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    Road to Damascus Requires Reform

    The two presidents who will sit together on Tuesday in Damascus – Lebanon’s Michel Sleiman and Syria’s Bashar Assad – could hardly appear more different, when seen from the elemental perspective of power. Compared to the commanding Assad, Sleiman has almost no power base to speak of and thoroughly trammeled constitutional authority to exercise any power he might ever acquire.

    Beneath the surface, the two leaders do, however, share a common characteristic to the narrative of their reigns: the anti-reform forces in both countries have defeated whatever desires the two men might have had to renovate their respective public spheres.

    History does not recognize a president’s intentions, alas. Reality for at least the past five decades has been purely petty politics, with the Syrian state toying with Lebanon and much of the political elite here pushing to undermine Syria. Ahead of the Tuesday powwow, we continue to hear many politicians here mouthing the traditional and stale rhetoric of pettiness.

    Reform, on the other hand, has the potential to create a near-perfect synergy between the two countries’ peoples, as well as boosting the power, relevance and historical standing of the two chief executives. The lengthy list of the compatibilities between these two populations overwhelms the ugly record of political conflict. Even at high levels of politics, we see Lebanese advisers close to Assad, and we see Lebanese experts guiding some of Syria’s economic opening. But Lebanese-Syrian political relations remain so painfully fraught; any open-mindedness shown by Sleiman and Assad would make a major difference, although – to be realistic – it would also almost amount to a miracle.

    What we see instead is an appalling number of missed opportunities to bridge petty politics. What we hear is politicians dickering with empty rhetoric. We also see who is missing from Tuesday’s talks, an invisible and critical partner for both sides – Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is carving out for itself a greater and greater role in the region, and between Lebanon and Syria it can play many parts, such as arbiter or catalyst. Turkey achieved much by acting as the catalyst for the recently announced zone of free trade and movement among Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. It might qualify as a miracle, but Turkey could be the motor to energize the civility of state-to-state relations between Lebanon and Syria and to tear off the sectarian shackles that have too long bound the dynamic.

    We retain hopes, however faint, that the possibility for a fresh opening exists between Lebanon and Syria, and we want to make clear to all sides that the complementary dynamic of the two countries’ broader interests means that any progress on this front would do wonders for the two states’ peoples – and their presidents.

    The Daily Star

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