Monday, July 05, 2010

Half a decade on from the "Cedar Revolution": What has changed?

Following the assasination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and the unprecedented mass demonstration in Beirut against Syria's overt influence over Lebanese politics, commentators familiar to the region heralded it as landmark in Lebanon's crisis-ridden history. The withdrawal of Syrian armed units from Lebanon as well as a promise from Bashar Al-Asad that the new political landscape in Lebanon would be respected, in particular, seemed to mark a divergence from the past. Nonetheless, much like the renaissance that Syria and its political elite has enjoyed since the dark days of 2005 (principally, a recognition of the fact that Syria is integral to any future Arab-Israeli Peace), the changes that Lebanon experienced in 2005 have also dramatically altered. There are many indications that seem to show that the crassly named "Cedar Revolution" was far from what its name suggested.

Saad Hariri's external and internal support, manifested in the March 14 coalition, has melted away as regional powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia have willingly prioritized reconciliation with Syria over respecting Lebanese sovereignity. In turn, those humbling treks that Nicholas Blanford impressively documents in Killing Mr. Lebanon have also resumed. Most notably, Walid Jumblatt, who once described Bashar Al-Asad as a butcher has made several trips to Damascus to meet Bashar and discuss the future of Lebanon (similarly, Saad Hariri has taken several members of the Lebanese cabinet in a similar vein to Damascus). Syria's proxy Hezbollah also continues to go from strength to strength in Lebanese politics. And within the March 8 alliance, Hezbollah wields 13 seats out of a total of 57 and there is no doubt that its arms gives Hezbollah additional influence to act on Syria's behalf (although this relationship is far from one of subservience). Even Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who died yesterday, and is widely credited with being a spiritual guide for Hezbollah, recognized that Lebanon would be persistantly weak whilst the "state within a state" syndrome was perpetuated by Hezbollah. The simple reality is that many of the gains, such as the removal of the divisive and corrupt Rustem Ghazali (former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon) pale in comparison to the reality that Syria has been allowed to reassert itself in Lebanese politics as a consequence of regional powerplays that do not prioritize Lebanese sovereignity. 

The paradox faced by the Obama administration and regional allies such as Saudi Arabia is thus: by reconciling themselves with the Syrian government in order to advance the Arab-Israeli Peace Process, isolate Iran and encourage Syria to curb its support for groups such as Hezbollah, Bashar Al-Asad and his advisors get more breathing space to act as they please to undermine Lebanon and consequently Israel's unease increases - making it more likely that another war on Lebanese soil will occur (although political commentators now see 2011 as a more likely year for confrontation given that Israel is aware of international opinion in light of the flotilla crisis). Thus, despite Obama's Cario's Speech that marked a new beginning, his administration like countless others before it is now coming to realize the intracacies of Middle Eastern politics.

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