Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, August 26th, 2008
The tangled relations between Lebanon and Syria prompted a debate in the comment section over sovereignty that may interest some readers.
Qifa Nabki – A Lebanese contributor – took issue with my optimistic view of Syria's recognition of Lebanese sovereignty
Good post, especially the anecdote about Ambassador Moustapha and your subsequent analysis.
I agree that the latest signs are encouraging, but would still point out the obvious, namely that there are two ways to read them. The skeptical view regards the Syrian-Lebanese relationship as essentially unchanged, and the establishment of diplomatic ties and demarcation of borders as mere window dressing. The view that you express presents the relationship as changing in substantive ways. How does one determine which view is correct? At the end of the day, the proof of Syrian intentions vis-a-vis Lebanon will be in the muhallabieh.
Even if one chooses to be optimistic (as I do), there is still the problematic caveat which reserves for Damascus its security interests and sphere of influence in Lebanon. If Syria’s ruling regime is the sole arbitrator of what these interests and influence encompass, then the relationship between the two countries will be placed on a slippery slope once again.
In my opinion, the best way to improve the relationship is by directly addressing some of the principal sources of resentment, like the Lebanese prisoners in Syria, and the demarcation of all borders. These issues, however, are small potatoes compared to the damage that the relationship will sustain if Syria uses Hizbullah to turn up the heat on Israel again, with all of Lebanon paying the price.
In 2009, Lebanon will hold what may be the first relatively free and fair elections in its history. If all goes well, the Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon should be treated as a guest of honor by the new Lebanese PM, if only for having purposely and faithfully relinquished his historical ‘right’ to know the man’s identity in advance.
I don’t think Geagea and company are trying to “thwart” Syria’s cause of getting back the Golan. Nobody in Lebanon sits at home dreaming up ways to make sure that Syria never sees its Golan again. The people you’re talking about are motivated, as you say, by fears of Syria’s designs on Lebanon, but this does not mean that they have “side[d] with Israel to defeat Syria.”
In my opinion, the problem with your formulation of the relationship is that something that represents a threat to Syrian interests is characterized as “thwarting” the Syrian cause, while something that threatens Lebanese interests is acceptable because Syria’s interests have to come first.
I’m happy to accept the rules of the game if we are engaging in a cold, calculating realpolitik, but then why all the moral indignation when Lebanon’s politicians strike back to protect their own country?
I’d venture to say that for most Lebanese, the Golan is not a cause they they feel strongly enough about to actively support or actively thwart. They, like Syrians, have their own interests in mind, not those of their neighbor. This being the case, I think that we should not paint one side out to be spoilers and collaborators, just because some of their members don’t see eye to eye with the other side’s project.
In any case, I am in agreement with you that everybody will be far better off if Syria and Lebanon’s leadership are on the same page, vis-a-vis Israel. That’s why I’ve argued time and again that Lebanon should be included in the current negotiations.
Akbar Palace (An American Jew)
How about improving the lives of Syrians? … Your post and comments are Proof Positive of how the Arab-Israeli conflict has been hijacked by Arab despots to keep Arab societies backward, seething, destitute and broken.
Do you think this blog is your small contribution to getting the Golan back? Is getting back the Golan the only issue Syrians are concerned with, or is this the only issue Syrian LEADERS are concerned with?;)
I understand Lebanese outrage at Syria. I think I know why Geagea and Junbalat do what they do. Geagea and the Gemayyels, etc. did side with Israel against Syria when Israel was a real player in Lebanon during the 1980s. I understood that as well. If they could convince the majority of Lebanese to join them in siding with Israel, it would make great sense. Israel is much richer than Syria, has good relations with the West, and could get Lebanon all kinds of special trade agreements, tariff breaks, capital inflows, etc. The only problem was that they failed to get Lebanese to go along with them because of the Arabism issue.
