BEIRUT (AFP) – Five years after the slaying of Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri, the ensuing “Cedar Revolution” that triggered the pullout of Syrian troops has lost steam and the harsh rhetoric against Damascus has been toned down.
“The March 14 alliance is today a watered-down version of what it was five years ago,” Paul Salem, who heads the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Centre, told AFP.
“The alliance has not changed its aims, and it still has the support of a large number of Lebanese, but it is unable to implement those aims,” he added.
Hariri’s death in a massive car bomb led to the pullout of Syrian troops from the tiny Mediterranean country after a 29-year presence and saw the rise of a Western- and Saudi-backed alliance that became known as March 14, recalling the day of huge anti-Syrian protests dubbed the “Cedar Revolution”.
But as the country prepares to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hariri’s death on Sunday, analysts say the event will hold a different meaning from previous years given the region’s ever-shifting politics.
They point to the recent visit to Damascus by Hariri’s son and political heir Saad, who was appointed premier following last year’s general election and who had previously accused Syria of being behind his father’s assassination.
Damascus has also broken out of its international isolation enjoying warmer ties with Washington and with Riyadh, Hariri’s main backer.
“March 14, 2005 spontaneously drew everyone together, drawing on their common anger against Syria,” political analyst and columnist Nicolas Nassif told AFP.
“The only goal of the protests to commemorate the Hariri assassination this coming Sunday is to prove that the alliance still represents the majority of the Lebanese, despite its losses,” he said.
Salem noted that the political changes taking place in the region and beyond had contributed to the weakening of Hariri’s majority alliance.
“There have been a number of shifts in international and regional politics over the past two years — Syria has begun to move out of isolation, opening channels of communication (with France, Turkey and the United States), and it has moved from rivalry to reconciliation with Saudi Arabia,” Salem said.
The US administration this month also picked its first ambassador to Syria in five years amid a drive to engage a former foe in efforts to promote Arab-Israeli peace.
In Lebanon, the ruling alliance has had to soften its hardline stance against Syria as attested by Hariri’s visit to Damascus in December.
But the real tipping point came in May 2008, when deadly sectarian clashes sparked by a government crackdown on Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, brought Lebanon close to all-out civil war.
The violence left more than 100 people dead and ended after a Qatari-brokered deal led to the election of a new president and national unity government in which Hezbollah and its allies had veto power over key decisions.
More recently, the March 14 alliance was dealt a major blow when Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, once the most vociferous critic of Syria, defected to move closer to the Hezbollah-led camp.
Nassif said that given the events of recent months, Sunday’s anniversary ceremony will essentially be a gathering of people trying to come to terms with the new political realities.
“March 14, 2010 will bring together people trying to get used to the idea that Hariri went to Damascus,” he said.