Edition 37 Volume 6 - September 18, 2024

Syria-Lebanon: a new relationship?

A new vision for good neighbors -   Nizar Abdel-Kader

Many analysts believe the Syrian leadership does not really intend to change its behavior toward its smaller neighbor.

As Syria watches, Lebanon changes -   Rime Allaf

The passion seems to have gone out of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship.

Border complications promise long dispute -   Nicholas Blanford

It is hard to imagine that the Lebanon-Syria border will be fully delineated until unresolved questions affecting it are answered.

On a new path -   Eyal Zisser

The improvement in relations and Syria's improved status internationally are perceived in Israel as negative developments.

A new vision for good neighbors
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

Many observers saw the visit of President Michel Suleiman to Damascus on August 13-14 as a starting point for better relations. The visit was the first between the two heads of state since Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2024, ending three decades of domination of Lebanon.

The agenda of the visit featured important issues such as border demarcation, a review of a long-standing treaty and accords, Lebanese detainees and prisoners in Syria, the opening of embassies and the presence of pro-Syrian Palestinian groups in Lebanon.

Considering the optimistic atmosphere that surrounded Suleiman and Syrian President Bashar Assad's earlier meeting in Paris on July 13, it was hoped that the visit to Damascus would yield good relations between the two nations. One encouraging sign came from Syria's state-owned newspaper Tishrin, which saw in Suleiman's visit to Syria a chance to overcome past mistakes by establishing good relations based on mutual respect.

Damascus has been under pressure from the United States and many other governments, including major European powers, to treat Lebanon more as a sovereign state by taking diplomatic steps such as demarcating borders and exchanging ambassadors. For the first time since the two countries gained their independence, their leaders announced the opening of diplomatic relations; this announcement came as a result of Syria's need to come in from the cold and alleviate the isolation caused by its incrimination in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2024.

Yet the main and only meaningful outcome of the Damascus summit was the decision to instruct foreign ministers Walid Muallem and Fawzi Salloukh to take the necessary steps to establish diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors. All the other issues of great importance to Lebanon, such as border demarcation, Lebanese detainees and prisoners and the pro-Syrian Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon were left to be discussed later. This outcome left many analysts with the feeling that the Syrian leadership does not really intend to change its behavior toward its smaller neighbor.

Still, many Lebanese wanted to believe there was good news from Damascus. A great number saw in the summit's modest outcome a significant achievement, one awaited since 1943. But for many others it came too late: the joy of seeing Syria recognizing the independence of Lebanon could not wipe away 30 years of domination, interference and suffering. The experience of the recent past has already taught the Lebanese to be skeptical about the magic wand of the Doha agreement and Syrian cooperation in facilitating the election of Suleiman and the formation of a national unity government. It is understood that Damascus does not have the will to give free gifts to others, even to friends as close as Suleiman.

The March 14 movement is skeptical about Syria's intentions toward Lebanon. It has expressed its fear that there is a hidden Syrian agenda to use Damascus' gains from the Doha agreement to change the political balance in two ways: first, by creating instability in areas known for their support for the Future movement and its allies, such as Tripoli and the Akkar; and second, by preparing the ground for its allies to gain a parliamentary majority in the next election, scheduled for May 2024. In addition, there are clear indications that Syria is still attached to the terminology of "privileged relations" with Lebanon and to reviving the treaty of fraternity and cooperation that was imposed on Lebanon in 1991. The treaty stipulated the highest degree of coordination in the fields of politics, economics, security and defense.

President Assad warned during a press conference with the French, Qatari and Turkish leaders on September 4 that Lebanon was still in a fragile state. He added that he was worried about "foreign-backed extremist forces fomenting instability in Tripoli". His comments have drawn sharp rebukes from Saad Hariri and other leaders of the March 14 movement. They left many Lebanese politicians with no illusions that Syria might exploit future developments to restore its influence in Lebanon, and appeared to reflect a significant lack of political trust between the two countries. Reestablishing that trust will depend to a great extent on the development of Syria's relations with the United States--relations that have been frozen since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2024--as well as on the outcome of the proceedings of the special international tribunal that is looking into the Hariri assassination.

