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Opinion: Historic moments for Syria and Lebanon - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Over the past few days, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri were very much in the news.

On Syria, Ban made a painful diplomatic blunder by sending Iran an invitation to attend the Geneva II conference only to be compelled within one day to withdraw it. Ban seems to have believed, naïvely, that Iran—a country that is actually fighting a war to defend Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad through the Shi’ite militias it commands around the world—had agreed to abandon the Syrian regime.

In the meantime, in Lebanon, after more than nine months of fierce debate stemming from the climate of distrust and stubbornness marring the Lebanese political arena, Hariri sprung a surprise by agreeing to participate in a new government even if it included Hezbollah members. This was to many a shocking development given mutual distrust between the March 14 and the March 8 alliances, and increased tension between the Sunni and Shi’ite communities, exacerbated by the Syrian crisis and its bloody consequences for Lebanon.

As for Ban’s blunder, many argue that something must have led him to invite Iran, as it is irrational for the world’s top diplomat to be that naïve.

To begin with, the timing of the invitation was suspicious. It came after the Syrian opposition reluctantly decided to attend the talks. In fact, without US Secretary of State John Kerry’s two reassuring statements to the opposition, the Syrian National Coalition would not have agreed to come to the negotiating table at Geneva II. First, Kerry emphasized that Geneva II was based on the Geneva I communiqué, which provided for the establishment of a transitional executive body with full powers. In his second statement, Kerry emphasized his rejection of Assad’s claim to be fighting terrorists as a ploy to “deceive” the international community, and accused Assad of “facilitating the extremists’ influx” into Syria. The latter set of remarks by Kerry carried an implicit response to Russia, which fully supports Assad and which seems to be trying hard to cause the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition. Indeed, Kerry’s surprisingly stern comments did the job, and the majority of the Coalition’s members eventually voted in favor of attending the conference.

On the other hand, after seven years in office, the UN chief should have been familiar with Iran’s negotiation tactics, where they say one thing and do the opposite. Ban believed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s pledges and promises when they spoke together, forgetting that neither Zarif nor President Hassan Rouhani can take the final decision on major issues in Iran. It did not occur to him that fateful decisions of this caliber are always the prerogative of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei. When he sent the invitation to Iran, Ban believed he “could play a constructive role” in the conference, overlooking that fact that Assad remaining in power is of strategic interest to Tehran. After all, as previously mentioned, Iran has mobilized tens of thousands of loyal Shi’ite fighters to Syria in a bid to defend Assad’s rule.

Ban was aware that issuing the invitation reflected an implicit consent by the superpowers. While such consent may have existed, he did not predict the outcry it would cause from several parties, not least of which was the Syrian opposition itself. Furthermore, he did not imagine how tough and stubborn Tehran’s position, as expressed by the Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman, would be.

The Syrian opposition’s reaction to the invitation was quite logical, because it saw the whole issue as a ploy. Later, as Iran’s tough position left no room for flexibility, Washington, Paris and London were compelled to intervene and demand that Ban’s invitation should stipulate Iran’s public and official commitment to the Geneva I communiqué. Thus, when such a commitment was not made, Ban had no choice but to withdraw the invitation—but only after he inflicted irreparable damage to his reputation and credibility.

In Lebanon, a country whose path has been closely intertwined with the Syrian crisis, a change of attitude on the part of Hariri may have facilitated the mission of his ally, prime minister-designate Tammam Salam, in forming the new government by abandoning his longstanding rejection of the idea of participating with Hezbollah in one government as long as the Shi’ite militia continued to fight in Syria. He first affirmed his new position from The Hague, where the Special Tribunal for Lebanon began its sessions last week. Later, Hariri stressed this position during a long interview, saying that “national interests come before personal interests.”

After nine months of polarization in the country, as well as the explosions and assassinations that accompanied it, which most recently targeted his political advisor, Dr Mohammad Shatah, Hariri’s remarks were no less than a political earthquake. This radical change of attitude also raised many questions about the future of the March 14 Alliance between Hariri’s Future Movement, its largest Muslim bloc, and the alliance’s most powerful Christian ally, the Lebanese Forces Party, which still rejects any coalition government with Hezbollah.

How and why did things develop in such a manner? Has Hariri received any international encouragement? The answer is likely “yes,” given the enthusiasm recently expressed by media outlets affiliated with the Future Movement about alleged Hezbollah “concessions” on formation of the new government.

In any case, the justifications Hariri has offered make sense, even if they seem unconvincing to those who have taken seriously the bellicose tone the Future Movement’s MPs have used over the past nine months. As for Hezbollah, it is now coming to terms with the reality that it may not be possible to continue to live with the delusion that it could strike its opponents with impunity. Moreover, all of the justifications Hezbollah used to defend its involvement in the Syrian war are no longer valid, particularly its claim that it was fighting a pre-emptive war to avert the risk of “takfirists” entering Lebanon. “Takfirists” have clearly entered Lebanon—unless Hezbollah doubts that the explosions that hit the Dahieh district, its Shi’ite stronghold, were the work of “takfirists.”

Hezbollah’s realizing the futility of continuing to “escape forward” would be an encouraging development that would deserve to be welcomed by its past enemies. However, any attempt to establish a détente should be based on positive and firm foundations. A priority must be that Hezbollah avoids the kind of maneuvers it made when it claimed to respect the Doha Agreement.

There will not be a chance for consensus if Hezbollah does not have the sincere intention of engaging positively in the presidential elections. Moreover, there is no point in holding fast to the “resistance” slogan when in reality it only means “hegemony.”

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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