Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Syria’s Opaque Maneuvers | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The Lebanese have become thick-skinned and we hope that we can say the same of French President Nicholas Sarkozy. His pledge to visit Damascus this coming 8 September leaves approximately two months to test Syria’s intentions with regards to establishing diplomatic relations with Lebanon.

Hopefully, his schedule will include passing by the ‘Lebanese embassy’ in Damascus to see the Lebanese flag waving above it or that the Lebanese ambassador would be invited along with the other ambassadors to the official dinner held by Syrian President Bashar al Assad to host his French guest.

In a French-Syrian communiqué, France applauded the Syrian President’s promise to open a Lebanese embassy in Damascus, while the Lebanese, headed by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, commended the action as though it was pledged for the first time – although everyone knows that Syria will later tell Sarkozy that the matter depends on Lebanon.

In his first press conference with the Lebanese president in Paris, al Assad said, “If Lebanon wants diplomatic relations with Syria then so be it.” And because Syria has become accustomed to turning straight lines in to twisted ones and transforming promises into preconditions, the Syrian president promised his French counterpart to “have a serious discussion with the Lebanese” over establishing full diplomatic relations and Syrian-Lebanese embassy exchange. The Syrians said they would discuss the fate of the Syrian-Lebanese Supreme Council first, through a brotherhood treaty, cooperation, coordination and frankness “before opening discussions about embassies. This means that if Lebanon wanted to open an embassy in Damascus, it would be in accordance with Syrian conditions.

It is common knowledge that most of the Lebanese are unsatisfied with this treaty and with the Supreme Council’s terms. Moreover, they consider it to be ineffectual, according to international law since it was signed between the occupied state and its occupier.

Therefore, all al Assad gave Sarkozy was a conditional pledge to open the embassy. As for the more important subject, drawing the borders between Syria and Lebanon, which relates to the Shebaa farms and arms smuggling and the fact that Syria continues to occupy 450 square kilometers along the Lebanese borders – that was not brought up with the French.

Syria’s refusal to open an embassy in Lebanon and its reluctance to establish diplomatic relations is considered by many of the Lebanese people as an insistence on Syria’s part to maintain a firm grip on Lebanon, and on its defense and foreign policies in particular, and even more so its economy.

During the meetings in Paris, there were a lot of matters that provoked the Lebanese people – at a time when Syria has “attained a national unity government”. It was inappropriate for the Syrian president to receive the Lebanese president and former Lebanese MP Michel Samaha in his suite and it did not serve Samaha’s ‘nationalism’ that it was his PR company that organized al Assad’s trip. This does not justify his presence at the reception, unless the intention was to deliver a message to the Lebanese.

After that meeting both presidents met with the press and al Assad was asked whether the Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora would accompany President Suleiman to Damascus. At this point Suleiman answered, “the invitation is extended to the president of the republic.”

The reason behind his hasty response was not clear, particularly when the question was posed to the Syrian president who had stated the previous day, “Syria’s doors are open but some among the Lebanese people believe them to be closed.”

However, the most interesting aspect relating to Lebanese affairs was the Syrian president’s behavior during the press conference in which French President Sarkozy, Qatar Prince Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Lebanese President Suleiman were in attendance. It was as though Al Assad was speaking as both president of Lebanon and Syria as he issued statements about the election of a president in Lebanon, the formation of a government and his expectations that the ministry will issue a statement urging for national dialogue. Meanwhile, the Lebanese president’s reaction was a beaming face.

Another striking thing was Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh’s bow when shaking hands with the Syrian president; it took him a few moments to get himself back into form!

The Syrian president’s visit to Paris was not divorced from marketing Syria’s position internally, such as when he left the hall during Israeli Prime minister Ehud Olmert’s speech at the Mediterranean Union summit. It is certain that his leaving the hall was agreed upon in advance by the concerned parties (Paris and Tel Aviv), particularly since the Syrian delegation was extremely meticulous in preparing for the protocol ceremonies to the extent that it was agreed that al Assad and Olmert would enter the hall from separate doors so that they would not cross paths, and yet when they did, al Assad covered his face with his hands!

During al Assad and Suleiman’s visit to Paris, information was leaked about the arrival of Iranian fighters to join Hezbollah in southern Lebanon following reliable information confirming the positioning of Hezbollah elements on Mount Sannine. In an official document, the Lebanese Army’s Intelligence Directorate confirmed that Lebanese youth were physically assaulted by armed Hezbollah elements who detained and interrogated them last June 22 in Sannine.

This took place at a time when the state was preoccupied with the preparations for receiving five Lebanese captives and the bodies of approximately 200 Palestinians. Palestinian organizations have objected to the deal between Hezbollah and Israel because every Palestinian whether alive or martyred would want to be buried on Palestinian territory not in the refugee camps.

Hezbollah divorced the bodies of all Palestinian fervor after burying them in coffins and wrapping them in the party’s flag. In preparation for the ceremonies and what followed, Lebanon has become more like an organization than a state whereby every corner of the state followed Hezbollah’s demands to arrive at the airport to receive Samir Kuntar and his associates, while the party’s Secretary-General [Hassan Nasrallah] behaves as though he were the ‘older brother’ who does not make public appearances. Besides, what would the Alawite state do when the Shebaa farms are liberated?

Perhaps Hezbollah knows that its arms bargaining chip is being discussed at the Syrian–Israeli negotiation table and it might even feel reassured if Syria does not regain all of the Golan Heights because then it would not sacrifice the party’s weaponry. However, Hezbollah also knows that a Syrian security official in Istanbul has recently provided American security officials with information about the party’s activities and its military capabilities. He also gave them information about Al-Qaeda and the Mehdi army because Washington has made it clear to Damascus that before it ‘sponsors’ the Israeli-Syrian peace process it wants to see serious security cooperation.

A friend told me that, “The Syrian regime is a security contractor in the region. If any of the states cause it any disturbance they are met with ruin in return and if it wants to reach an agreement with a given state; it grants it security.” It appears as though he wants to prove that Lebanon’s security is in his hands. News agencies reported that ‘Fatah al-Intifada’ evacuated its military base in Rashaya last July 8, and the Lebanese army deployed there while the fighters of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the general command left their positions in Qusaya, which overlooks the army barracks and also in Riyaq, Ablah and Naema.

Hezbollah’s advent to Mount Sannine is not to prepare itself for military confrontation with the Israeli army; the doors are closed shut for the party at a time when Syria and Israel are attempting to conclude a peace agreement. Hezbollah operatives have conducted a series of meetings with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the headquarters of the Iranian embassy in Beirut to discuss the steps that should be taken, especially since its influence is waning despite senior Hezbollah official Nabil al Qauq stating that the party has become more powerful politically and militarily following the release of its captives.

Although the party’s media propaganda machine is a force to be reckoned with; the Syrian cunning is stronger. Hezbollah will continue to be a bargaining chip in the hands of Syria notwithstanding all the rockets that it has – so will it launch them on Syria? Lebanon will continue to be a bargaining chip at the Syrian-Israeli negotiations table.

The decisive factor that looms near is the upcoming ministerial statement [urging for national dialogue] unless something were to obstruct its issuance. This means that negotiations between Israel and Syria will follow the Syrian desire to reinstate its influence in Lebanon. Exchange of diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria may also be connected with these negotiations.

As such, Sarkozy may save himself the embarrassment of going to Syria since the spotlight will be upon the Syrian-Israeli process.