Growing Syrian influence part of the new Lebanese political reality

Lebanon experts weigh in on President Michel Suleiman's visit to Syria.

Suleiman Beirut 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Suleiman Beirut 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman's visit to Syria this week and his recent comments about liberating the Shaba Farms (Mount Dov) by force if diplomacy fails reflect a new political reality in Lebanon in which both the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and Syrian influence have gained strength, an Israeli expert on Lebanon said this week. Suleiman is scheduled to arrive Wednesday in what is being called "a historic" two-day visit to Syria, where the two countries are expected to discuss exchanging embassies and establishing full diplomatic ties for the first time since their establishment more than six decades ago. "It's recognition of Syrian power in Lebanon," said Asher Kaufman, an Israeli scholar and assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. "In 2005, Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon and since then it has made every possible effort to regain its strength, and it has done so. "The Doha Agreement (which marked the end of an 18-month political crisis in Lebanon last May) was endorsed by Syria, and by making this trip, Suleiman recognizes that nothing can be achieved in Lebanon today without Syrian involvement and Syrian approval." Syrian troops first entered Lebanon in 1976, shortly after the eruption of the Lebanese civil war, and remained in the country for nearly 30 years. One of the ways that Syria has exerted its influence recently over the country, he said, is by arming Hizbullah "to its teeth," mainly through convoys via the Syria-Lebanese border. In addition, assassinations and attempted assassinations of prominent anti-Syrian figures also send a clear message that "you don't want to be an anti-Syrian voice" in Lebanon, Kaufman said. Political rhetoric about liberating the Shaba Farms, including from Suleiman, has also taken on a more aggressive tone. In recent weeks Suleiman has been quoted in the Lebanese media as saying that "if diplomacy failed, then it's time for military operations," and adding that Lebanon "is committed to regaining its full sovereignty over the Sheba Farms." On Tuesday, following days of heated debates, Lebanon's parliament approved the national unity cabinet and its policy statement, which upholds Hizbullah's right to keep its weapons. "It's all part of the domestic political reality in Lebanon," Kaufman said. "Hizbullah has turned out to be the stronger party in Lebanon today as a result of the last two years of developments, from [the] 2006 war to the creation of the new government in Lebanon, and I think the political parties in Lebanon are responding to this reality." When the new Lebanese president makes statements about regaining Shaba Farms, if not by negotiations then by military confrontation with Israel, "he basically responds to the fact that Hizbullah has become the most powerful player in Lebanese politics". Suleiman knows that the Lebanese Army is incapable of making any serious move against Israel, Kaufman added, and perhaps the president believes he will be able to co-opt Hizbullah into the Lebanese political scene by making such statements. Such comments concerning the liberation of Shaba Farms are for "purely internal consumption," and are related to the political debate that erupted over the draft policy statement on Hizbullah's arms, which is in turn linked to the issue of Shaba Farms, says Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow of the Middle Eastern Program at the London-based Chatham House. What lies at the heart of the debate in this country is how to "survive" with Israel as a neighbor, he said. The internal debate, he said, goes like this: "Do you rely on the international community and the UN or on having an armed resistance like Hizbullah vis-a-vis the Israel threat and occupation, etc... "And if violence is the only language that Israel understands and responds to, than whose decision is it to use violence?" Should Hizbullah, for example, be able to take unilateral action without consultation? Shehadi argues that the policy statement does not allow Hizbullah to do so but says the language is vague and various factions are interpreting it to their own liking. "It clearly prevents them from using (their weapons) basically, but it does not prevent them from having them," he said. "But they can always act unilaterally and blame Israel." The dispute over the Shaba Farms - and whether they belong to Lebanon, as Lebanon and Syria claim, or to Syria, as Israel and the UN have claimed - arose from the fact that the French colonial authorities never conducted an official border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria between 1920 and 1946, Kaufman said. While French maps located the Shaba Farms within Syria, the population that lived there believed and acted as if they were part of Lebanon, paying taxes to Lebanon and conducting all their official activities vis-a-vis the Lebanese state rather than Syria. This anomaly, which continued after the two countries became independent in the 1940s, hadn't become a problem until Israel captured the Golan Heights and the Shaba Farms in 1967, and Lebanese farmers were no longer able to cultivate this land, he said. Although the Shaba Farms had been mentioned in the Lebanese press as early as the late 1970s and early 80s - mainly by Hizbullah - it only became a significant issue following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, he said. "Israel simply inherited the territorial problem when it occupied the Golan Heights and in 2000; when they withdrew, nobody in Israel was even thinking that this would be a problem," Kaufman said. "As far as Israel was concerned, there were maps, the UN endorsed these maps... I don't think it was intentional that we're going to stick and stay there. Now it has become a principle to stay there."