Assad’s allies press for rapprochement with Damascus
Beirut- The appointment of a new Lebanese ambassador to Damascus stirred fresh discord between supporters and opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad as Beirut mulls whether to restore relations with its larger neighbour.
Saad Zakhia, a career diplomat, replaces Farah Berri, the daughter of Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri. Farah Berri has served as Lebanese chargé d’affaires in Damascus since July.
Assad’s allies welcomed the step and are urging a full normalisation of ties with Damascus. Assad’s enemies in Lebanon, however, criticised the decision, saying it is inappropriate to revive diplomatic relations with a regime that is responsible for a war that has left nearly half a million of its citizens dead.
“I call on the government to immediately stop the expected tragic scene of turning over credentials of the Lebanese ambassador in Damascus to those who are stained with the blood of 500,000 Syrian deaths and hundreds of Lebanese deaths,” said Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh, a long-time opponent of the Assad regime. He narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2004 that has been blamed on Damascus.
Lebanon has a long and troubled relationship with Syria. Damascus emerged in 1990 as the chief power broker in Lebanon at the end of the 16-year civil war and dominated political life in Beirut until 2005. In February that year, Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, was assassinated, an act that triggered large-scale anti-Syrian protests in Beirut. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Rafik’s son, fears a similar fate and submitted his resignation on November 4.
In 2012, with war raging in Syria, top Lebanese leaders agreed to the Baabda Declaration, a policy of disassociation from either side in the conflict. Although Iran-backed Hezbollah was a party to the agreement, it began intervening in Syria the following year and has come to play a key role in assuring Assad’s survival.
With the war in Syria entering a less intensive phase, Lebanon is mulling if, how and when to re-establish full ties to Damascus. Assad’s allies in Lebanon have been bullish on the topic. In August, three cabinet ministers attended the Damascus International Fair, an event intended to demonstrate that Syria was ready to resume business with the global community.
“We will meet with Syrian ministers in our ministerial capacity, we will have talks over some economic issues in our ministerial capacity, and we will return in our ministerial capacity to follow up on these matters,” said Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan, a member of Hezbollah.
Saad Hariri had opposed the visit, refusing to have it discussed in a cabinet meeting and declaring that the ministers were acting in a personal capacity rather than as representatives of the Lebanese government.
In September, the pro-Damascus Syrian Social Nationalist Party closed off usually bustling Hamra Street in Beirut to have a military-style parade with dozens of uniformed party members. Although the event takes place annually to mark the opening shots of resistance in 1982 against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, this year’s ceremony was much larger than usual and was widely interpreted as a gesture of muscle-flexing confidence by an Assad ally.
Central to the debate over normalising ties with Damascus is the fate of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Sympathy for their plight is dwindling fast as the Lebanese tire of their presence and the strain they place on the country’s decrepit infrastructure. Assad’s allies urged official talks with the Syrian government with the goal of returning the refugees to their homes.
Hariri rejected negotiating with Damascus and said the United Nations is the only body that can handle the refugee return. He has also said he would not forcibly return any refugees out of concern for their welfare in Syria under the Assad regime.
Hariri’s resignation came amid a flurry of dilemmas. Re-establishing ties with Assad would have alienated Hariri’s support base in the Sunni community, many of whom blame him for cooperating with Shia Hezbollah in the government. Hariri also has a personal animus against Assad as he says the Syrian president ordered the assassination of his father.
On the other hand, there is momentum that will almost certainly see Lebanon resume full ties with Damascus at some point.
“Eventually there will be some sort of normalisation of relations,” Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said by phone. “I think the resistance [to restoring ties] is that Lebanon should not be the first to normalise relations and, given the history of this relationship between the two countries, the burden of that history is weighing heavily on some.”
Economic realities favour the resumption of ties. The Syria-Jordan border crossing is expected to reopen in early 2018. That move would allow Lebanese exports to the Gulf market, which must pass through Syria, to flow once more. Many Lebanese businessmen are salivating at the potential reconstruction windfall in Syria with some close to Assad having already won lucrative contracts.
Tripoli in northern Lebanon is expanding its port and building a free trade zone to attract business. It plans to construct a railway from the city to connect to the Syrian rail network to facilitate exports to the Middle East and potentially becoming a hub for reconstruction aid to Syria.
“There will be pressure from the private sector to normalise and allow businesses to deal with Syria,” said Yahya. She added that the beneficiaries of any reconstruction process would be those who have remained loyal to Assad.
“The idea that the reconstruction of Syria is going to be done as a grand scheme or a Marshall Plan is just not going to happen,” she said. “What we will likely see is piecemeal reconstruction here and there with the regime friends winning [the contracts].”