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    Kiss the Independence Intifada Goodbye

    The death of the Independence Intifada of 2005 has been prematurely announced many times. However, today we have in front of us a genuine corpse, the end of the fleeting aspiration four years ago, at least in its more restricted form, of establishing a system emancipated from Syria. The Syrians, who left Lebanon through the window after Rafik Hariri’s assassination only to re-enter by the front door in recent months, have done so thanks to an understanding with Saudi Arabia. There are differences between what we have today and the Syrian-Saudi condominium after Taif, above all that the Syrian Army is no longer deployed in Lebanon. The latest contract is more equitable and is complicated by the fact that Iran has a powerful stake in the system through Hizbullah. However, it is familiar in leaving Lebanon with little discernible sovereignty, in large part courtesy of Lebanese divisions.

    It’s no secret that the Saudis put considerable pressure on the prime minister-elect, Saad Hariri, to come to an arrangement over the new government with the opposition, one reason why he was forced to spend much time negotiating with Michel Aoun, to the irritation of his Christian partners. The Syrians, too, kept their end of the bargain, apparently with Turkish prodding, by bringing Aoun into line. After five months, the Hariri government was made in Lebanon only in the narrowest of ways.

    This represents a fundamental shift from what Lebanon had between 2005 and 2009. From 2004 on, the country was placed under an effective, if highly imperfect, form of international trusteeship, thanks to a series of Security Council resolutions governing Lebanese affairs. This began with Resolution 1559, calling for a Syrian withdrawal, an end to foreign interference in Lebanon’s presidential election that year (and presumably all years), and the disarmament of armed groups. The UN decisions also included Resolution 1595, which set up an international commission to investigate Hariri’s murder, and it was followed by Resolution 1701, establishing a reinforced mechanism for the stabilization of southern Lebanon after the summer war of 2006.

    That international scaffolding has been substantially eroded in recent years, by action or omission. Resolution 1559 has been implemented only in the sense that Syrian soldiers have left Lebanon. However, Syrian meddling in Lebanese affairs has been unrelenting, and in late 2007 France significantly undermined the letter of the resolution, which it had co-sponsored, by actively bringing Damascus into the Lebanese presidential election. As for the disarmament of Hizbullah or pro-Syrian Palestinian groups, nothing has happened, and the Cabinet is preparing to find a consensual rhetorical formula in its statement to evade the question.

    The initial optimism surrounding the Hariri investigation has, similarly, worn off. Although the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, Daniel Bellemare, remains confident that he will bring indictments, there continues to be serious question whether the guilty will ever be identified. There was a perceptible slowdown during the two years of Serge Brammertz, so that today no suspects are in custody. The regional and international political climate does not favor raising the heat on Syria – realistically the principal culprit in the crime. While it is too early to be definite, we should begin considering the possibility that no indictments will be brought, despite Bellemare’s assertions.

    As for Resolution 1701, it has been a mixed bag. The reinforced UN force in the south has doubtless limited Hizbullah’s margin of maneuver in the border area, forcing the party to rebuild its main line of defense north of the Litani River. However, the resolution has failed utterly in preventing Israeli overflights but also Hizbullah’s massive rearmament, because the Security Council has been unwilling to punish Syria or Iran for violating its conditions. That the Lebanese government will soon put together a policy statement endorsing this situation helps little.

    We should heed what the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told Al-Nahar last week. He warned that arms exports from Iran put Lebanon at great risk, then added, pointedly, that he hoped the Lebanese government realized this. Lest we forget, the scope of Israeli destruction in 2006, though enormous, was contained by the Americans, mainly to avoid discrediting the Siniora government. Feltman’s remarks indicated that Washington would be less inclined next time around to do the same thing. In other words, the Lebanese must accept that their best protection against Israel is Resolution 1701.

    So the Syrians are back. They don’t rule Lebanon from Anjar, but they are likely to retain a final say on most decisions of importance in the country. If one wants to see the glass as half full, Syria must now accept as a reality that many of its political foes are represented in the government and Parliament. Syria’s ability to tap into corruption and patronage networks has been blunted. But if the glass is half empty, Assad has significantly negated the emancipatory impulses of 2005, allowing him to once again use Lebanon to advance Syrian interests, to the Lebanese detriment.

    On April 24, 2007, Assad told the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at a meeting held in Damascus that “[Lebanon’s] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.” Will his forces return to Beirut? Does he want them to? If he could he would. However, Syria has done well enough by chipping away at the order put in place after its withdrawal, and now has allies even within the majority camp.

    As a Syrian academic close to the regime once stated privately at an academic conference: Lebanon had a choice between being with Syria or with Iran. The Saudis, otherwise absent from that menu, have apparently chosen for the Lebanese. This opens the door to many possibilities, even if Syria will not soon break with Iran over Lebanon. But what it really does is remind us that what happened four years ago was neither an intifada nor, ultimately, a moment of true independence.

    Michael YOUNG
    The Daily Star
    19.11.2009

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