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memri
February 7, 2007 No.
323

The Middle East on a Collision Course (3): The Lebanese-Syrian Front

Introduction

Since the demonstrations of January 23 and 25, 2007 ended, calm has prevailed in the Lebanese streets. In addition, opposition leaders have stressed in their statements the aspect of a nonviolent political resolution to the crisis, and have reiterated to the Lebanese people, and particularly to their own public, that they must not be dragged into civil war. Various sources reported that the calm that currently prevails in Lebanon was the result of Iranian influence. This influence is so great that Lebanese sources have argued that the Lebanon crisis is no longer an internal matter, but is now dependent upon a regional settlement that could impose a new reality on the forces in Lebanon and even force them to make certain concessions. [1]

The stumbling block for any regional settlement is Syria, which is vehemently opposed to an international tribunal for the Al-Hariri assassination. As noted in a previous MEMRI report, [2] it was Syria that thwarted the draft agreement for Lebanon drawn up a few weeks ago by Saudi Arabia and Iran. As a result of Syria's refusal, violent clashes broke out in Lebanon. [3] However, after the clashes were stopped, Iranian-Saudi contacts were resumed and Lebanese sources reported that some progress had been made. The Saudi daily Okaz also reported that Iran would pressure Syriato accept a settlement that would include approval of the international tribunal. [4]

The difficulty in finding a solution for the Lebanese crisis is not only due to the Syrian position, but is also the result of the overall complexity of the situation in the region. The regional initiatives focus not only on Lebanon and Syria, but also on other issues, both regional and global, including: oil issues, Saudi-Iranian relations, Sunni-Shi'ite tensions, the insurgency in Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, U.S.-Russia relations, and the struggle for influence in the Middle East and in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

In a February 5, 2007 article in the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, the daily's editor Ibrahim Al-Amin revealed that the talks between Saudi National Security Council Chairman Bandar bin Sultan and top U.S. officials had failed, and that the U.S. had rejected Iran's and Syria's conditions. According to Al-Amin, this meant that the fire would continue to rage and that no settlement was on the horizon. Al-Amin added that Lebanon was facing difficult days.

Developments in the Lebanese Arena in Recent Weeks

Following the violent clashes in Lebanon on January 23 and 25, the positions expressed by Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah clearly became more moderate. In a speech on January 30, 2007 marking the anniversary of the Karbala massacre, Nasrallah announced that a solution to the crisis must take the form of a political settlement: "We in the opposition believe that the solution and the settlement can only be a political [solution]..."

Recently, Nasrallah has devoted significant portions of his speeches to calling on the public supporting the opposition to be restrained and temperate, and under no circumstances to be dragged into violence and civil war. Nasrallah also warned the Lebanese not to take vengeance into their own hands, because the [unity of the] state and of the military had to be protected. He also said that the weapons of the Lebanese resistance must not be used in the domestic arena, and stressed that civil war and war between Sunnis and Shi'ites were lines that must not be crossed. [5]

On February 3, 2007, the Hizbullah website reported that "Lebanon has entered a stage of...cautious calm and undeclared hudna [temporary ceasefire], in anticipation of the results of the Saudi-Iranian efforts concerning the Lebanon crisis." [6] The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar also reported that the opposition leaders had decided to give these diplomatic contacts a chance to bring about a solution to the crisis. [7] Likewise, opposition leaders have issued no harsh statements or threats to again escalate the situation.

Continued Mediation Efforts Fail; Sources Close to Hizbullah and Syria: "The Region Will Continue to Burn"

At the same time, Saudi-Iranian contacts have been continuing, in attempts to find a solution to the Lebanese crisis. Al-Akhbar, representing the Syria-Hizbullah axis, reported that the main obstacle in these contacts was the issue of the international tribunal, and mentioned the possibility that this issue would be postponed until the investigation of the assassination was completed. [8]

Sa'd Al-Hariri, a leader of the March 14 Forces, who visited Russia to learn its position on the international tribunal, was informed by the Russian Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee chairman that Russia did not support "unnecessary haste" in investigating the assassination. Likewise, Russian National Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said that "the establishment of the international tribunal must not be a source of instability in Lebanese society..." [9] Ivanov also rejected Al-Hariri's request that the international tribunal be approved by the U.N. Security Council without the signature of either the Lebanese parliament or the Lebanese president, who is known to be Syria's protégé. Moreover, Russia also refused to announce its support for the government of Fuad Al-Siniora, because Russia supports only a national unity government in Lebanon, which is Hizbullah's position. [10]