I think you will have a hard time finding me outraged at their treason, largely because I do not think their opinions or behavior are treason anymore than I think Hizbullah’s behavior and alliance with Syria constitute treason. There may be people writing on this blog who believe that, but I do not.
My argument is that they will lose and bring further trouble on Lebanon’s head. The best way for Lebanese to attenuate Syria's policies of interference in Lebanon is for Lebanese to support Syria in its efforts to have the Golan returned. The sooner border disputes between Israel and its neighbors can be settled, the sooner Lebanon's border and sovereignty disputes are likely to be settled. Both Syrians and Palestinians use their on going struggle to liberate their lands from Israeli control as an excuse to violate Lebanese sovereignty. This may be morally wrong in the world of international law, but in the darker world on national interest, Syria and the Palestinians see it as their only option.
I agree with you that Syria should include a Lebanese representative at the table with it during talks with Israel. I also know Syria well enough to know that if that representative argues against linking Lebanon to Syria’s foreign policy agenda, Syria will exclude them. Many Lebanese do not believe it is in their country’s interest to be in Syria’s sphere on influence.
QN: "Dear Joshua, You are the oracle of realism."
Idaf (An Aleppine working in the Gulf)
I enjoyed your realistic analysis of the Syrian views on Lebanese sovereignty. I also enjoyed your exchange with QN. From my interactions with Syrians from all backgrounds during the past couple of years, I will make the following generalizations on how Syrians today view Lebanese sovereignty:
The majority of Syrians today have bitter taste when you mention the word "Lebanon" (similar to what the majority of "Lebanese" had (still has?) for years when the word "Syria" was mentioned). This is due to the anti-Syrian demagogic media campaign that lasted for around three years by the Lebanese and Saudi media. With the exception of the racist campaign during the 90s in Kuwaiti media against Iraqis (which was limited only to Kuwait), that hysteric anti-Syria campaign was unprecedented in the Arab media history in terms of magnitude and kind. It had an overarching supremacist tendency with a derogatory flavor towards every thing Syrian. Ordinary Syrians were bitterly insulted and this is taking its time to heal (one should note that Hassan Nasrallah singlehandedly healed most of this already with his continuous gestures to Syrians since the "thank you Syria" speech on March 8 2005 till today). For the overwhelming majority of Syrians, this offensive campaign was uncalled for. The ordinary Syrians had nothing to do with anything that took place in Lebanon. Moreover, they didn’t even know what the security apparatus did there (many might’ve had an idea but were in denial). All they knew for certain was that close to 15,000 of their sons sacrificed their lives to stop the bloodshed in that "sisterly" country. However, things are interestingly on the contrary with regards to how Syrians view the Lebanese people. Even the most vocal and pride-injured Syrian will deal with any Lebanese person (regardless of the background) as "just another Syrian". This was clear in the way those same Syrians reacted to the Lebanese people during the 2006 war on Lebanon.
Because of the bitter feelings I described above, most ordinary Syrians I met during the past couple of years wanted nothing to do with Lebanon anymore (even many of those who used to believe that Lebanon is a stolen part of Syria). The adage you keep hearing from those Syrians when the subject of Lebanon’s problems came up was "فخار يكسر بعضه" (a saying that indicate a mix of indifference and glee) or the lighter one you hear from the older women "الله يسعدن ويبعدن" ("god bless them and keep them away from us"). These sentiments indicate a shift in view of Lebanon as a country among ordinary Syrians. It is now viewed as a troubled area that is better kept away from Syria. Partly because of the political headaches it brings, but also in part because of the genuine fear that Syrians have of the infectious nature of the sectarianism in Lebanon.
I agree with Joshua that the exception for the above description is the older generation of Syrians who still remember going to the sea-side "Syrian cities" Beirut and Tripoli to visit their relatives. It is virtually impossible to persuade that generation that this is no more a Syrian land carved out by the imperialist French to separate their families and lands. One should note that this was the majority view of the people in the region since early 21th century according to the first ever poll in modern Arab history.
