Assad is gambling that the Obama administration will allow Syria to reassert itself in Lebanon, downplay the International Tribunal into the killing of Hariri, and mediate a peace deal with Israel. But when the time comes to reciprocate, Assad will be able to play the game his father perfected, at once embracing process and ignoring peace, and in the end leaving Washington with far less leverage than it had before.

Among the more controversial selling points employed by Barack Obama during his campaign for the presidency was his willingness, if elected, to engage regimes, principally Tehran and Damascus, which the Bush administration refused to do. “Not talking doesn't make us look tough— it makes us look arrogant,” Obama declared. In theory, of course, there is nothing wrong with engagement, in theory, talk is better than the severing of connections out of hand. That said, given the Syrian regime’s longstanding and destabilizing policies in Lebanon and the region, the Obama administration must make it contingent on tangible developments on the ground, and not just rhetoric and half-hearted measures if rapprochement between Washington and Damascus is to succeed.

Cost-free diplomatic gains

After Syria’s relationship with the international community collapsed in the wake of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, the regime took a number of steps to try to reopen lines of communication with the West. In a clear attempt to woo Washington, Syria restarted indirect talks with Israel, via Turkey, publicized in May 2008. Two months later, Syrian President Bashar Assad flew to France where he was granted the distinction of meeting his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy on Bastille Day. Soon after, Sarkozy pressed the case for expediting the European Union’s Association Agreement with Syria. And, in an official visit to Syria in November, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced that high-level intelligence links between the UK and Syria[1] would be renewed, a decision he defended by pointing to Assad’s declared intention to establish diplomatic ties between Syria and Lebanon as evidence of an encouraging transformation in Syrian attitudes.

Firm US commitment to Lebanon

Since Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution of 2005, which ended the decades-long Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the Bush administration has turned a deaf ear to Damascus’s demands in Lebanon, insisting that instead it stop destabilizing its smaller neighbor and commit to its sovereignty and independence. But as a new administration takes office on January 20, a considerable number of Lebanese worry about what this transition may hold for their country.

In this regard, reassuring statements by US officials were recently made. In a November interview with the pan-Arab daily, Asharq al-Awsat, former ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman— who is currently the principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs— stated that “contrary to the past, succeeding US administrations now have a clear and firm policy towards Lebanon that will not change.” Likewise, a recent statement by Rep. Gary L. Ackerman— chairman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia— included an assurance that “the election of Barack Obama will not mean any reduction in U.S. support for Lebanon… Whatever fears or suspicions exist, I want to state as clearly as I can, that when it comes to Lebanon there is a strong bipartisan consensus of support, and I fully expect our policy to remain rock-solid.”

Pending issues with Syria

Several unresolved issues impede Damascus’ relationship with Beirut, and consequently its relationship with Washington. Obama, with his expressed preference for direct diplomacy and negotiations rather than aggressive unilateralism, can help resolve these issues by insisting that they be addressed in any dialogue with Damascus. Even so, with the Assad regime, dialogue is not enough. For relations with the US to improve meaningfully, they must be tied to concrete evidence of change in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. Among the most important issues Damascus must demonstrate progress on are:

Full diplomatic relations and representation: While the decision to establish diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus is a historic achievement, the prospect remains unfulfilled for two reasons. First, Syria’s insistence on maintaining, instead of abrogating, the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, which was established following Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 1990.[2] And second, Syria’s willful delay in appointing an ambassador to Lebanon, under the flimsy guise that the appointment should take place “gradually.”

Transfer of arms into Lebanese territory: As a number of UN reports repeatedly indicate, movement of arms into Lebanese territory for militias is routine from the borders with Syria. It is no secret that Syria continues to act as the main military conduit of Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, such as the PFLP-GC which just days ago recklessly launched a barrage of rockets into Israel, delivering a tacit message for Syria. Such actions, in addition to the regular flow of arms to paramilitary groups constitute a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1680 and 1701, to both of which Lebanon remains committed.[3]

Demarcating the Lebanon-Syria Border: To date, there is no formal demarcation of the borders between Lebanon and Syria. It has been demanded time and again by various Lebanese officials to demarcate the entire length of the border, including the disputed Shebaa Farms, which Lebanon and Syria claim is Lebanese, despite Damascus having yet to provide any documentary evidence proving the area’s Lebanese identity. Formally demarcated borders are critical to a positive relationship between the two countries, as they provide clearly defined limits and responsibilities for each side in accordance with international law.

The International Tribunal: Established by UN Security Council 1757 (2007) to prosecute the assassins of former premier Hariri and the subsequent string of political murders targeting anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. The tribunal, which is to start its proceedings in March, serves as both a judicial deterrent and a moral solace to the families of victims. Most importantly, it indicates a significant evolution of international criminal law, with political assassinations now falling into the category of offenses so grave as to transcend national jurisdiction. The new administration should make it clear to Damascus that there can be no deal to undermine the international tribunal in return for warmer relations.

Lebanese Detained in Syria: During the Lebanon war (1975-1990) and under Syria’s direct occupation of Lebanon (1990-2005) hundreds of Lebanese military personnel and civilians were arrested by Syrian security forces and, in violation to international humanitarian law, transferred outside their country of origin into Syria. Away from political bickering, this dossier should be treated on humanitarian grounds by granting the International Committee of the Red Cross access to Syrian detention centers in order to reveal the fate of these Lebanese detainees. In addition, Syrian authorities should not be allowed to conflate these illegally detained individuals with Lebanese convicted of criminal offenses in Syria.


Undoubtedly, as Obama takes office, he will be dealing with an already charged and volatile foreign policy agenda. With challenges in the region ranging from conflict in Gaza to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, it is not at all clear how Obama will prioritize his policies for the region. But as the tactics the new administration will employ in dealing with Syria remain undetermined, it is likely that US-Syrian rapprochement under Obama may be short-lived if the Assad regime retains its rejectionist posture vis-à-vis Iraq, Lebanon and Palestinian politics.

On the other hand, if the Syrians prove to be really serious about peace-making and engage in principled cooperation in the region, whether through US-Syrian or US-Syrian-Israeli talks, an Obama administration should set some red lines around Lebanon. All that Syria should get in return for just goodwill are: an end to sanctions and heightened trade, WTO membership, open doors to the west and returning the Golan, among other, but not Lebanon.

The reason is that in contrast to its Arab surroundings, Lebanon enjoys an impressive track record of pluralism, freedom, novelty and openness, notwithstanding its shortcomings. Today, Lebanon’s vibrant civil society and strong liberal educational sector continue to serve as a hub, exporting these values and yearnings to the region at large. In democratization terms then, Lebanon should not fade off the radar of the West in general and the US in particular. A retreat on this front, could well lead to the entrenchment of anti-Western forces of hatred and terrorism.

Jean-Pierre Katrib is a human rights activist and political analyst based in Beirut.

[1] Links with the Europeans were being rebuilt on the basis of Syria’s declared opposition to al-Qaeda style Sunni Islamist forces-- some of which Damascus itself appears to have created, others of which it has provided with a safe haven.

[2] The Council’s role is to oversee the implementation of the notorious treaties that were signed between Lebanon and Syria and to strengthen “brotherly” cooperation between the two countries.

[3] Art. 5 of UNSCR 1680 (2006): “Commends the government of Lebanon for undertaking measures against movements of arms into Lebanese territory and calls on the government of Syria to take similar measures.”

Art. 8(5) of UNSCR 1701 (2006): “No sales or supply of arms and related material to Lebanon except as authorized by its government.”

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