Welcome back Syria

23 09 2010

By Patrick Vibert

Editors note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Last week, Prime Minister Hariri publicly dismissed his case against Syria in the assassination of his father. His opinion on the matter carries no formal weight, but for the people of Lebanon, Mr. Hariri’s actions are indeed significant.  It was his father that was killed and if he can look past the issue in order to ensure Lebanese stability, then perhaps the public can as well.

On February 14, 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed, along with 22 other, by a massive car bomb that detonated as his motorcade drove along the Beirut seaside. Syria took the blame from an enraged Lebanese public that had grown weary of the occupation of their country by their brutish and unsophisticated neighbors to the north and east. They wanted the Syrians out.

Normally, such discontent would not have register very high on Damascus’ radar, but in this case timing  was everything.  Back then, the United States was angry with Syria for not controlling its border with Iraq at a time when the US military was seeing heavy casualties. To punish Syria, Washington put its full weight behind the pro-Western leaders of Lebanon. This, combined with broad popular support in Lebanon to end the occupation, spelled then end of  Syria’s dominance over Lebanon. At least for a while.

Following Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the son publicly blamed Damascus for the loss of his father and eventually rode the tide of discontent to the same office he had occupied. After being selected by parliament to be the next Prime Minister of Lebanon, the young Saad Hariri, considered a relative political novice at the time, waded into the complicated world of Lebanese politics. His primary task was to form a cabinet to govern the country, and it was likely here where it became clear that he could not remain hostile to Damascus forever.

This was 2009, and over the course of four years much had changed in the world. The situation in Iraq had stabilized, Iran was the new big threat to the West, and there was a new President in Washington. The tone coming from America towards Syria was one of reconciliation.  The Obama administration wanted to bring Syria in from the cold and out of its troubling alliance with Iran and Hizballah. In these conditions, the coyote was let back into the henhouse.

The true turning of the tide came when Syrian President  Bashar Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia in the fall of ‘09 to bury the hatchet with the Saudi King. King Abdullah was a close personal friend of Hariri Sr.’s, and like the son, he took his death hard and blamed Damascus for it. But time had past and things had changed. The Saudis were worried about the rising power of Iran as well, and it would be useful to get closer to Syria, a fellow Arab and Sunni Muslim state.

Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and was informed that he could not afford an acrimonious relationship with the Damascus. Historically, geographically, and politically, it just was not feasible. Syria has dominated Lebanon for centuries. On the map, tiny Lebanon is basically surrounded by Syria. The two states had had their tiff, but now it was time to get on with life.

The writing on the wall became more vivid when Hariri Jr. himself traveled to Damascus to formally reconcile. This must have been a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s not clear whether he truly believes that some other actor could  have been behind the hit on his father. But with each passing strip to kiss Assad’s ring (three so far), it became more obvious that the relationship between Syria and Lebanon was returning to the status quo.

There is still the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that was set up by the United Nations to look into Hariri’s murder, which has yet to issue any indictments, but it’s crystal clear to all observers of the Middle East: the boys are back in town.

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