A friend once pithily summed up the Syrian strategy in Lebanon, and elsewhere, with this phrase from the 18th-century orator Mirabeau describing Talleyrand, the great French statesman: “Talleyrand would sell his soul to the devil. He would be right in doing so, for he would exchange manure for gold.”
In many respects that is what the Syrian president Bashar Assad has been trying to do since the Lebanese parliamentary elections last month. These not only brought victory for Syria’s adversaries, the March 14 coalition, but also weakened Syria’s allies in the opposition, to the advantage of Iran’s allies. Despite so patently weak a hand, the Syrians have doubled their demands, hoping to re-impose a measure of the political dominance they enjoyed before their forced military withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.
Their primary conduit for doing so is the new Lebanese government currently being formed by Saad Hariri. The Syrians had hoped to use their rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Mr Hariri’s sponsor, to become godfather to a new government arrangement between March 14 and the Hizbollah-led opposition, along the lines of the Doha accord of May 2008. To facilitate such a deal they also hoped to bring Mr Hariri to Damascus before the prime minister-designate formed his cabinet. While both efforts appear to have collapsed, they reveal Mr Assad’s true intentions.
He is keen to receive Mr Hariri in Damascus, feeling this would symbolically exonerate Syria for its role in the assassination of his father, Rafiq Hariri. While there seems little doubt that Syria was behind the killing, the Middle East can be a hard place. Saad Hariri always knew that becoming prime minister would entail dealing with Syria. The Saudis are keen that he do so. But he is said to have refused to go to Damascus before the new government is finalised. The United States and Egypt are equally committed to this condition, which appears to have persuaded the Saudis to backtrack. An immediate consequence was the postponement of a Syrian-Saudi summit scheduled for last Monday.
More generally, however, Mr Assad is in urgent need of a success in Lebanon. Syria’s ability to block progress has always been great, but the president’s ability to impose his will has diminished. Syria can destroy in Lebanon, but not build. Pro-Syrian members of the new parliament are there only thanks to Hizbollah’s voters. Most Lebanese, including the Shiite community, have no desire to go back to the days of Syrian domination. There is a consensus in the Middle East and the West that Syria’s days of calling the shots in Beirut are over. Faced with this reality, Mr Assad has been trying hard to recoup his Lebanese cards, so he can have something to bargain with when (or if) he resumes negotiations with Israel, and when Washington and the Arab states have decided to re-engage Syria.
The Syrians are hoping to get one point across to their Arab brethren and to the Americans: if another power is to have a commanding presence in Lebanon, better Syria than Iran. For the moment, that sort of blackmail is not working. Few see Lebanon’s fate in such stark “either-or” terms. Making matters worse for Mr Assad is that the March 14 victory showed how the Lebanese were perfectly capable on their own of saying no to Iran (the vote was very much a rejection of Hizbollah and its allies) without any perceptible parallel desire to embrace Syria.
Mr Assad has been dancing a complex pas de deux in recent years. In 2005 he substantially improved his relationship with Iran on the assumption that this would enhance Syria’s regional role. The move was shrewd, all the more so in bringing petitioners to Damascus asking that Mr Assad break with Tehran, thereby enhancing his bargaining power. Last January the Syrians scored a major diplomatic victory when King Abdullah reversed Saudi Arabia’s policy of isolating Syria and called for renewed Arab unity. This led to a reconciliation of sorts between Saudi Arabia and Syria, and more recently the Obama administration followed by deciding to return a US ambassador to Damascus after a four-year hiatus following the Hariri assassination.
However, the implicit quid pro quo is that Syria take steps to distance itself from Iran and play a less negative role both in Lebanon, and on the Palestinian front through its support for Hamas. That hope is counterintuitive. Mr Assad won’t easily surrender political relationships that allow Syria to avoid regional irrelevance. That’s why we should expect Syria to continue trying to reassert its power in Lebanon (which requires that it stay close to Hizbollah and Iran) by leveraging its ability to affect the make-up of the government, and why Syria has reportedly urged Hamas to harden its stance in the negotiations in Cairo over a Palestinian unity government. This has angered the Egyptians, and is one reason why they blocked a Hariri visit to Damascus before an agreement on a new government
Even when the Syrians have nothing, they demand everything. And oddly, they’ve often succeeded. But times are changing. Not the Lebanese, nor the Arab world, nor the international community are willing to hand Lebanon back to Mr Assad. As for the Palestinians, Syrian intransigence will alienate not only Egypt, but also Saudi Arabia and the United States, who are all working for a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli track, allowing Israel to indefinitely delay negotiations over the Golan Heights.
Reversing Mirabeau’s statement may be useful in this context. Unable to win gold because of his country’s patent weaknesses and his compensatory urge to spread instability, Mr Assad may ultimately find himself holding a substance far less pleasant.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon