(By Tony Badran)
There’s much white noise surrounding the situation in Lebanon, as several actors stir frantically on the margins. Whether it’s France’s proposal for a Lebanon “contact group,” or the Turkish-Qatari-Syrian summit, or the seemingly perpetual talk about reviving the dead Saudi-Syrian action plan, these gesticulations are all essentially irrelevant – the equivalent of garbage time in sports.
Despite their secondary importance, the Syrians are still trying to use such efforts in order to create the impression that the solution to the Lebanese crisis passes exclusively through Damascus. Nevertheless, as Hezbollah signals intent for further escalation, following its withdrawal from the cabinet and the filing of the indictment by Special Tribunal for Lebanon Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, it’s clear none of these states vying for the diplomatic center stage possesses the initiative. Final say over Hezbollah’s actions lies in Tehran, as was always the case.
Media coverage over the last few days has focused on the loud diplomatic activity around Lebanon. To no one’s surprise, the first to throw his hat in the ring was French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After the collapse of the Lebanese government, the French immediately proposed organizing an informal international group involving, alongside them, the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Turkey and possibly Egypt.
However, French ambitions were quickly frustrated. For one, as is often the case when trying to cobble together a group of actors with widely divergent agendas, there was disagreement over who would be included in the group, with reports claiming Syrian rejection of Egypt’s participation, as relations between the two remain strained. Secondly, it was unclear what common platform this group might agree to.
The Syrians, who doubtless would love for an international forum to adopt their preferred “solution” and thereby offer them legitimization for a renewed role in Lebanon, were not certain they could forge such a consensus, having fared inconclusively with the French, and having hit a brick wall with the Americans – not to mention the breakdown of their contacts with Saudi Arabia. But most of all, the Syrians want to maintain the facade that they have a monopoly on deciding all matters Lebanese – on behalf of Lebanon. Indeed, the Syrians rejected an Egyptian proposal for an Arab follow-up committee on Lebanon, claiming that Beirut was the exclusive domain of the alleged “Saudi-Syrian understanding.”
The Syrians face a dilemma, however. The illusion of an understanding with the Saudis afforded them a convenient cover to try and impose their agenda in Lebanon. But that illusion was shattered when the talks reached a dead end and Hezbollah forced the collapse of the government. Attempting to circumvent all these hurdles, the Syrians convened a summit with their Qatari and Turkish friends. The Turks were equally interested in maintaining this masquerade in order to promote their favored self image of a primary regional mediator.
The summit was billed as an effort to reignite – and to find a formula to implement – the supposed Saudi-Syrian understanding. The way Hezbollah’s media marketed the Turkish and Qatari involvement was to bill it as providing “regional witnesses that Saad Hariri agreed to abandon the tribunal.”
Against this background, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal came out with a definite statement declaring that King Abdullah had ended all mediation efforts with the Syrians over Lebanon. The message was clear: Anything the Syrians and their friends were trying to sell under the rubric of the “Saudi-Syrian initiative” had nothing to do with the Saudis and did not enjoy their approval.
The Saudis realized that they were being used by the Syrians – and without getting anything in return at that. With this declaration, the Saudis lifted their cover they had so unwisely offered Damascus.
However, all these shenanigans aside, in the end neither the Turks nor the Syrians are able to bypass the basic fact that the main interlocutor over the Lebanese crisis is Iran. Regardless of the fanfare in Damascus, Turkey and Qatar soon found out that their efforts were going nowhere in Lebanon. Hezbollah met the new mediators with a hardened position: What was applicable before the filing of the indictment is no longer acceptable.
Indeed, this past Tuesday morning, Hezbollah and its allies organized a series of synchronized, weapons-free small rallies in various neighborhoods of Beirut, demonstrating how quickly they can take over the city. Hezbollah sources were also quoted as saying that this type of action is likely to target UN institutions in the country, such as the ESCWA building or even UNIFIL.
With this action plan, Iran and Hezbollah are narrowing options moving forward, and setting the stage for further escalation. The Turks and the Syrians, and whoever else for that matter, can pretend to be in the driver’s seat all they want – provided everyone understands they’re following an Iranian map, and obeying Tehran’s road rules.
Tony Badan is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.