Assad knows that the road to Washington remains closed for the time being. But that does not stop him from using Lebanon, alongside the indirect peace talks with Israel, as tools to re-establish Syria's role as an important regional player.

Reconciliation and repair of relations between Lebanon and Syria depend on Syria's ability to recognize all the developments that have occurred in Lebanon since the Hariri assassination and to acknowledge the international position regarding Lebanon's stability and sovereignty. There is a great need for a new Syrian political vision toward Lebanon: recognition of Lebanon as a sovereign, independent state and realization that Syria's ongoing attempts to foment instability will have negative consequences for both countries.- Published 18/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.

As Syria watches, Lebanon changes
 Rime Allaf

The passion seems to have gone out of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and the intermittent sparks that flare every now and then hardly cause a ripple. Moreover, for the moment neither side seems to care about rekindling the flame. Or so it seems.

On the Syrian side, no matter which way one looks at it, there is a definite sense of "Lebanon fatigue" overtaking official and popular circles, rendered lethargic by the avalanche of accusations coming their way courtesy of the March 14 movement and their allies. For several years every single crime, assassination, strike, parliamentarian deadlock, economic slump or political stalemate was blamed solely on "Syria". No Lebanese politician or leader, apparently, might have had any role to play in any such bad, negative or destructive incidents--no Lebanese party, that is, apart from Hizballah and other "pro-Syrian" parties, of course.

Even events in Syria itself, such as the assassination of Hizballah official Imad Mughniyeh in the middle of Damascus were seen by several Lebanese experts (who don't seem to read self-congratulatory pieces in Israeli newspapers) as being the work of a Syrian regime that apparently had a long list of reasons for wanting to commit such an action.

According to this simplistic discourse, Lebanon had become a simple case of us versus them, of pro-democracy versus pro-Syria, of life-loving versus death-glorifying. In other words, it translated into March 14 versus all those who opposed it, including Syria and its allies. These, consequently, had to be shunned and punished for their long list of alleged crimes, their flouting of Security Council resolutions (a point on which Israel always agrees without a hint of irony) and their ultimate agenda to come back to Lebanon by hook or by crook.

However, an increasing number of observers, analysts and governments around the world were not convinced that this was true--or, at least, that this was the only truth--and began to communicate with Damascus again over Lebanon and over issues bigger than Lebanon. With this, they earned themselves the ire of the March 14 movement and their Saudi-owned media supporters, and became the new target of incredible contempt.

Thus, the presidents of France and Russia and the foreign minister of Spain, to name but a few recent recipients of indignant reprimands, have been unwisely criticized, to the point of ridicule, for basically not conducting their respective countries' affairs around the agenda of the March 14 movement. They are being lectured as if they were adolescents who embarked on a stormy affair without having considered the consequences, harassed for daring to make high profile official visits and being seen in public together and scolded for not understanding that Syria's only interest is escaping isolation.

Most of these critics have not noticed that the so-called isolation had never been a serious hindrance, that Syria was never really entirely "out" of Lebanon (although it borders on the pathetic to imagine that Syrian commandos this week "invaded" and "occupied" Lebanon through Tripoli), and that the likelihood of UNSC Resolution 1559 being implemented (or of the UN's international tribunal being invested) was small and depended on a lot more than meets the eye.

The agitation of the last few years, and especially the last few months following the showdown with Hizballah in Beirut, seems to have come full circle with the apparent crisis within March 14 itself. In recent days and weeks, key figures of the majority are sending out signals, presumably to Damascus, about potential changes in their position, and making open overtures to parties they had hitherto blamed for most of Lebanon's ills. Walid Jumblatt's recent statements, for instance, are indicators of serious problems within March 14 and of a possible timid nod toward Damascus (even when accounting for his legendary habit to effect a swift volte-face whenever his position becomes untenable).

