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August 21, 2003 Edition 7

Lebanon and Syria: searching for a map?
by As`ad AbuKhalil

It is often assumed that Syria and Lebanon have a joint stance toward the so-called peace process. Syria is believed to exercise full control over Lebanon's foreign policy. In reality, while Syria enjoys supreme influence over Lebanese affairs partly because the dynamics of internal Lebanese politics has introduced Syria as an internal factor and partly due to the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, Beirut has its own agenda which has been popularly shaped by decades of Israeli (mis)treatment of Lebanon and its people.

Articles in this edition
Syria and Lebanon: the missing links to peace - by Edward S. Walker, Jr.
Prospects for renewed Syrian-Israeli negotiations - by Itamar Rabinovich
Until someone sees the light - an interview with Rime Allaf
Lebanon and Syria: searching for a map? - by As`ad AbuKhalil
The 1996 Qana massacre, in which civilians hiding in a shelter were killed by Israeli bombardment, and which seemed part of the Labor Party's electoral campaign, marked a crucial watershed in shaping Lebanese popular attitudes towards Arab-Israel peace. If Israel's first president David Ben Gurion is said to have observed that Lebanon would be the second Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, it is now safe to predict that Lebanon will be the last country to ever sign a peace treaty with Israel. Lebanese popular attitudes against the Jewish state will not evaporate through a change in Syrian policy toward Israel. Thanks to cruel Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and exploitation of Lebanese sectarian politics, the opposition to Israel is now firmly established in Lebanese political culture. The rise of the Party of God (Hezbollah) is also responsible for hardening of the Lebanese position toward the "peace process". The right-wing Lebanese camp that attempted to normalize relationship with Israel is long gone, and its symbols and slogans have long been discredited in Lebanese domestic politics.

The Syrian matter is different altogether; unlike Lebanon where public opinion is a crucial determinant of Lebanese foreign policy, Syrian foreign policy toward the "roadmap" (which leaves both Lebanon and Syria outside of the American "solution") is dictated by the Syrian vision of its relationship with the United States. Syrian public opinion, historically known as vibrantly Arab nationalist and anti-Israeli, also has to be factored in by the new Syrian president. Syria wants to resolve the issue of the Golan Heights, but, unlike other Arab negotiators, refuses to barter with "a few square miles here and a few square miles there." That President Hafez al Assad was firm on this position will prevent his son from deviating from the established argument.

Syria has adamantly insisted on the full recovery of its occupied lands, although the Syrian position has changed in that Syria no longer insists on linking together all tracks of Arab-Israel negotiations. The Oslo agreement rendered the argument of the "comprehensive peace" obsolete, and it facilitated Israeli attempts to divide the ranks of Arab negotiators. But the Syrian president, who does not have the shrewdness and diplomatic skills of his father (nor his ruthlessness), does not want to keep Syria in isolation in the era of an American empire. He wants to maintain good ties with the US--but the US no longer seems interested.

Syria's willingness to reach an agreement with Israel faces tremendous obstacles, not only due to the hardening of Arab public opinion from scenes of Israeli brutality transmitted through the Arab satellite channels in the course of the second intifada, but Syria has also lost faith in the ability or willingness of the US to play an honest mediating role between the two sworn enemies. Furthermore, the US has increased and not decreased its hostile pronouncements against Syria, and the US Congress refuses to send messages of goodwill toward the new Syrian president. Instead, the US government and Congress are both using the war in Iraq to exhibit more belligerency towards Syria and Iran--and anybody who dares to disagree with US policies and actions in the Middle East.

Even without these mitigating factors, neither Syria nor Lebanon can commit to join the roadmap, not only because the roadmap leaves both countries outside of the charted "solution," but because neither government expects the US to exercise any pressure on Israel no matter what it does on the ground. The American president, who was elected with the help of the Likudnik Christian Right, will not waver in his support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, especially as he gets ready for his reelection campaign.

Still, Syria may not be as nervous as might be expected under these circumstances. The US government's pronouncements on reform and democracy are easily ignored by any observer who has watched the US exploit those ideals for foreign policy posturing. Similarly, the US will not pressure Syria on Lebanon as long as the Party of God remains the most popular organization in the country. Lebanon under Syrian control is far more manageable for US policy makers than a chaotic Lebanon, and Syria must know that. Furthermore, both Syria and Lebanon think that Israel will not be willing to implement the roadmap, despite its advantages for the Israeli side.-Published 21/8/03(c)bitterlemons-international.org

As`ad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese, is professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC, Berkeley. His latest book is titled Bin Laden, Islam, and America's New "War on Terrorism."

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