvious functional or pragmatic aspect to Syria’s view of Lebanon. Arab nationalist slogans have long been used to keep the smaller of the two countries under the wing of its larger neighbour. This relationship reached its apogee following the June 1967 war whose consequences included Syria’s loss of the Golan Heights to Israel.

Damascus then became a conduit for arms and fighters into Lebanon: igniting the “Lebanese Saha (front)” was seen as a necessary precondition for Syria’s recovery of its occupied territory. Since 1974, Syria has abided by the terms of the disengagement treaty brokered by Henry Kissinger and the Syrian-Israeli border has been completely quiet as a result. However, there has been a concurrent insistence from Syria on stoking up southern Lebanon as an alternative front in the struggle with Israel.

Throughout the history of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, these two aspects, ideological and practical, have complemented one another. Whenever Lebanon hesitates to reopen the front with Israel it faces the “ideological” accusation of betraying “the cause of the Arab nation”. It then finds that weapons begin arriving from Syria to undermine the fragile coexistence of its various communities – making it even more fragile – while at the same time Damascus imposes a blockade on the country which stifles its economy.

Since 1949, Lebanon has found its land borders sealed on seven occasions, at the very moment when the two countries were facing crucial strategic decisions. It only requires a glance at the map to realise that what makes these blockades so effective is simple geographic reality: to the north and east of Lebanon lies Syria, to the west the Mediterranean sea and to the south Israel, with which its border is closed.

Under siege and facing a stream of weapons and fighters, Lebanon finds itself accused of interfering in Syrian affairs whenever its press exercises its freedom to report and comment on the news, or when Syrian opposition figures take refuge in Beirut from the Ba’athist military regime. In other words, if it is to be an upstanding, brotherly part of the Arab nation, Lebanon cannot be democratic.

For all of these reasons Damascus has had no desire to establish diplomatic representation between itself and Beirut. Here lies the essence of the problem: the relationship between them recalls that between North and South Korea, or perhaps East and West Germany, but there are two crucial differences. First, these are or were cases of a single people split by geopolitics, whereas only the most fervent Syrian nationalist would argue that the Lebanese people are “really” Syrian. Second, the inequality of size and power is the most marked in the Syria-Lebanon case, and much to Syria’s advantage.

Syria’s ambition

This leads to the politics behind Rafiq Hariri’s murder. Throughout the 1990s, Hariri had assumed that it would be possible to overcome the problems between Syria and Lebanon in a gradual, “brotherly” way and to prise Lebanon’s independence from Syria’s clutches by economic means. However, experience has exposed this view to be a utopian dream altogether alien to the military regime in Syria. Indeed, by extending the term in office of Lebanon’s isolated president Emile Lahoud, Syria was forcing Hariri into a confrontation on political ground.

It is therefore difficult to imagine relations between the two countries stabilising without change in Syria itself, change that would lead to the establishment of the rule of law in that country and the profound recognition in Syrian political circles that the states of the “near east” will remain within their present borders, each sovereign over its own affairs. Such a transformation is urgently needed and in the true interests of the Syrian people, even more than of the Lebanese.

The Syria of today is, in a sense, a response to the idea of Arab unity which failed to come to fruition with Prince Faisal I after the first world war. This failure left Syrian political culture with the sense that the country was the victim of a conspiracy which had cut it down to size. From this feeling there grew an imperialistic tendency, accompanied by the army’s domination of social and political life. Since 1963, when the Ba’ath party came to power, the Syrians have lived in the shadow of martial law. Meanwhile Lebanon, for all its sectarian differences, is a response to the idea of freedom – which is to say the freedom for religious minorities to live in peace far from the centre of imperial hegemony.

Under the long rule of Hafez al-Assad, Syria exploited circumstances as best it could – most importantly the cold war and the Islamic revolution in Iran – to preserve this arrangement with its neighbour. However, things began to change in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even more so when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father as Syrian president in 2000 (the second instance of dynastic inheritance in a “socialist” republic after “great leader” Kim Il-Sung was succeeded by “dear leader” Kim Jong-Il).

Hazem Saghieh is senior commentator for the London-based Arabic paper Al-Hayat

Among Hazem Saghieh’s articles on openDemocracy:

“Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes” (June 2004)

“Rafiq Hariri’s murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?” (February 2005)

“How to make Israel secure” (August 2005)

“The ‘Muslim community’: a European invention” – with Saleh Bechir (October 2005)

“Left and right united: the victory of Maoism” (November 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The Israelis withdrew from Lebanon before Hafez al-Assad died in 2000. After that, Syria could no longer pretend to be staying in Lebanon in order to protect it. With the events of 11 September 2001, the United States began to take a tougher stance towards states that encouraged terrorism (and the Americans could hardly forget the role played by the Syrians and Iranians in the world’s first large-scale suicide-bombing, which destroyed the United States embassy in Beirut in October 1983).

The war in Iraq meant that the American army found itself on Syria’s doorstep. This has impacted on Syria’s internal and external politics. A direct result of the US’s proximity has been the rise of the Kurdish movement in northeastern Syria over the past year. Meanwhile, the Bush administration repeatedly (and somewhat excessively) accuses Syria of sending suicide-bombers into Iraq. At the same time, it has become clear that Europe has itself begun to run out of patience both with Syria’s conduct in Lebanon and with its habit of speaking on behalf of the middle east or the supposed “Arab nation” as a whole.

An end to illusions

The hopes stirred by the arrival in power of the youthful, London-trained ophthalmologist Bashar al-Assad in 2000 were just as quickly extinguished when the “‘Damascus spring” was crushed. This brief flowering consisted of a number of seminars organised by intellectuals and politicians. During the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad, any reference to the domination of Syria by Alawi military officers was silenced (the Alawi constitute only 10% of the Syrian population and have none of the economic or educational qualifications required to exercise their hegemony over the country). The advent of Bashar made such talk both more widespread, and – because of his relative lack of authority compared to his father, and the more problematic international context – more ominous for the Ba’athist political elite.

In all likelihood the series of murders in Lebanon in 2005 – Rafiq Hariri, Samir Kassir, and now Gebran Tuebi, to name only the most prominent – will not solve any problem: on the contrary, it will create more. Damascus has lost the revenues that it used to receive from Lebanon and, more important, it has also lost the place where it used to defuse its own crises.

The “suicide” of its interior minister Ghazi Kanaan in October shows that Syria has been forced directly to confront its own problems. A steady stream of resolutions issued by the United Nations Security Council has put the country to the test. The country cannot for much longer live in an imperialist past with a repressive militaristic mentality, whose principal victims have always been the Lebanese and Syrian people themselves.

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