Lebanon Progressing with Hariri

28 12 2009

by Patrick Vibert

Saad Hariri

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Lebanon has undergone some significant changes in the past six months. The pro-Western March 14 coalition narrowly triumphed in the surprisingly peaceful June parliamentary elections; after some  intense political wrangling, a cabinet was formed that was acceptable to most; and recently Lebanon’s Prime Minister has been on the move garnering support for his country and government.

The situation  in Lebanon is quite a bit different from a year ago, when the country had no functional government and was still trying to reeling from the May 2008 violence, when Hizballah briefly took over West Beirut after the government tried to dismantle  its telecommunications  system. The country was at another crossroads then, where one path meant progress towards the future as a regional leader, and the other path meant regressing back into violent sectarianism. Thankfully, Lebanon stepped back from the brink and timidly began to move towards the former.

Flash forward to last week, with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri receiving the royal treatment from Syrian President Bashar Assad on his trip to Damascus. The visit, Hariri’s first since becoming Prime Minister, represents a formal reconciliation between  Hariri and Assad, Lebanon and Syria.

It is widely believed that Syria was behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former PM of Lebanon and Saad’s father. His murder in 2005 eventually led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after 30 years of occupation. Up until that point, Syria had been the most influential player in Lebanon, with Lebanese political leaders having to consult Syrian representatives on almost every major issue. (Until the French and English divided up the Middle East after WWI, Lebanon was a part of Syria, and during the occupation, Lebanon was treated as such.)

But the Syrians (if they were actually behind the Hariri hit) had misread the Lebanese reaction. Instead of the event being interpreted as a warning not to cross Syria, it turned into a rallying cry of all of those who have been so frustrated over the years with the occupation and, guilty or not, they were forced out. With Lebanon being so strategically important, it no doubt hurt Syria a great deal to be forced out.  For Syria, it was almost as bad as losing actual territory.

(Syria was also believed to be behind the killing of Kamal Jumblatt, father of current Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. When Walid Jumblatt took power after his father’s death, he knew that he had to go to Damascus to make peace with then-Syrian President Hafez Assad. It is said that when the two men finally met, President Assad, in a not-too-subtle hint that he’d better fall in line, innocently told him that he looked just like his father. It’s interesting to consider whether Saad Hairir received the same biting remark from Bashar Assad on his recent visit, and it’s not hard to imagine that it was at least going through his mind.)

When Rafik Hariri used to travel to Damascus, he would routinely return stunned and demoralized on the way that the Assad regime viewed him and his country, like mere pawns. Now, nearly five years after his death, his son is getting treatment from Assad that is usually reserved for visiting heads of state. Hariri’s reception in Damascus represents a leader and a country acheiving a more equal footing with its neighbor, at least publicly.

Another important step in Lebanon’s progress is the reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Both nations are highly influential in Lebanon, and their cooperation is critical if there is to be any hope of an effective government. Because, if their supporters are making trouble for each other in Lebanon, nothing will ever get done. Their burying of the hatchet is key for Hariri as it paved the way for his own reconciliation with Damascus. As Saad Hariri, like his father before him, is very close to the regime in Riyadh.

Rafik Hariri was the Saudi’s man in Beirut; he represented billions of dollars in Saudi investments there. When he was assassinated it was a huge blow to  Riyadh, and resulted in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Syria being badly tarnished. The two countries putting their past behind them made it possible for Saad Hariri to do the same.

Another important step for Lebanon has been the government’s choice work with Hizballah and not against it. The decision to publicly endorse the resistance and their arms greatly irked some in the West, especially the United States, but the fact is that the Lebanese government had little choice. With no hope of disarming the group, and even less hope of the group disarming on its own, Beirut came to the decision that it was better to work with them than against them. A Lebanese government with Hizballah as an adversary is not likely to be effective, especially with Shiites making up the largest religious sect in the country.

This decision may have upset some hard-line Christians, the United States, and Israel, but  the government can get along  without those Christians’ support, the United States will get over it, and Israel already played its hand on the issue when it stated that it would hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah back in November. So the danger from Israel is no greater than it was before, as everything still hinges on Hizballah’s level of restraint in South Lebanon. And in return for this, the Lebanese government gets one of the nation’s most powerful factions on board, it further enhances its relationship with Syria, and now has the full support of Iran, arguably the region’s current most powerful player.

Slowly and methodically Prime Minister Hariri has been making the rounds to garner support for his small country. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Hizballah, Iran…the support of which Lebanon needs to progress as a nation. Add to that the support of Europe and the United States (while they are not thrilled with Hizballah’s growing participation in the government of Lebanon, the US supports Hariri’s Lebanon overall and is slowly being forced to recognize the political reality there), and Saad Hariri is really starting to demonstrate his capability as a leader and his ability to build consensus for the good of Lebanon.

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