Hariri’s return touches the surface but leaves Lebanon’s troubled waters murky
Tunis - After weeks of uncertainty and intrigue, the appearance of a consensus seems to have taken shape in Beirut. Lebanese President Michel Aoun can claim the laurels of peacemaker as, apparently through his intervention, Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation has been suspended, Hezbollah’s regional bite has been blunted and the fury of the regions two self-appointed superpowers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, has been assuaged.
However, though much sound and fury echoed over the region, little of significance has occurred. The question of Lebanon’s rapprochement with Syria remains unanswered and until that bridge is broached genuine progress is likely impossible.
The regional machinations of Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, figured highly in Hariri’s resignation speech November 4 from Riyadh. Iran, Hariri said, “driven by a deep hatred of the Arab nation and an overwhelming desire to destroy and control it,” had extended its reach beyond Lebanon to Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen.
Hariri’s resignation and the events that followed it ratcheted up tensions across the region, with many analysts mooting the possibility of conflict between an unchecked Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel. However, after the announcement that Hezbollah would be withdrawing its forces from Syria and Iraq once the need for its involvement had passed, peace was restored.
Beyond the rhetoric lies the fact that Hezbollah’s decisions to withdraw from Syria and Iraq predated Hariri’s resignation. Neither has Hezbollah made mention of its involvement in Yemen. Likewise, Hezbollah’s apparent offer, made after negotiations with Aoun, that it would withdraw its two ministers from Hariri’s cabinet amount to little since it can rely upon the blocs of both the president and speaker to exert its influence by proxy.
Politically, both sides have withdrawn to their corners. However, Hezbollah’s ambition — to restore a political and diplomatic bridge to Syria once its military mission is complete — remains undimmed. That much was made clear, not least by the attendance of two ministers — one from Hezbollah and another from the Shia Amal party — at a Syrian trade fair in August marking the country’s reconstruction.
Sweetening the pot has been the suggestion that China may involve itself in Syria’s reconstruction, a move that could see Damascus play a significant part within Chinese President Xi Jinping’s plans to establish a 21st-century silk road linking all of Eurasia through an immense network of land, sea and trade routes.
For Lebanon, whose faltering economy is struggling to support more than 1 million Syrian refugees, it’s a tantalising prospect. However, for Hariri, restoring diplomatic relations with the country that, along with Hezbollah, is widely considered to be responsible for the 2005 assassination of his father, may be a step too far.
His personal distaste for the Assad regime notwithstanding, there are indications that Hariri’s sponsors in Riyadh may not be as opposed to the move as their past actions suggested. During the Syrian opposition’s recent conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia exhibited few qualms about working with Russia, Damascus’s principal ally, in unifying the Syrian opposition.
There is also the suggestion put forward by James M. Dorsey, of the Middle East Institute think-tank, that rebuilding the alliance between Syria and Lebanon may be enough to distract Hezbollah from frustrating Saudi ambitions in Yemen.
According to Dorsey, neither Hezbollah nor Iran was driven to supporting Yemen’s Houthi rebels from any ideological commitment, so much as a desire to make life harder for Riyadh. However, whether restoration of Lebanon’s relations with Syria would be enough to sidetrack Hezbollah and Iran remains to be seen.
What cannot be denied is the increased support Hariri enjoys at home and abroad since his dramatic sojourn in Saudi Arabia. However, popularity can only go so far. In Lebanon the dividing lines and choices stand and, despite the drama, remain unchallenged.