Syrian-Lebanese Relations

End of the Ice Age

Five years after the assassination of the Lebanese ex-prime minister al-Hariri, relations between Syria and Lebanon have improved: initial highly symbolic visits are taking place, and ambassadors have been exchanged. Birgit Kaspar has the details from Beirut

Memorial service for Rafik Hariri (photo: AP)
Memorial for "Mr. Lebanon": five years on from Rafik al-Hariri's murder, many Lebanese still have painful memories of the loss of their ex-prime minister

​​The huge car bomb that killed the Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafik al-Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005 was audible across the whole of Beirut. Windows shattered, black smoke rising into the blue February sky.

It was a day that changed Lebanon, but not in the way many thought. "Back then we thought it was the beginning of a new Lebanon, an end to political murders and so on," says Michael Young, the Lebanese author of a book on the post-Hariri era.

That was not the case, however. The series of attacks continued and Lebanon experienced an endurance test of domestic policy that was to last for years. Only now is stability beginning to return.

Consequences of the "Cedar Revolution"

Many Lebanese suspected the Syrian leadership of being behind Hariri’s murder. Damascus rejects these accusations. "Syrians out!" a popular protest movement demanded, later referred to as the "cedar revolution".

photo: AP
Sea of flags for Rafik al-Hariri: in memory of the murdered Sunni prime minister, thousands of Lebanese flooded into Beirut’s city centre on 15 February 2010

​​With strong Western support, Syria was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal in April 2005, following almost 30 years in Lebanon. The international community systematically isolated Syria, and under these circumstances the United Nations installed an investigation commission on the tribunal Hariri murder, which has now been transferred to a special tribunal based in Den Haag.

Five years on from the assassination, however, the Hariri tribunal has not yet named or arrested a single suspect; an indictment is not expected in the near future. Michael Young draws the conclusion that the special court does not have enough evidence against Syria.

"Not because I believe Damascus is innocent; on the contrary. But the investigations on the Syrian front have not been adequately run in some cases," Young criticises. He leaves it open as to whether out of incompetence or political motivation. Some Lebanese now fear the tribunal could gradually fall into oblivion.

The end of isolation

The fact is, the political climate in the region has changed. Politics played a role in the establishment of the Hariri tribunal from the outset, says Young: "We don’t have a critical mass on the international level for indicting Syria or any other suspect at the moment. I think for many states, the special tribunal is more a headache than anything else."

photo: dpa
New wind in the Syrian-Lebanese sails? Only recently, the new Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri paid a highly symbolic visit to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. The two states have also exchanged ambassadors

​​The USA and France have abandoned their isolation policy for Syria, having recognised that they cannot set much in motion in the region without Damascus’ cooperation. Following years of extreme tension, the Lebanese have also begun to normalise their relations to Syria.

Last year the two states exchanged ambassadors for the first time. And the new Lebanese prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri’s son Saad, recently paid a highly symbolic visit to the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Karim Makdisi, a political scientist at the American University in Beirut, considered this development inescapable since Syria and Saudi Arabia’s agreement on stabilising Lebanon.

"The Lebanese politicians will always have to dance to the Syrian-Saudi tune," says Makdisi, whether they like it or not. In addition, he adds, both sides profit from improved relations, provided the diplomatic rules are observed.

Damascus does not want to lose Lebanon and Hezbollah as its trump card in negotiations with Israel and the West. Beirut, in contrast, relies on the only open land border to Syria, still officially being in a state of war with Israel.

New power relations through compromise

For this reason, the MP Marwan Hamadeh, who survived an assassination attempt on his own life in 2004, is reluctant to speak of a return of the Syrians through the back door:

"The Syrians had never really disappeared from Lebanese politics. They withdrew their army bit they still had a permanent influence via their allies. Especially since the Hezbolla-led pro-Syrian minority has had a veto in the cabinet."

This has been the case since May 2008, after a brief military occupation of West Beirut by Hezbollah settled by the Doha Agreement.

This compromise re-ordered the power relations in the cedar state, forming the foundation for Hariri’s all-party government to this day. The young prime minister is now attempting to manoeuvre between the region’s fronts to create a minimum of stability. For this very reason, he has also accepted an official invitation to Tehran – although no date has been set as yet.

Birgit Kaspar

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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