Finally, in both countries, you still have groups of people that ideologically believe that Syria and Lebanon are one. You have the Islamists with their Khilafa and Bilad el-Sham view of the region. You also have the secular SSNP members who still believe and work towards a unified country that includes Syria and Lebanon (among others). They are probably the only secular group in the two countries that is vocal and ideologically driven towards this goal as its followers belong to every single sect in the two countries. The Arab nationalists (including the Baathis) are becoming less ideological in their views of the two countries.
I would add the following to the "sphere of influence" comment by Joshua: Regardless of the shape or form of the regime in Damascus, Syria will ALWAYS strive to have a level of influence in Lebanon equal to or greater than the political influence of any other regional or external country. In other words, Syria’s influence in Lebanon will match or exceed the influence exercised either by Israel, Saudi, US, France, Iran, etc. For Syria, regardless of who is in control in Damascus, it is not about Lebanon, it’s a matter of Syrian national security. The external powers will always strive to increase their influence in Lebanon not just for gaining control of this country, but geopolitically, it has been always a matter of exploiting Lebanon to undermine Syria as well.
For Lebanon to reduce Syria’s influence, it has to try to minimize all others. With the current political structure in Lebanon that invites external influence by design from multiple players, this is a very tough objective to achieve. Lebanon’s best bet to reduce Syria’s influence is to establish a strong secular state that is perceived as representative by the overwhelming majority of Lebanese AND one that is perceived by Syria as a friendly one. This could reduce the influence of all external powers in Lebanon, including the Syrian one. As long as the rulers of Damascus see the influence of another county grow in Lebanon they will be forced to increase their own. It is both a matter of regime survival for non-democratic regimes in Syria as well as a Syrian national security imperative for any democratic or non-democratic Syrian governments alike.
Why Discuss: (A Canadian Lebanese, brought up in Egypt, who lived many of his working years in the Gulf)
Whether they want it or not, all lebanese will have to hang on to Syria if they want to solve the overlooked and sensitive issue of the 500,000 palestinians refugees in Lebanon. Without Syria and Hezbollah, there will be no way Lebanon can have a solution for the refugees. When the syria-israeli talks will become serious, Lebanese anti-syrian leaders will have to swallow their pride and ask Syria to include the Lebanese issues in the negotations, or maybe they would still dream that the international community will negotiate for them?. The question will be : What price Syria will ask for that?
Another Israeli Guy:
Addendum: by Love you Alex
Idaf, Why-Ask, and Professor Landis are all spot on in their analysis:
- No one in Syria even the ideologues want to occupy and remove Lebanon from the map.
- Syria has strategic interest in Lebanon and Lebanon has Syria as a strategic depth and land passage to the lucrative markets of Iraq and the gulf.
- Syria and Lebanon need each other and have mutual benefits in a unified front in their negotiation with Israel. Syria wants the Golan (its land stolen by Israel) back, and Lebanon needs to guarantee that the Palestinian do not get Lebanese nationality and are able to go back to northern Galilee.
- No matter who is in government, Syria needs to insure that pro-Syrian elements no matter where they come from have the upper hand in Lebanon, so Lebanon does not become an easy passage to Israeli tanks to encircle Damascus and a base of operation for fundamentalist elements to destabilize Syria.Finally:Syria deserves credit for saving Lebanon, After Lebanon slipped into a civil war, Syria, under the auspices of the Arab League and the consent of the United States, entered Lebanon, ended the civil war and reunited the country by enforcing the Taef agreement, Syria also supported the Lebanese resistance in their successful bid to liberate the south from Israeli occupation. All while hosting tens of thousand of Lebanese of all denominations as refugees.
Those supporters of Israel (AIG) have to get off their high horse when it comes to morality. They should pay attention to Israel racist project, exporting Arabs and importing Jews to create a for Jews only democracy. Israel has cleansed 480 Christian and Muslim Arab Villages and continues today chasing them into their refugee camps.