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    Playing Three-Ball Billiards in Beirut

    Lebanon is caught up in a game of political billiards these days, each side playing a second ball against the third. And who is benefiting most from this situation? Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

    For Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the alignment with Syria has brought dividends. Hizbullah has never felt so isolated, and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech just over a week ago was, above all, a reminder of the favors the party rendered to Damascus. Hariri has been under no undue pressure to terminate Lebanon’s relationship with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, despite Nasrallah’s charge that it is “an Israeli project,” and that is because he knows that Syria will not allow Hizbullah to change the rules of the game in Beirut.

    But if Hariri is using the Syrian ball against Hizbullah, what advantage do the Syrians have in using Hariri against Hizbullah? Simply, to bring the party squarely under Syria’s sway, after five years when it was Syria that depended mainly on Hizbullah – because it held the ground – to defend its Lebanese stakes. During that time, Iran’s influence in Lebanon expanded, denying Syria the paramount role it had played in the country for decades. Assad now wants to reverse that equation, and is doing so by exploiting his new Sunni alliance, with Hariri for sure, but chiefly with Saudi Arabia, whose King Abdullah will alight in Beirut this week to bless the new order.

    Hizbullah, in turn, hoped to use its denunciation of the special tribunal to weaken Hariri. The Syrians are of two minds on the matter. Their Lebanese spokesmen are calling on the prime minister to turn against the tribunal, while Assad appears not to have made such a request. The Syrians are keeping several irons in the fire. They know that an accusation against Hizbullah may eventually hit them, a fact of which they were reminded by Walid Jumblatt, himself a corsair plying the uneasy seas between Syria, Hariri and Hizbullah. But they are also aware that the tribunal’s prosecutor, Daniel Bellemare, will not soon indict Syrians (if anyone), so they can use the prospect of legal accusations to make Hizbullah more dependent on Damascus.

    Hizbullah can be reassured by the fact that Syria wants the party to bend to Syrian priorities, but it has no desire to see Hizbullah decisively damaged. Nor for that matter is Assad likely to oppose a war in southern Lebanon if Hizbullah is required by Iran to retaliate against an Israeli or American attack against the Islamic Republic. In fact, Syria could well view a conflict as an opening to enhance its control over Lebanon, perhaps even return to the country militarily.

    How so? Assad would point out that only Syria can stabilize Lebanon in the aftermath of a war that devastates lives and infrastructure, discredits the government (as wars tend to do), tears down the United Nations security edifice in the south, and confirms Hizbullah as a major regional headache. If the party manages to resist Israel for several weeks – and Syria has every intention of ensuring it does – this would alarm the Arab states, Israel and the United States, whose approval is needed to sanction some sort of Syrian comeback.

    As the columnist Hazem Saghieh wrote last week in Al-Hayat, Syrian leaders have been good at reversing their alliances in Lebanon for Syria’s greater benefit. In 1976, the Syrian Army entered Lebanon at the request of the Maronite leadership to fight the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Lebanese National Movement. President Hafez Assad sought to avoid Lebanon’s becoming a PLO base, which might have forced Syria into a confrontation with Israel. So he used the Maronite invitation to invade Lebanon and bring the PLO to heel, before turning against the Maronites and reconciling with the Palestinians when Egypt began talks with Israel.

    You have to assume that the Syrians, in the way they bludgeoned the PLO, will seek to do the same to the Sunni community in the not too distant future. A feature of Syria’s presence in Lebanon was the suffocation of independent Sunni political activity that could threaten Damascus’ hold over Lebanon – all the more important given its potential repercussions on the Sunni-Alawite rapport in Syria. Saad Hariri has sought to challenge that rule, most recently by pursuing the institutionalization of the Future Movement, which may emerge as a Sunni “big tent.” Yet this is not a move that Syria will accept lightly.

    For Syria to play a regional balancing role, it needs to continue maneuvering between the Arab world and Iran – in other words it cannot afford to see Iran marginalized. That should be a further source of comfort to Hizbullah, but also a thought American policy-makers must bear in mind when assuming that it is possible to play Damascus off against Tehran. But then again as a prominent official remarked in Beirut recently, Washington is in a “coma” regionally, by so downgrading its presence, a major factor in pushing the Arab states, Turkey and Iran to compete over the ensuing vacuum.

    Syria’s objective in Lebanon is to re-impose the hegemony it once had – without its army if it has to, and with if it can manage that. Among its immediate priorities is to place its people in key security and administrative posts, which may lead to friction with Hizbullah, which has power over the main security agencies. Administrative nominations appear to be stalled, and reports suggest that Syria is responsible for this, only increasing its leverage in the future.

    Lebanon may be a game of billiards, but it is Bashar Assad who is holding the cue. And one can use a cue for many things, not least striking the Lebanese at the knees, an old Syrian specialty.

    Michael YOUNG
    The Daily Star

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