Saudi National Security Council Chairman Bandar bin Sultan, who is conducting the contacts for Saudi Arabia, went to the U.S. to discuss the crisis. In a February 5, 2007 article, Ibrahim Al-Amin reported that during the visit bin Sultan had failed to obtain U.S. backing for the understandings reached by Iran and Saudi Arabia. He wrote that Iran and Syria know that only the U.S. can provide the guarantees that they want - namely, guarantees that they will not be attacked. Therefore, bin Sultan conveyed the following messages to his American hosts: If the U.S. wants Iran and Syria to help it reduce its losses in Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon, it must agree to a 'give and take' deal. Likewise, the U.S. cannot demand that Syria and Iran hand over all their cards. Al-Amin also stated that the U.S. had told bin Sultan that it had no intention of giving up on either the Iranian nuclear issue or on the issue of the international tribunal. As a result, Al-Amin claimed, an agreement would not be reached any time soon, and the region would continue to burn. Al-Amin concluded by saying that "Lebanon is facing difficult days" and that the opposition forces had to decide, now more than ever, which path they would take in the next phase. [11]

In recent days, various sources have been reporting on the possibility that Arab League Secretary-General 'Amr Moussa would return to Lebanon in order to renew his initiative for settling the crisis. Moussa, who is currently in Russia and who met there with top Russian officials, sent the director of his office to Lebanon on February 5 to begin talks with the various forces in Lebanon.

Lebanese opposition sources claimed that Moussa's upcoming visit will be the last chance to discuss a solution that deals with the national unity government and with the international tribunal, but leaves the issue of early parliamentary elections for discussion by the future unity government. The sources added that were Moussa's initiative to fail, the opposition would make an "irreversible" decision - to demand the establishment of a transitional government that would pass a new elections law and hold early parliamentary elections. The sources added that in such an event, all attempts by the March 14 Forces to intimidate the Lebanese public by invoking the specter of civil war would be useless, and that the opposition would be forced to escalate its activity to the maximum. [12]

A New Syrian Approach to the United States

In a February 5, 2007 interview for the American ABC TV, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad expressed his willingness to help broker peace, saying: "We [i.e. Syria] have credibility. We have good relations with the other factions. They should trust [us] to be able to play a role. We have [these] good relations with all the parties, including the parties participating in this government, and the others who oppose the political process. So that's how we can help." [13]

This new Syrian openness to U.S. apparently stems from the fact that Iranian-Saudi negotiations for a settlement are continuing, and Assad feels that Iran is about to waive his vital interest - that is, his demand to postpone the approval of the international tribunal.

* H. Varulkar is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 30, 2007.

[2] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 320, "The Middle East on a Collision Course (1): Recent Saudi-Iranian Contacts to Resolve the Lebanon Crisis," January 26, 2007, The Middle East on a Collision Course (1): Recent Saudi-Iranian Contacts to Resolve the Lebanon Crisis.

[3] It should be noted that Syrian sources denied reports that Syria had thwarted the Saudi-Iranian agreement, saying that the reports were aimed at harming Syria. The sources added that Syria knew nothing about any Saudi-Iranian initiative, but only about an exchange of ideas between the two countries. According to these sources, Syria was not setting any conditions for efforts to resolve the Lebanon crisis, and supported anything acceptable to the Lebanese. Al-Akhbar, Lebanon, February 2, 2007.

[4] Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 30, 2007.

[5] Website of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, http://www.moqawama.org/ , January 28, 2007; Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 1, 2007.

[6] Website of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, http://www.moqawama.org/ , February 3, 2007.

[7] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 1, 2007.

[8] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 1, 2007, February 2, 2007.

[9] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 1, 2007.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 2, 2007. The paper also reported that Al-Hariri had conveyed to Russia a Saudi request that after his visit to Saudi Arabia, Russian President Vladimir Putin would not visit Qatar, but the request was refused.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 5, 2007.

[12] Website of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, http://www.moqawama.org/, February 5, 2007.

[13] ABC News, February 5, 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/print?id=2849435.