Syria has too much on its plate to influence Lebanon

Syria's reconstruction is on everyone's mind and the Lebanese, too, are ready for a piece of the pie.

By Christiane Waked

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Published: Mon 14 Jan 2019, 5:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 14 Jan 2019, 7:42 PM

The relations between Syria and Lebanon can be well described as frenemy, and it has been so for almost a century. Linked by geography and demography, Damascus always played an important role in the history of Beirut ranging from interference in internal political affairs to military intervention and even guardianship. Hence the nature of relationship between the two nations have not always been cordial. The Lebanese were also divided on the leadership in Syria during the time of Hafez Al Assad's presidentship from 1971 to 2000 and now during the time of his son  Bashar Al Assad. The split only got wider  following the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon in 2005.
Since the war started in Syria in March 2011, its government has been caught up in internal conflicts, the main concern being keeping the regime in place and monitoring the developments strategically even while reaching out to external allies such as Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
As the war continued, Syria realised it can no longer control Lebanon, and thus decided to involve the Hezbollah in Lebanese internal affairs through Ali Mamlouk, security chief for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. And in October 2016 they recommended the appointment of Michel Aoun as president instead of long-time ally Suleiman Frangieh. It is not a secret that Hezbollah represents both Iranian and Syrian interests in Lebanon. And any major political decision in Lebanon needs the approval of the Hezbollah. The Lebanese and the international community including Israel are wary of this influence prompting a response from Israel. In fact, attacks have already happened on Hezbollah and in strategical positions in southwest of Damascus.
At the same time, Syria's reconstruction is on everyone's mind and the Lebanese, too, are ready for a piece of the pie. To this end, parliament speaker and head of the Shiite political party in Lebanon, Amal Nabih Berri, objected to not inviting Syria to the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit to be held in Beirut on January 19-20. The Arab League had suspended Syria's membership  in 2011 over its failure to end government crackdown on protests.
It is worth mentioning that Amal, unlike Hezbollah, did not participate in the Syrian war. Nevertheless, Lebanon is still without a government due to feuds between political parties. Once the government is formed, direct talks with Syria are expected to develop strategies that include the return and resettlement of the two million Syrian refugees from Lebanon. The bottom line is, Syria has a lot on its plate and will no longer be able to control the Lebanese political scene in a direct manner at least in the near future.
Christiane Waked is a political analyst based in Beirut

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