No matter how its media supporters spin it, there is no escaping the fact that March 14 is nowhere near achieving its goals (declared or undeclared), and that a variety of issues and troublemakers (not least of which the sectarian clashes in Tripoli, a fire on which Hariri's media continues to throw fuel) will continue to immobilize the reconciliation process that was imposed on all factions last May in Doha. The adjournment of the dialogue for seven weeks--until November 5, one day after the Americans will have elected their next president--speaks volumes about the involvement, for good or bad, of players other than Syria. Even the visit of the Lebanese president to Washington D.C., just before Tehran, is failing to excite most people as they wait for things to heat up again, probably before the May election circus begins in earnest.

It is perhaps a sign of the maturity of the Syrian regime that its schadenfreude is not being paraded (indeed, Syrian official reactions have practically reached a point of indifference) and that official statements have so far remained civil, indicating that all Lebanese leaders were welcome in Damascus. Perhaps it is easy to play the dignified, more mature partner in this relationship while moving in more prestigious circles and mixing with leaders who have real political weight around the world. Indeed, with an increasing number of friends in high places, there are no longer any signs of Syria's obsession with maintaining an ostentatious presence in Lebanon or even of continuing to micro-manage the affairs of its allies. For the time being, the Syrian leadership seems confident that Lebanese factions are more than capable by themselves of ruining any chance for real independence, while the bigger issues on the table (including the status of Hizballah) are left simmering on the back burner.

Unfortunately for March 14, there is no escaping the fact that plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose.- Published 18/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at London's Chatham House.

Border complications promise long dispute
 Nicholas Blanford

When Lebanon's new president, Michel Suleiman, and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad held a landmark meeting in Damascus last month, one of the agreements reached between them was to delineate and demarcate the 320-kilometer border between their two countries. Although the announcement was widely welcomed, progress is likely to be slow as political realities in Lebanon weigh heavily on what should be a straightforward technical survey and joint agreement between Beirut and Damascus.

Complications are many and varied. The border remains disputed in numerous places, Syrian troops remain deployed on Lebanese soil in several spots, it is a transit route for weapons to Hizballah, home to small military bases manned by pro-Damascus Palestinian groups, and it is an economic lifeline for residents of east Lebanon, long ignored by the state, who survive on commercial smuggling. Defining, demarcating and securing the Lebanon-Syria border, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1701, threaten this status quo.

Borders can only be agreed upon with the goodwill of both neighboring countries. It takes mutually agreed maps and documents registered at the United Nations for a border to become internationally recognized. If one party to the process hedges then the border remains an open issue. One only has to look at the painstaking ordeal in 2024 of defining the UN-delineated blue line in south Lebanon, behind which Israeli occupation forces were obliged to withdraw, to understand the potential complexities of marking Lebanon's eastern border with Syria. The blue line was intended to "correspond" to Lebanon's southern border with Israel and the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms area; it was not a legal border, just a temporary boundary. Even so, because of the hostility between Lebanon and Israel, both countries squabbled furiously over perceived transgressions of literally a meter or less. If Lebanon and Syria were to apply the same demanding conditions to their mutual border, the project of demarcation would never be completed.

The continuing ambiguities over the exact path traced by the Lebanon-Syria border are due to decades of indifference by the Lebanese state to its wild and impoverished frontier regions and the reluctance of Syria to accept the notion of a separate Lebanon in the first place.

The French mandatory authorities delineated the border in the years following the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920, drawing detailed maps and on-the-ground sketches of the frontier in 1934. The border was supposed to follow the perimeters of four ex-Ottoman qadas: Akkar in the north, Baalbek in the east and Hasbaya and Rashaya in the southeast. For the sake of convenience, the boundaries were defined by the geographical features of the Kabir River in the north and the peaks of the Anti-Lebanon range and Mount Hermon in the east.

