Washington Watch: Lebanese independence is an oxymoron

Washington Watch Lebane

During the past week, Lebanon's president went to Washington and its prime minister to Damascus - journeys that marked Syria's return to power in Lebanon less than five years after its humiliating withdrawal. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who led he 2005 Cedar Revolution which helped end 29 years of Syrian occupation, went to Damascus to "kiss the guys who killed his father," said an Israeli expert on Lebanon and Syria. Hariri reportedly holds Syrian President Bashar Assad responsible for the assassination of his father, former prime minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005. The car bombing in downtown Beirut was believed to have been carried out by Hizbullah. International outrage forced Syria's withdrawal and led to an international tribunal to investigate the murder. Syria steadfastly denies any involvement, and the inquiry drags on; Assad wants Hariri to stop the probe lest it get too close to Damascus. In Washington, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman failed to persuade President Barack Obama to drop objections to Hizbullah's rearming, and instead "exert further pressure" on Israel to withdraw from disputed areas along its border with Lebanon. Suleiman acted "more like the Syrian ambassador than the Lebanese president," observed Farid Ghadry, the Washington-based head of the Reform Party of Syria. Obama publicly told Suleiman he should enforce UN Resolution 1701 by disarming Hizbullah and halting its "extensive" arms smuggling, which poses "a threat to Israel." Suleiman disagreed, insisting that part of the resolution no longer applies to the militant group because it is a legitimate political party and part of Lebanon's government, which has authorized it to retain its weapons. The real threat, he told Obama, is from Israel. THAT WAS the message out of Damascus as well. They know Washington won't buy that line, but it plays better with their home audience than the truth. The real enemy of Lebanon and Syria is Iran, which seeks to exploit them both for its own purposes, whatever the cost. When he got the "invitation" to come to Damascus, Saad Hariri no doubt recalled his father's trip there a few months before his murder. Former Syrian vice president Abdul-Halim Khaddam has said Rafik Hariri was threatened in "extremely harsh words" by Assad that he would "crush" anyone who defied him. Hariri may have been uncomfortable embracing the man he considers his father's killer, but "that is the price of political survival in a neighborhood dominated by the Syrian bully," said the Israeli expert. The Saudi-born billionaire, who inherited his father's political movement, went first to Riyadh to meet with Saudi King Abdullah, who is no great lover of the Assad family either but wants to improve relations with Syria and Lebanon because he's worried about Iran's influence over the two. The Financial Times last week reported that a survey commissioned by Qatar's Doha Debates questioned more than 1,000 people in 18 Arab countries and found that most consider Iran a greater threat to their security than Israel. It also found 80 percent didn't believe Iran's insistence that it is not developing nuclear weapons. Assad and Hariri declared their mutual respect and their strategic relationship to counter the Israeli threat, but Lebanese independence is an oxymoron. Although the two countries recently exchanged ambassadors for the first time in 60 years, it meant little; Syria still considers Lebanon a part of Greater Syria, not an independent sovereign neighbor. Hariri's summons to Damascus made that clear. Assad's purpose was to remind Hariri who's the boss, and make sure the Lebanese government, and particularly its prime minister, won't press for the arrest and trial of those responsible for Rafik Hariri's assassination. After four years, the international tribunal still hasn't produced any indictments. Analysts once predicted that Lebanon would be the second Arab country to make peace with Israel, but no longer. Indeed, with Hizbullah, Syria and Iran now calling the tune, it is more likely to be the last. Lebanon's big issue is not some minor territorial disputes but an overwhelming desire to see more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees leave. They remember the brutal state-within-a-state run by Yasser Arafat until he was driven out by Israel in 1982. Today those refugees, in a dozen large camps, are about 10% of the country's population, according to the UN. They have no social or civil rights, limited access to public health and education, and no access to public social services. Suleiman unsuccessfully pressed Obama to endorse the full right of return for Palestinians even as Fatah leaders are privately talking token repatriation, with the bulk staying where they are or going to the Palestinian state. The Israel-Lebanon border is relatively calm today, but Hizbullah has significantly upgraded and expanded its arsenal - with help from Syria, Iran and North Korea, among others - from pre-2006 war levels, and many feel another war is a matter of when, not if. Much may depend on when Iran decides to strike. Syria pulled its military forces out of Lebanon four years ago, but its political reoccupation appears to be expanding and its control tightening. Saad Hariri knows the price of defying Bashar Assad.