Posted by Joshua on Monday, June 8th, 2009
Syrians Silent and Disappointed but Ready to Put Lebanon Behind Them
By Joshua Landis in Damascus, Monday 8 June 2009
The fairly resounding loss for Hizbullah and Aoun comes as a shock to many Syrians, who having been following the polls in Lebanon carefully. They are in the dumps. This morning I received my first calls from friends to tell me the “bad news.” I have spoken to many reporters since, including to the charming and resourceful Anita McNaught from al-Jazeera International, who has been covering Syria. They are having a hard time of it getting a Syrian story. Syrian officials are not going on air about the elections on the wise assumption that it is better to stay out of the mix. Syrian officials have been silent on Lebanon for weeks, unlike Americans – an irony that must really tick them off given how insistent American officials have been about the need for smooth elections untainted by foreign meddling.
There is considerable teeth gnashing and dratting going on. For the ordinary Syrian, the excitement is largely about the drama that is Lebanon. As one young man said to a friend yesterday. The Lebanese love drama too much. But of course, Syrians are captivated by it as well. The Lebanese are masters of the sound bite and political pose. Without much politics taking place in Syria, it is all too easy to get one’s political fix by watching the Lebanese parliament. As one Syria reporter confessed, “We all know the Lebanese politicians much better than our own.”
My mother-in-law is particularly down cast. She has always been a Nasrallah devotee. She called me in the States during the 2006 Israeli bombing of South Lebanon to tell me how she would go volunteer for Hizbullah if she weren’t so old and overweight! She is in the village with the rest of my Syrian family. The pro-Hizbullah sentiment in the coastal mountains is very strong indeed. In Damascus, sentiments vary. Many people here have Lebanese branches of the family so one must poke around delicately before drawing conclusions about their true sentiments. All the same, most Syrians are pro-Aoun-Hizbullah. The tension between Lebanon and Syria over the last 5 years has inflamed national sentiment and produced greater unity on Lebanon issues than used to be the case. Among the taxi-driver segment, there is less interest. At least three drivers have responded to my Lebanon questions in the last few days with emphatic denials that they care. “The Lebanese can do what they want and it makes not a fig of difference to Syria,” they will protest. “They can live their lives and we will live ours.” But later in the conversation they may start to praise the resistance or explain that Aoun was against Syria when Syria was occupying Lebanon but is now with us, claiming that as soon as Syria quit Lebanon, he recognized that Lebanon needs Syria and that they belong in the same ranks against Israel and America. Many Syrian Christians are gratified by Aoun’s turn toward Syria because it provides them with a strong political figure who is not a Geagea or Jemayyal. It shows that even Lebanese Christians stand with Syria. They are not alone.
The newspaper, al-Watan, runs a large headline reading: “Political Money Wins in Lebanon.”
So what does this mean for policy? Much depends on whether March 14 tries to rewrite Doha and get rid of the blocking third in Lebanon’s cabinet, as Hariri said he would do. He may feel obliged to carry through with this, or at the very least, raise it as his initial battle cry, because his win was more substantial than expected. My hunch is that any attempt to undo Doha will threaten to take Lebanon back to the paralysis and dark days of the pre-Doha era and will thus be abandoned. There is no stomach for such extremism today — not in Washington, Riyadh, or in Damascus or Tehran. The Obama era has changed things and Syria is waiting to move ahead with the US.
In many respects, Syria-US relations have been on hold, awaiting the outcome of the June 7 elections. Now that elections are over business can resume. The US, gratified at their results, can send Mitchell to Damascus as a sign of magnanimity in victory. Washington will be in a stronger position, but ironically, Damascus too may feel a certain relief in the very highest halls of the foreign ministry. It has avoided the complications of an Hizbullah win, which could have strained already bad relations with the US even further. The Lebanon situation will take some of the oomph out of Syrian hardliners, who may believe that Syria is winning the long term struggle for Arab public opinion and can afford to play hardball with Washington.
A dovish lobby is also taking root in Damascus. As more and more Syrians begin to make money due to of the liberalization process, they develop a keener taste for the joys and promise of wealth. Equally, they gain a keener awareness of the price tag that comes attached to “resistance.” In this they are not unlike the Lebanese. A significant internal lobby for getting rid of the sanctions is building in Syria. All the same, Syria is a long way from accepting to abandon the Golan to Israel. Even those who feel the real urgency to move ahead economically are not prepared to concede the Golan. It is a bind that we all keep returning to.
The elections should raise the probability that Mitchell comes to Damascus this coming week. They will also raise the probability of the US returning an Ambassador to Damascus in the near future. The Lebanon hurtle has been crossed to Washington’s satisfaction. If a coalition government can be formed in Lebanon without too much grandstanding and escalation of threats, Lebanon should no longer be an impediment to improving US-Syrian relations.
Here is what Qifa Nabki writes about the likely political outcome in Lebanon:
Most commonly encountered scenario is that M14 will offer the following deal:
In a 30 member cabinet, they will give March 8 ten seats, and two or three seats to the President, reserving the remaining 17-18 for themselves.
This means that the opposition would not have a veto, but that the president could step in to put the brakes on, should things get out of control. Syria might be okay with that scenario, provided their links to Suleiman are still solid.