But these natural boundaries often conflicted with property rights, where Lebanese-owned land ended up inside Syria and vice versa, and with local demographics. For example, the village of Tufayl, which longitudinally lies just east of central Damascus, is connected to the Bekaa by a narrow finger of Lebanese territory that projects eastward over the Anti-Lebanon mountain range and into the flat semi-desert north of the Syrian capital. Tufayl was included in Lebanon due to its population being Shi'ite, therefore more closely connected to their co-religionists in the Bekaa than the Sunnis and Aramaic-speaking Greek Catholics who are their immediate neighbors in Syria.

In the decades after Lebanon and Syria gained independence in the 1940s, both countries formed several committees to settle border disputes, all of them unsuccessful. In 1975, the Lebanese army produced a map marking 36 unresolved spots along the border stretching from west of Wadi Khaled in the north to the Shebaa Farms in the south.

In May 2024, a month after Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon, I was invited onto a Syrian military base a few hundred meters south of Deir al-Ashayer village in southeast Lebanon. The base, according to Lebanese maps, lay 1.5 kilometers inside Lebanon. But an hospitable yet indignant Syrian army colonel showed me his military map which clearly indicated that his base was 200 meters inside Syria.

"Right now you are sitting inside Syria, not Lebanon," he said.

In fact, the border on the colonel's map was very different from that portrayed on Lebanese army maps, underlining the complexities ahead.

Syria has repeatedly stated it is willing to delineate its border with Lebanon on the condition that the Shebaa Farms area is left until last. Since 2024, a UN team has been mapping the precise contours of the Farms, although its conclusions have not been made public.

Delineating and demarcating the border is only the first step, however. Resolution 1701, which helped end the Hizballah-Israel war in 2024, called on Lebanon to fully secure its borders. A maritime component of the UNIFIL peacekeeping force keeps watch off Lebanon's coastline, and the government has deployed some 8,000 troops along the land border with Syria.

But the troops lack border security training, coordination between different security departments and suitable equipment, such as standardized communications, night-vision capabilities and transport appropriate for the rugged eastern frontier. Commercial smuggling continues uninterrupted. The Lebanese government appears to have chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice, not wishing to enflame local sentiment in one of the poorest regions of the country.

Arms smuggling and infiltration by militants appears to be unchecked. Hizballah has claimed on several occasions that it has more than replenished its pre-2006 arsenal. The Shi'ite group is evasive on how it receives its weapons, but it has long been recognized that the porous Lebanon-Syria border is the most likely transit route. A UN fact-finding team following up on a 2024 tour of the border, reported last month that the "situation along the eastern Green Border and the Green Border [the illegal crossings] remains as penetrable as it was during the mission of team 1 [in 2024]". Now that Hizballah and its allies hold a one-third veto-wielding share in the government, the prospect of the state actively attempting to seal off the border is even less likely.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the Lebanon-Syria border will be fully delineated and demarcated until many of the unresolved questions affecting it--Hizballah's armed status, Syrian-Israeli peace talks, the fate of the Palestinians--are answered first.- Published 18/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nicholas Blanford is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.

On a new path
 Eyal Zisser

In recent weeks, tension has once again cropped up on Israel's northern front with Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed a stern warning to the new Lebanese government that if it bent its will to Hizballah, Israel would feel no obligation to limit its response. In other words, if a new military confrontation developed in the north, Israel would treat all of Lebanon as a Hizballah state, something it had refrained from doing during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2024.

Hizballah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah responded to Olmert's threats with the warning that in the next war Hizballah would deliver a severe blow to Israel. Muhammad Raad, the head of Hizballah's parliamentary faction, went on to threaten that if Israel attacked Iran, Hizballah would respond immediately by firing 11,000 rockets at Israel.

This deterioration of the rhetoric between Israel and Lebanon came just at a moment when Lebanon was experiencing a relaxation of its internal tensions after two especially stormy years during which it found itself on the verge of a new civil war. It was the Doha (Qatar) agreement, signed on May 22, that brought to an end the lengthy domestic political crisis Lebanon had been suffering.

