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    Decoding the Abou Moussa Statement

    There was something vaguely surrealistic in the Lebanese government’s response on Tuesday to the reservations expressed last weekend by Abou Moussa, the secretary of Fatah al-Intifada, about ending the Palestinian military presence outside the refugee camps. In response to a subsequent remark by the Palestinian official that he would accept a dialogue on the matter, the government declared, “Sovereignty cannot be negotiated.”

    Of course it cannot be, but as everyone realized when Abou Moussa announced that he would refuse to disarm his group (and in the presence of Sidon’s mayor no less, a political enemy of the Hariri family), he was transmitting a message from Syria, which undermines Lebanese sovereignty on a daily basis. That’s because Fatah al-Intifada is a Syrian creation. It was established as a breakaway faction from Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement in May 1983, as the Palestinian leader prepared to battle Syria to secure a foothold in Tripoli. The Syrians didn’t want their old enemy there, engineered the rift in his movement, then expelled Arafat from the north.

    The decision to terminate the armed Palestinian presence outside the refugee camps, but also to remove military outposts of pro-Syrian Palestinian groups located inside Lebanese territory along the eastern border, was agreed during the national dialogue sessions of 2006. So, what were the Syrian intentions in ordering Abu Moussa to take the position that he did and defy the Lebanese consensus?

    There seemed to be four primary objectives. First, and more generally, to put up obstacles to political normalization in Lebanon, and in that way strengthen Syria’s bargaining hand in shaping Lebanese government decisions whose outcome will determine how much power Damascus regains in Beirut. This includes, above all, security and administrative appointments, through which the Syrians hope to place political allies in positions of authority, eliminating most of the practical vestiges of sovereignty.

    A second Syrian aim was to further erode UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of armed groups in Lebanon, including Hizbullah and Palestinian organizations. Syria and its Lebanese allies have tried time and again to push the Lebanese state into declaring Resolution 1559 null and void – which would also knock out a vital prop of Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 war. Until now, President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri have doggedly resisted this, angering Hizbullah and Damascus, so that Abou Moussa’s assertions were a sign that there would be no letup in the pressure.

    A third Syrian aim was to issue a pointed reminder to the United States and the international community on the eve of the visit to Beirut of George Mitchell, the American envoy for the Middle East peace process. The reminder was that there could be no independent Lebanese negotiating track; there is a Syrian track, to which Lebanon is subordinate. How so? Any Lebanese participation in peace talks must begin with agreement over security guarantees in the southern border area. This, in turn, requires the Hariri government to have control over all armed groups inside the country. By reminding everyone that the government has no such control, Abou Moussa also reminded them that Syria alone could make that claim.

    Here we come full circle to the 1990s, but with a twist. At the time, Syrian President Hafez Assad saw negotiations with Israel as serving two purposes: returning the Golan Heights to Syria and creating a mechanism for consolidating Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, since Syria would be the guarantor of Lebanese implementation of any final settlement. Given the presence of Hizbullah, the international community was largely willing to go along with this. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, let the cat out of the bag when he declared that he would much prefer to see Syrian soldiers deployed in Lebanon rather than on the Golan. Assad had every intention of fulfilling both conditions.

    The twist, however, is that the Syrians no longer have an army in Lebanon. Yet this has not eased President Bashar Assad’s eagerness to replicate his father’s designs, albeit using the only instrument left at his disposal, at least for now: political hegemony. That is why Assad will continue to order his Lebanese and Palestinian proxies to chip away at any strand of Lebanese sovereignty with which he is unhappy.

    A fourth Syrian objective was to warn the prime minister, Saad Hariri, that he is mistaken in imagining that his regional and international diplomacy will pry Lebanon out of Syria’s hands. By following up his trip to Damascus with visits to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and, this week, France, Hariri sought to emphasize that Lebanese prime ministers no longer needed Syrian permission to conduct their foreign policy. This has greatly irritated Syria’s followers in Lebanon, who point out that Hariri will fail in watering down the greater importance of his Damascus visit. Abou Moussa was there to show why.

    There are several influential people in the Hariri entourage more openly advocating friendlier relations with Damascus. This is partly a reflection of Saudi interests, but it also echoes a more established line of argument in Hariri circles – one heard even after Rafik Hariri’s assassination and most notably expressed by his sister, Bahia, in her speech of March 14, 2005 – that Lebanon cannot sustain a break with Syria. In the coming months Saad Hariri will have to manage those two discordant faces in his political movement: satisfying those around him, and more importantly the men in Riyadh, who want to exploit his opening to Syria, while also ensuring that Lebanon retains its sovereignty within that framework.

    The Abou Moussa maneuver demonstrated that even as Saad Hariri pursues his high wire act with Syria, Assad will go on trying to push him off. Sovereignty cannot be negotiated, the Lebanese government tells us. The Syrian rejoinder is: Who says we’re negotiating?

    Michael YOUNG
    The Daily Star

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