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New Air in Damascus-Beirut Relations

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ali Montazeri

After a lapse of 56 years since independence which put an end to French protectorate over the two countries, Syria and Lebanon decided on August 15 to establish diplomatic relations. The decision was made during a visit to Damascus by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. Earlier, the UN Security Council through Resolution 1680 (2006) and the US and France within political and international pressures had tried hard to persuade Syria to start formal diplomatic relations and allow the two countries open embassies in the two capitals.

Following an order issued by Syrian President Bashar Assad which will undoubtedly be remembered as a “historic day” in relations between Syria and Lebanon, the two sides signed an agreement to establish diplomatic relations and open their embassies in a near future.

Until now, a “Syria-Lebanon High Council” was responsible for organizing political, economic and military relations between the two countries and 120 agreements and contracts had been signed between the two sides under supervision of SLHC.

Relations between Syria and Lebanon have gone through many ups and downs over the past five decades. People to people relations due to family ties particularly in Lebanon’s northern and western borders with Syria as well as the special ideological outlook of the Syrian leadership within unity and integrity of the two countries, under the late Hafez Assad and the domestic support in Lebanon for this outlook, were among natural obstacles in the way of adopting an independent stance vis-à-vis Damascus-Beirut relations. From this perspective, a large number of the Lebanese and Syrian people believed that establishment of diplomatic ties would destroy all these natural `warp and woof’ between the two peoples and cause a practical historical separation in the informal relations between the two countries. This is a perspective rooted in the thought of “a single land” even within geographical boundaries of the two countries over the past few decades.

Syria, the only Arab country bordering Lebanon, dispatched its army to Lebanon in 1976 with the formal support of the Arab League in order to end the civil war in Lebanon and was engaged in a war that continued till 1990. During these years, Syria entered a full-fledged war with the Lebanese and Israelis and this made Damascus gain an indisputable power in Lebanon’s political scene from 1967 to 2005.   

In September 2004, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559 calling for withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon. The Syrian president started troop pullout from Lebanon in March 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. This is while some 76 resolutions have been issued by the UN Security Council about Lebanon most of which relate to Israel and the most important being Resolution 425 (1978) which calls for complete withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Lebanese occupied lands. Those in Lebanon who joined the anti-Syria camp after the 2005 events and formally allied with the US and France believe that Resolution 1559 is as important as Resolution 425. However, it is an open secret that if the Syrian army had not deployed in Lebanon in 1976, without doubt and with regard to all the political problems in Lebanon, the country’s geographical borders would have completely changed in favor of Israel now.

When Syria and Lebanon continued normal relations without presence of embassies, the SLHC was the sole body responsible for taking strategic decisions between the two countries. Although in the new agreement between Damascus and Beirut no mention is made of dissolution of SLHC but it is obvious that its tasks would be delegated to the two embassies. Therefore, most of the Lebanese expect the head office of SLHC in Abu Ramana district in Damascus to be turned into the Lebanese embassy in Syria.

Although SLHC has been in control of formal relations between Syria and Lebanon for the past 15 years, however, political and economic relations between the two countries originating from security-military developments in Lebanon were exposed to extensive changes the most important manifestation of which was the closure of Syria’s land borders with Lebanon. Amidst these events, Syria always held more effective power because Lebanon’s only international roadway passed through that country.

Opponents of Syria in Lebanon gathered under a coalition of Muslim, Christian and Druze organizations known as March 14 believe that their political pressures had forced Syria to retreat and then establish diplomatic ties with Lebanon. Nonetheless, the positions taken by Syria and the type of relations between Damascus and Beirut show that Bashar Assad’s decision to open an embassy in Beirut has been taken as an important step and with a deeper look into the political developments in the region and that this would not change Syria’s stance vis-à-vis the relations between Lebanon and Israel; Lebanon and the region; and Lebanon and Syria.

The March 14 faction claims to have forced Syria to change its political stances under conditions that a more powerful faction called “March 8” is operating in Lebanon with very powerful Syrian allies among them. In fact, this Syrian decision will block the way to international pressures and pave the way for a new chapter to open in relations with Lebanon. Even inside Lebanon, almost all the opponents of Syria have described the decision as a positive step. Yet, there is one important question here: Will the launch of diplomatic ties between Damascus and Beirut disturb the strategic balance in the region or Lebanon? Will this lead to changes in political-economic or security-military interactions between the two countries? Syria has been practically out of Lebanon since 2005 and has been watching the developments in the neighboring countries from afar. Has there been a change in Syria’s balance of power in Lebanon during these years and despite important events such as political assassinations or Israel’s 33-day war against the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon?

These events have taken place under conditions that the two countries have been completely different from political, economic and social points of view and in fact there has been no similarity between their administration styles. The social grounds too (in view of the tribal rule in Lebanon) are completely different in the two countries. But in spite of all these differences, Syria still maintains a presence in Lebanon as an important and decisive factor in the country’s internal events. All these “signs and separate lines” have been there in Damascus-Beirut relations over the past few decades but they have never managed to separate the “determining borders” between the two countries.

Likewise, the start of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon too would not bring about separation between the two countries in future but rather place the “old structure” in a more known new system. This could even further strengthen diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus. From now on one of the most important questions is from what Lebanese tribe would the new Lebanese ambassador to Damascus be picked up? Another less important question is perhaps what would be the location of the Syrian embassy in Beirut? The answers to these two questions could have separate political messages in diplomatic ties between Syria and Lebanon.

Source: http://www.tabnak.ir/

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