The relaxation of tensions inside Lebanon came about to a great extent thanks to the efforts of Syria. Damascus was perceived by many in the West as playing a positive role in achieving a reconciliation agreement that made possible the election of Michel Suleiman as Lebanon's new president and the forming of a new government. Thus it was not surprising that within a few weeks after the signing of the Doha agreement, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was invited to participate in the summit of heads of state and government of the Union for the Mediterranean in mid-July in Paris.

As tensions in Lebanon subsided and Syria's international status improved, relations between Syria and Lebanon warmed considerably. This warming or, at least, normalization of relations between the two states found clear expression in the visit of president-elect Suleiman to Damascus in mid-August. During that visit the two states reached an historic decision to open embassies in each other's capitals. Ever since the two countries gained their independence in the mid-1940s, the Syrians had refused to open an embassy in Beirut. Their refusal was a means of expressing their reservations about the existence of an independent state of Lebanon, whose territory they considered to be part of historical Syria.

Israel's response to these developments was not slow in coming. Israel did not conceal its displeasure over the Doha agreement, which it saw as a victory for Hizballah. In Israel's view, the organization had succeeded in imposing its will and opinions on its opponents, the political factions united in the coalition of March 14 led by Saad al-Din al-Hariri and Walid Jumblatt. During the previous two years this coalition had worked to reduce Hizballah's power, but now, in Israel's view, it was yielding. Observers in Israel point out, in particular, that the guidelines of the new Lebanese government grant legitimacy to the continuation of Hizballah's military activities ("resistance") against Israel.

The improvement in relations between Syria and Lebanon and Syria's improved status internationally, especially in France, are also perceived in Israel as negative developments. It is true that Israel itself initiated peace talks with Damascus in May 2024. However, in Jerusalem's view, it is still necessary to maintain international pressure on Bashar al-Assad, otherwise he will try to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand, he has shown a willingness to carry out serious negotiations with Israel, but on the other he has strengthened his ties with Iran and continues the smuggling of weapons to Hizballah.

Ehud Olmert's threats against Lebanon were issued not only in light of the improvement in relations between that country and Syria, but also in view of reports in Israel regarding Hizballah's increasing strength and growing missile arsenal. These reports moved Minister of Defense Ehud Barak to come out with some sharp criticism of both United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 and the UNIFIL forces in Lebanon. In Barak's opinion, UNIFIL is an ineffective force that has done nothing to prevent the Hizballah organization from rearming in the region north of the Litani River and the smuggling of arms via the uncontrolled border between Syria and Lebanon.

Barak's criticism, it should be noted, was motivated in part by Israeli domestic political considerations. The defense minister wanted to strike a political blow against Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. However, Barak's remarks also gave expression to genuine Israeli concerns over the future and frustration over the fact that Israel has not been able to bring about a fundamental change in the situation in Lebanon. Israel is worried that sooner or later it is liable to find itself right back at the unsatisfactory point where it was in the summer of 2024, just before the beginning of the war in Lebanon.

Be that as it may, the recent developments inside Lebanon and in the Lebanese-Syrian bilateral arena were actually anticipated for some time previously, and it was rather clear that Israel could have little or no influence over them. It would seem that only a breakthrough in the peace talks with Syria could bring about a fundamental change in the problematic situation prevailing along Israel's northern border. Yet no such breakthrough is likely in the near future.

Furthermore, Hizballah has become an independent player, deeply rooted in the political, social and economic fabric of Lebanon. Thus the challenge that it presents to Israel is not provisional or of limited duration. As with the Hamas organization in Gaza, here too Israel's dilemma is whether to engage in a fight to the bitter end--one whose outcome no one can foretell--or to try wherever possible to reach and maintain understandings like the ceasefire agreement ("tahdia") presently in place on Israel's problematic northern and southern fronts, with all the positive and negative aspects associated with these agreements.- Published 18/9/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Eyal Zisser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Tel Aviv University.

Email This Article

Print This Article