Is it enough the promise to open an Embassy in Beyrouth to say that Syria changed its policy towards Lebanon?
The Syrian government is feeling more self-assured than ever. The West has actually started again discussing the possibility of Syria serving as a bridge between Iran and the West, by repeating the same old refrain “we can separate Damascus from Teheran”. Hence, Syria has started to play a new strategy made of old conspiracies.
Damascus fears the International Tribunal for the Hariri’s assassination, which could represents the end of the regime, and is trying to indefinitely postpone it. At the same time, Syria is using Fath Al-Islam as a tool to ask for its direct intervention in Lebanon. The West is now giving again legitimacy to Syria, thinking that Damascus could “change”. But the regime is following its own interests: to take Lebanon back and to survive.
The alliance with Iran is therefore vital. It represents the card of survival for the regime, which has no majority support in the population. Hence, the alliance of Syria with Iran has strategic depths. Damascus is using it to keep alive, as it represents an insurance against a Western attack and a way to extort from the West what they want. So, why should Damascus separate from Iran?
Syrian state television has recently broadcasted statements by alleged Fath El-Islam militants “confessing” to have carried out a suicide car bomb attack that killed 17 people in Damascus in September.
The TV showed 12 members of Fath Al-Islam, considered to be an Al-Qaeda-inspired group that first emerged in the Palestinian refugee camp Nahr Al-Bared in Lebanon that left 400 people dead. In front of the cameras, these militants “confessed” that they have helped plan the September attack and accused Saudi figures and the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal stream, headed by Sa’ad Hariri, to be behind the scenes. But the reality seems to be much different.
Among the 12 militants, there was Nabil Ahmed Al-Dhahab. He is from Yemen, belonging to the Dhahab clan and coming from the village of Qayfa (Al-Baida governorate). The interesting thing about this guy is that his uncle, Ali Ahmad Nasser Al-Dhahab, is the regional assistant secretary of the Baath party in Yemen, who has declared at the 4th Regional Conference of the party that he hails the Damascus regime’s, stressing to stand by its side in the face of challenges.
This is just one of the many hints that make the Lebanese people believe that Fath Al-Islam is supported by Damascus. In 2007, it was made known that one of the detainee of Fath Al-Islam, Muhammad Suleiman Mar'i, a senior leader in the movement, had close ties with the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shawkat.
Muhammad Mar'i explained that his brother had served as the chief liaison between Assef Shawkat and Fath Al-Islam leader Shaker Al-Absi. With the help of Shawkat's men, his brother had also managed to smuggle into northern Lebanon an explosives expert from Al-Qaeda known as Abu Ahmad Al-Iraqi, and later to smuggle him back into Syria.
It seems also not to be a coincidence that in the September attack, among the killed there was a brigadier general who was a senior Syrian intelligence officer, apparently a witness of the former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri’s assassination.
Last July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy invited Syrian President Bashar Assad to Paris. In that occasion, Assad promised to start diplomatic relations with Lebanon. In September, Sarkozy went to Damascus, indicating clear break from his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s policies. And in October, Syria and Lebanon signed a document formally establishing diplomatic relations, after Syrian troops occupied Lebanon for three decades before Damascus was forced to “withdraw” its troops in 2005. Sarkozy, who is trying to give an international role back to France, celebrated the event as a great achievement for the future of Lebanon.
Other western countries joined Sarkozy’s policy. On November 18, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'alem. It was the first visit by a high-ranking British official to Syria after seven years.