Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks (right) with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz at al-Shaab palace in Damascus on Thursday, on the eve of a joint mission to Lebanon aimed at containing political tensions there. Photo by Louai Beshara/AFP
The sight would have come as a surprise to most Lebanese just a few months ago: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, emerging from a plane together at the Beirut airport Friday and being greeted by Lebanon’s political leaders.
“It’s historic,” said Rami Khouri, a columnist in Beirut and a political scientist at American University there. “The Saudis and the Syrians are the two ideological poles in the Middle East. When they cooperate and come to Lebanon on the same plane — that’s like the business class of symbolism.”
In the country’s fractious — and often confounding — political stew, Syria and Saudi Arabia spent most of the past five years backing competing factions. On the one side, the Saudis, along with the Americans and Europeans, were major supporters of the March 14 Coalition of Saad Hariri, son of the slain former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The group’s major rallying cry was for Syria, which had a military presence in Lebanon for 29 years, to pack up and leave. Soon after the senior Hariri was killed in a car bombing, and hundreds of thousands rallied in downtown Beirut against Syria, Assad pulled his soldiers from the country — though some critics say they never truly gave up their hand there. Syria’s ally, Hezbollah, is the most powerful institution in the country. More so than even the Lebanese military, analysts say.
“Hezbollah’s dilemma is people are more public about resisting them. They are still respected by some, feared by others. But others doubt their sincerity or suspect them of being an Iranian proxy.”
Rami Khouri, a columnist in Beirut
The purpose of today’s visit, all sides say, is to promote stability within Lebanon, ahead of what many believe will be a complicating and particularly dangerous period ahead. After Hariri was killed in 2005, the international community, with the strong backing of Saudi Arabia, launched an independent investigation into the murder. That investigation has been ongoing ever since. The focus initially was on Syria. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese generals were arrested early on, but eventually released. The target now appears to have shifted to Hezbollah, as the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted last week in a speech. After acknowledging Hezbollah members will likely be indicted, he dismissed the tribunal as an “Israeli plot.”
The fear that the results of the investigation could lead to sectarian strife in Lebanon has led many of its earlier backers to fear its outcome. Even Hariri’s son, the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has toned down his anti-Syrian rhetoric. He’s visited Syria on four separate occasions since taking office last November and Hezbollah sits in his governing coalition. If either of them are implicated in his father’s murder, no doubt it will be difficult to continue the rapprochement.
“He is in a difficult position,” said Timur Goksel, a university professor in Beirut and a former senior adviser to the U.N. forces in Lebanon between 1979 and 2003. “If Hezbollah is indicted and he goes along with it, he will be in trouble with the group, which is a member of his Cabinet. They couldn’t sustain their relationship after that. But if he doesn’t go along with it, if he rejects it, he will lose credibility with people on his own side and also with his supporters in the international community.”
The deeper concern, Goksel said, is that many Lebanese have lost confidence in the tribunal altogether. “It’s gone on too long,” he said. “It’s been too secretive. Things have leaked out, but no one knows what’s real or not. It’s lost its cache. We don’t expect much from it. We don’t think we will get the real people behind the crime.”
Friday’s joint visit is also unique since it is the first time the Syrian leader has been in Lebanon since the Hariri killing. Some analysts say it shows Syria’s influence in the country is on the rise.
“The Saudis are blessing the Syrian comeback to Lebanon,” said Michael Young, opinion editor at the Daily Star in Beirut and author of, “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s LIfe Struggle.” “The Saudis tried to combat the Syrians in Lebanon but that failed. They decided, let’s be pragmatic. They could gain Syrian assistance elsewhere but would have to accept a certain degree of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.”
Young said that Saad Hariri was willing to give up his anti-Syrian position because he sees his main danger coming from Hezbollah. “It’s his main threat for him as a Sunni, as the Prime Minister, as the head of the government. And it’s the main threat to his notion of the Lebanese state. He and the Saudis are on the same wavelength– let’s use one enemy against the other.”
All this probably makes Hezbollah a bit nervous. No doubt, much of the talk today will be on managing whatever fallout may arise from indictments in the Hariri probe. Hezbollah doesn’t want to be left out to dry. That’s one reason, analysts say, for Nasrallah’s speech last week.
“It’s part of the negotiating process,” Khouri said. “Hezbollah’s dilemma is people are more public about resisting them. They are still respected by some, feared by others. But others doubt their sincerity or suspect them of being an Iranian proxy. One of the important thing now is that many people stand up to Hezbollah — that’s different than 5 or 10 years ago.” After Israel left southern Lebanon in 2000 and many people saw it as a victory for Hezbollah, which took credit for driving them out, the resistance movement was “riding high,” according to Khouri. Few Lebanese would challenged them, unlike today. “Hezbollah is in different situation now and it has had to learn to play politics.”
According to Goksel, Hezbollah is under pressure like never before.
“They feel everyone is pushing against them and they feel this tribunal is the final push,” he said. “They are under tremendous pressure from the international community and local actors. They see this tribunal as an attempt to destroy the party’s image and reputation.”
The tribunal, which was set up by the U.N., has not made public statements about the status of its investigation. But according to at least one person who has consulted with them, Hezbollah — or people close to Hezbollah — is the prime target. And indictments could come as early as this fall.
When that happens, all bets are off. And, according to Khouri, today’s summit is only a short term success since, “none of the underlying tensions have been resolved.”