Syrian pressure, Lebanese blood
Commentary by By Tony Badran
Friday, February 16, 2007

Two years after the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and 22 others, including former Minister Basil Fuleihan, on Tuesday Lebanon was subjected to another terrorist attack in Ain Alaq, near Bikfaya, home of the Gemayel family. The bombings represented, most probably, another escalation by the Syrian regime. In assessing the possible reasons - or messages - behind the latest attack, one must examine the political context in which it occurred. Hizbullah's attempt at toppling the Siniora government has failed, but the party and other Syrian allies in Lebanon are still trying to block formation of the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal to try suspects in the Hariri assassination, in line with Syria's demands.

In an attempt to break the impasse, Saudi Arabia has been trying to reach an understanding with Iran, intentionally and visibly bypassing the Syrians. In parallel, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa has been negotiating an initiative based on the formula of "no victor, no vanquished." The essence of the initiative is to accommodate the opposition's demands for more seats in the Cabinet in return for formal Lebanese endorsement of the tribunal. Such a solution is detrimental to the Syrians, and they apparently told Moussa last Monday the same thing that they have been telling other envoys visiting Damascus: Syria does not want to hear of the Hariri tribunal.

According to an Al-Hayat report on Tuesday, the Syrian conditions for a solution in Lebanon, as presented to Moussa, were that the Lebanese opposition be given the so-called "blocking third" in the Cabinet (which would enable it to veto any decision that goes to a vote, and even bring the government down); and that there should be no "rush" in forming the tribunal, even though Syria considers itself "unconcerned with it." In other words, the Syrians are holding on to their maximalist position.

Syrian brazenness didn't end there. Al-Hayat also reported that there were hints from Damascus and its Lebanese allies that Moussa was no longer acceptable as a mediator, and should not return to Lebanon. In all likelihood, the point of such leaks is to present the Saudis (but also the Iranians) with a fait accompli and tell Riyadh that it has to deal with Syria directly and accommodate its demands, or else face mayhem in Lebanon. The timing is important: In March, an Arab summit will be held in Saudi Arabia. The targeting of civilians, not to mention the continuous threats directed against the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon stationed in the South, is intended to show that Syria will not hesitate to escalate its activities to whole new levels.

This has been Syria's method since the forced extension of President Emile Lahoud's mandate in 2004: to force "respect" through brutishness. However, it allows no margin for maneuver, even for President Bashar Assad's allies in Lebanon or those outside who are working under the illusion that they can "draw Syria in from the cold." In many ways it is a replay of Assad's misreading of the political winds when UN Security Council Resolution 1559 was passed. At the time, Assad misguidedly thought he could bend the international community to his will.

This might explain a second message Syria and its allies wanted to send with the Ain Alaq attack. Last week, former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel paid a visit to Washington, where he met with President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the meetings, the US officials reaffirmed their strong support for Lebanon. The reaction in Damascus was less encouraging. An unnamed Syrian official commented on Gemayel's visit by warning that "those who might be promising him the presidency may not be able to fulfill their promise." Two days later, Lahoud issued a statement condemning Gemayel, in which he made ominous reference to 1983 and to Gemayel's trip to the US at the time. This, Lahoud added, "resulted in a costly war for Lebanon." Indeed, 1983 is the year when American and French interests in Lebanon were attacked by groups affiliated to Syria and Iran.

It may be that the Syrians fear, and were reacting to, what they saw as a bid to find a new president to replace Lahoud - who has threatened not to leave office after his term expires in a few months. Early presidential elections also happen to be part of Moussa's package deal, and they have been explicitly rejected by Assad. After all, that is what the Syrian president reportedly told Hariri in 2004: I alone choose Lebanon's president, and I will break Lebanon over all your heads if you disagree.

The problem for Assad is that his inflexibility is likely to have a contrary effect. The Europeans have tried to engage Syria, to no avail. As a European diplomat recently told Al-Hayat, all those Europeans who go to Damascus to ask it to change its ways, end up returning disappointed and agreeing with the US and French position. There are no more "deals" possible over Lebanon of the kind that Assad envisions, where the country would again become his exclusive patrimony. And the more violence he inflicts on Lebanon, the more the Hariri tribunal becomes inevitable.

**Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, where he focuses on Lebanon and Syria. He also hosts the Across the Bay blog ( He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.