Syria political influence beats the odds, again, in Lebanon

Pro-Syrian statesmen will continue to push for engagement and normalisation, resorting to provocation when needed to get their message across.
Sunday 14/04/2019
A strong comeback. Members of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party carry a poster of Syrian President  Bashar Assad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in southern Lebanon.(Reuters)
A strong comeback. Members of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party carry a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in southern Lebanon.(Reuters)

BEIRUT - Pro-Syrian demonstrations were staged in Beirut on April 7, celebrating the 72nd anniversary of the Ba’ath Party founding. An assortment of vehicles promenaded through the streets, carrying Ba’ath Party flags and photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

It was the first such show of its kind since the forced exodus of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. Syrian loyalists made it a point to drive through pro-Hariri neighbourhoods of Beirut, coming short of saying: “We’re back.”

“Although Syrian soldiers left the country in 2005, Syria’s political influence continued to be strongly felt,” said political analyst Fadi Akoum.

He pointed to a wide assortment of political parties, including Hezbollah, Amal, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the Marada Movement, the Lebanese Ba’ath Party and the Free Patriotic Movement of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, that remained loyal to Syria, groups seemingly always ready to help restore Damascus’s influence.

“This is the team that rules Lebanon today. They are the biggest supporters of the Syrian regime,” Akoum said.

In the cabinet that was formed in January, Syrian supporters got 18 of the 30 seats, including powerful portfolios such as foreign affairs, defence, economy, justice and refugee affairs.

The two Shia parties most strongly affiliated to Syria — Amal and Hezbollah — were given a total of six seats in government. The pro-Syrian team directly controls 61 of the 128 seats in parliament and both the presidency and the speakership of parliament are also in their hands. Collectively they have been pushing for the re-establishment of ties with Syria, severed at the start of the conflict there in 2011.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri had refused such engagement before the toppling of Assad took place. He instructed his ministers to refrain from travelling to Syria but those from Amal and Hezbollah ignored his instructions and so did Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who sat down with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, at the United Nations last September.

Despite his rhetoric, Hariri has frequently looked the other way. He did so during the pro-Syrian demonstrations April 7, realising that he needed the pro-Syrian parties, which he never liked, to survive.

There was very little he could do to silence them or force them to change their ways. No cabinet can be formed without them because of their numerical mass and political influence.

Last year, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah made it clear that his party would not join the Hariri cabinet unless all its political demands were accommodated. Constitutionally, Hariri could not form a government unless all sects and parliamentary blocs are properly represented.

It was Hezbollah, Amal and the Aounists who walked out on Hariri’s first cabinet in January 2011, ejecting him from office in the middle of a visit to the White House. He returned to power five years later after reaching a deal with Hezbollah, in which, in exchange for his comeback, Hariri would endorse the presidential bid of Aoun, a Syrian favourite for the Lebanese presidency.

The Hariri-led March 14 Alliance, which engineered the Syrian exodus of 2005, has largely disintegrated and become toothless but the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance remains intact, despite differences among its members.

In October 2017, Hariri was forced to swallow his pride, appointing a Lebanese ambassador to Syria, despite his insistence on non-engagement with Damascus. Three months ago, he relinquished the portfolio of refugee affairs, which deals mainly with the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, to the pro-Syrian coalition.

When held by a member of his Future Movement, Hariri had used the ministry to obstruct the return of Syrian refugees, claiming that death or arrest awaited them in Syria. Hezbollah accused him of wanting them to stay so Hariri could feed off the large amounts of donor money streaming into Lebanese coffers from UN agencies.

Hariri’s supporters argued that Hezbollah wanted them out because most of them were Sunni Muslims, whose integration into Lebanese society — through work or marriage — would eventually tip the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon against Shia Muslims.

The portfolio of refugee affairs is held by Saleh al-Gharib, an Aounist who is coordinating closely with the Russians for the refugees’ collective repatriation in Syria. Last February, Gharib visited Damascus to arrange for their return. Hariri looked the other way.

A handful of Lebanese business figures have been going to Damascus to establish real estate development companies, hoping to take part in the country’s reconstruction, whenever it kicks off.

Hariri would have plenty to gain for his own business empire if he made such an overture towards the Syrians but that would require the lifting of international sanctions on Syria and a green light from the Saudis, both of which seem far-fetched at this stage.

Until that happens, however, pro-Syrian statesmen will continue to push for engagement and normalisation, resorting to provocation when needed to get their message across, just as they did April 7.

The pro-Syrian rally raises fears that members of the March 8 Alliance will eventually try to restore the statues of Hafez Assad that were brought down ahead of Syria’s troop withdrawal in 2005. Only one monument — the one near the Kuwaiti Embassy — named after the former Syrian president remained.

Famously removed were bronze statues of Assad in Baalbek, Qana, Qabb Ilyas and Halba and one of his son Bassel in the town of Chtaura built during the era of Rafik Hariri in 1995. They were dismantled either by Lebanese authorities or Syrian troops before leaving Lebanon.

Lebanese statesmen who had overseen their construction were seemingly eager to have them removed, especially those who had defected to the anti-Syrian camp and wanted to erase any memory of their collaboration with the Syrians. Many of them are MPs today, running on anti-Syrian tickets.