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memri
January 25, 2009 No.
2111

Pro-Syria Lebanese Daily: Why Syria Decided to Establish Diplomatic Relations with Lebanon

Following the recent announcement of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon,[1] Nicholas Nasif, a columnist for the pro-Syria Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, explained why Syria has now agreed to establish relations after decades of refusing to do so.

In his article, Nasif argued that recent events, namely Hizbullah's show of strength in May 2007 and the signing of the Doha agreement, have shifted the balance of power to favor Syria's allies in Lebanon, thus making it easier for Syria to establish relations with it.

Following are excerpts from Nasif's article:

"This Decision Was [Obviously] Based On Important Political Circumstances"

"No matter what excuses are offered by Lebanese government members, by [March 14] politicians, by the [Lebanese] opposition, or by Syrian government members regarding the establishment of the diplomatic [relations] between Lebanon and Syria, this decision was [obviously] based on important political circumstances which made Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad more willing to take this step..."

"[Syria's] Indirect Influence Over The Lebanese Government... [Has] Provided [Syria] with a Solid Guarantee"

"1. Damascus agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon only after it managed, in the wake of the May 7 events, [2] to shift the balance of power there. Up until then, [Syria's] excuse, whenever international forces approached it [about establishing relations]... was that it could not establish relations with a country whose regime was divided.

"Next, they claimed that [Lebanon] had no president, and was ruled only by a government whose legitimacy was in question. [Syria] refused to recognize the legitimacy of [Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad] Al-Siniora's previous government, and [denied that it had] any duty to establish relations with a government controlled by the March 14 Forces.

"However, the events that followed May 7 - including [Hizbullah's] takeover of Beirut, Michel Suleiman's election as president, and the establishment of a national unity government in which the opposition has one-third [of the seats] and thus can veto [any decision] - made establishing relations [with Lebanon] less costly [for Syria], and thus acceptable.

"[Syria's current] indirect influence over the Lebanese government, as well as the frequent displays of friendship between the Lebanese and Syrian presidents, have provided [Syria] with a solid guarantee that facilitated the establishment of relations. Suleiman has put an end to the era of the struggle against Syria - [a struggle] which the March 14 Forces have been trying to perpetuate in the last few years."

"Once Security Coordination [Was Renewed]... Establishing Diplomatic Relations No Longer Posed a Significant Problem"

"2. [Another factor that] lowered the cost to Syria of diplomatic relations [with Lebanon] was its renewal of open security coordination with Lebanon. This was a crucial factor, for it enabled Syria to feel that it no longer had a hostile neighbor, as it had felt in the [days of] the March 14 [government]. Lebanese [Military] Intelligence chief Edmond Fadhel's [October 12, 2008] visit to Syria, when he met with his [Syrian] counterpart Gen. Assef Shawkat, is direct and distinct evidence of security coordination [between the two countries].

"Moreover, it has been revealed that [Lebanese] Army commander Jean Qahwaji secretly visited Damascus on the eve of 'Id Al-Fitr, meeting with the heads of the [Syrian] military to discuss the most burning issues on the two countries' agendas: the monitoring of the [Syrian-Lebanese] border, and the prevention of smuggling and of border infiltration by fighters and [members of] terrorist networks. Following 'Id Al-Fitr there was another secret visit: a Syrian military delegation [visited the Lebanese army headquarters] in Yarzeh to conclude the talks...

"Once security coordination between the two countries [was renewed]... establishing diplomatic relations no longer posed a significant problem for the Syrian president, [because it no longer meant] that Lebanon might free itself entirely from his influence.

"Since [the signing of] the Doha agreement, and the establishment of the [new Lebanese] government that emerged in its wake, Assad has become an invisible partner in [Lebanon's] political decision-making [processes]."

"In The Past Three Months... Syria Has Managed to Completely Transform the [Political] Agenda... [From] The Issue Of] Hizbullah's Weapons To [That Of] Extremists [In Lebanon]"

"3. In the past three months, and especially since Assad's July 13, 2008 summit with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Syria has managed to completely transform the [political] agenda. It has shifted [Lebanese] political discourse's focus from [the topic of] Hizbullah's weapons to [that of] extremists and their terrorist cells [in Lebanon], which pose a serious threat to Syria, Lebanon and the [entire] region.

"This [new focus] was soon adopted by the French and by [other] Europeans. In recent weeks, Assad has continually reiterated [his statements about the terrorist cells [in Lebanon], focusing mainly on the terrorist strongholds in the north. Naturally, this has become a top priority for the Lebanese army, as evident from the [recent] exposure of the terrorist cell. [3]

"[As a result,] the debate about Hizbullah's arms, about [Lebanon's] defense strategy, and about the national dialogue has died down, [while] terrorism has become the top priority..."

Al-Hariri Assassination Suspect Assef Shawkat Is Now in Charge of Security Coordination with Lebanon

"4. Now that [Syria] has renewed its military coordination with the [Lebanese] army, and its security coordination with the Lebanese intelligence... [it is clear that] opening an embassy in Beirut... does not cause it to lose much of its influence in Lebanon. Syria made sure that [Lebanese President] Michel Suleiman would truly cooperate with it, and [then] resumed its reliance on its allies in [the Lebanese government], who block any decision that might harm its interests.

"The best illustration of this [new] state of affairs is Gen. Assef Shawkat. For the last three years, the March 14 Forces have considered him their chief suspect in the assassination of [former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq] Al-]Hariri - [but now] he has been put in charge of [military] cooperation in the campaign against terrorism, and serves as liaison with Lebanon's intelligence chief on these matters.

"[Lebanon's] security coordination with Syria - which is insisted upon by the Lebanese president and by the army commander themselves - has replaced all the accusations [by the March 14 Forces], who used to blame Syria for murders and bombings [in Lebanon]."

[1] On October 15, 2008, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem and his Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Sallouh issued a joint statement announcing the establishment of diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon. The statement stressed the need to preserve the special friendship between the two countries, and to tighten relations between them based on mutual respect for each country's sovereignty and independence. Al-Thawra (Syria), October 16, 2008.

[2] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), October 16, 2008.

[3] On October 12, 2008, the Lebanese army reported the arrest of several members of a terrorist cell that had been involved in the recent attacks in Tripoli; the cell members were identified as Fath Al-Islam members. Fath Al-Islam members arrested following the Nahr Al-Bared battles in May through September of 2007 have testified that many of the organization's leaders are connected to the Syrian regime and Syrian intelligence. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 365, "Syrian Efforts to Deny Fath Al-Islam Affiliation With Syrian Intelligence," July 20, 2007, Syrian Efforts to Deny Fath Al-Islam Affiliation With Syrian Intelligence.