By JONATHAN SPYER
Last week's visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri to Damascus is the latest marker in the return of the coercive Syrian presence in Lebanon. It is also an indication of Syria's successful defiance of the west.
Hariri's ritual gesture of supplication to Bashar al-Assad in Damascus was the inevitable adjustment of the leader of a small state to a changing regional balance of power. Hariri and his supporters have little reason to take pride in the gesture. But the real responsibility for it lies not in Beirut, but further afield.
The pro-western and pro-Saudi March 14 movement, led by Hariri, achieved a modest victory in elections in June. This victory was effectively nullified in the lengthy coalition "negotiations" that followed. The new government as finally announced in November represented the unusual spectacle of a wholesale capitulation of the electoral victors before the vanquished.
The Hizbullah-led opposition kept their effective veto power in the Cabinet. The government's founding statement included an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Hizbullah's continued armed presence.
This substantive conceding by Hariri of his election victory has now been accompanied by a symbolic gesture.
It should be remembered that the process which led to the ending of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon in 2005 was set in motion by the murder of Sa'ad Hariri's father, Rafiq, in February, 2005. The murder of the elder Hariri is widely thought to have been committed by Syria or elements allied with it. The murder called forth a mass movement opposing Syrian occupation.
In the context of a more general US and pro-US assertiveness in the region at the time, the Syrians felt compelled to withdraw their forces from Lebanon.
From the moment of its humiliating retreat from Lebanon, Syria sought to rebuild its influence "by other means." These other means included its overt backing of Hizbullah, the key deciding factor in internal Lebanese affairs. Syria also adopted a classic "strategy of tension" to undermine stability in Lebanon. A string of March 14 politicians and pro-independence political figures were mysteriously murdered.
As one Syrian analyst happily put it this week: with Sa'ad Hariri's trip across the mountains to Damascus, the circle that began with the retreat of the Syrian army from Beirut is completed.
The Assad regime, in a typically feline gesture, even chose to accompany Hariri's visit with a further attempt at ritual humiliation. A few days prior to the visit, a Syrian court issued summons against 24 former and current senior Lebanese officials, demanding that they stand trial in Syria. They are accused of defaming a notorious Lebanese client of the Assad regime, Jamal Sayyed.
Understanding what has happened requires a broadening of focus.
The Hizbullah-led opposition conditioned their agreeing to join the coalition on the Hariri visit. But this condition was originally agreed to, according to reports, by Saudi King Abdullah, during his visit to Damascus in October. This visit was a gesture of rapprochement by the Saudis to the Syrians. The main backer of Hariri and March 14 appears at that point to have signaled Saudi willingness to concede its clients to the pro-Syrian interest in Lebanon.
Unlike the Syrian and Iranian clients in Lebanon, Hariri and Co. have no "hard power" or resistance option. The only game they can play is diplomacy. So once their main diplomatic patrons had offered them up, the game was effectively over.
But why did the Saudis choose to make this gesture? On one level, the Saudis hope to pull Syria way from Iran by welcoming Damascus back into the Arab "fold." But Syria has made abundantly clear that it has no intention of ending or even toning down its staunch, 30-year alliance with Teheran.
On another level, the Saudis and Syrians share an additional, common interest in ensuring a weak, vulnerable Iraq between them.
But even this begs another question. Why should the Saudis choose to begin to engage with Iran's main Arab allies - the Syrians - against the US-aligned Iraqis? Riyadh's own patron, after all, is the United States.
Here one arrives at the crux of the matter. Although the Obama administration has hesitated before rushing headlong into renewing relations with Damascus, it has undertaken a series of gestures that have demonstrated that any real policy of isolation is over. This goes hand in hand with the broader regional stance of the administration of attempting "engagement" with the Iranian regime.
Far from signaling to Middle Eastern powers that a new world of cooperation is about to commence, what this US stance conveys to friends and foes in the region is that Washington no longer has the stomach for holding fast against the bid by Iran and its allies for regional hegemony.
The clients, and the clients of the clients, therefore move to make their accommodation with the changed reality. Unlike the Obama administration, they understand that the dominion of force is not going to end any time soon in the Middle East. The only question is - whose force will it be?
So if the small dominoes like Hariri are falling, it is because the larger ones are pushing them. Reversing this process, meanwhile, would require a general re-think of the current assumptions guiding western policy in the Middle East.
Jonathan Spyer is senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.
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