Thursday, December 15, 2011

What if the Syrians had still been here?

The tendency among many Lebanese today is to deride the Independence Intifada of 2005. This is a result of the high expectations unleashed, then dashed by Lebanon’s factionalism and sectarianism. Yet we should ask, in light of the revolt in Syria, where would Lebanon have been had the protests six years ago not pushed the Syrian army and intelligence services out of the country?

The question is not academic. Lebanon 2005 has been denied its due as a precursor of Arab uprisings this year, even though the popular demands at the time were very similar to what we are witnessing today. A reason for this is that the aftermath of the Lebanese intifada against Syria was, to put it kindly, uncertain. Rather than emerge into a new morning of emancipation, the Lebanese grew apart, within a year were caught up in a war with Israel, and within three found themselves on the cusp of civil war.

And yet judging emancipatory moments by their outcomes can sometimes play surprising tricks, because the unintended consequences are invariably good and bad. It’s best to evaluate such moments on their own merits, and few acts are more laudatory than seeking the replacement of an authoritarian leader and the criminal enterprises with which such individuals surround themselves.

However, that does not mean that we cannot engage in some alternate history, and conclude that the Lebanese were fortunate to see the back of the Syrians six years ago. The reason is that, otherwise, Lebanon, far more so than it is today, would have become a main instrument in the Assad regime’s suppression of its own people.

Recall what happened in 2003, when the Americans invaded Iraq. Though less threatened than now, the Syrians engineered a Cabinet reshuffle that brought in the most ghoulish of their underlings to surround Rafik Hariri, who remained prime minister. Their calculation was that the potentially dangerous American military presence to the east required that Syria reinforce itself in Lebanon and not allow the country’s volatile dynamics to undermine Syrian interests. Much the same logic went into President Bashar Assad’s decision to extend Emile Lahoud’s mandate in 2004.

Assad tried to replicate that logic when he ordered the Lebanese to form a government last June. However, there was a vital difference. Syrian weapons were no longer in Lebanon to enforce Cabinet unity and decisions. Hezbollah’s strength notwithstanding, the party is incapable of imposing unanimity on its refractory countrymen, and indeed has turned into a lighting rod for its political foes.

Had Syria’s army and intelligence services still been in Lebanon, several things would likely have happened. Syrian victims of the violence at home would have been unable to flee across the border into Lebanese territory. Syrian opposition figures would have been hunted down in Beirut in a more efficient way than they presently are. Lebanon’s political and economic systems would have been on a tighter Syrian rope, precipitating a potentially devastating standoff with the international community, possibly harming the banking sector. And Syrian troops and agents would have had to expand their repression to those Lebanese sympathizing with the Syrian protesters, particularly in northern Lebanon, where the Sunni community staunchly backs its brethren in places such as Homs and Hama.

Lebanon would have become a Syrian battering ram in its dealings with the Arabs and the West. Domestic animosities would have been exacerbated, with one group of Lebanese employed by Syria to intimidate the other. As is their way, the Assads would have ensured that if they were destroyed, Lebanon would be as well.

While the government of Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman have closely toed the Syrian line in recent months, they have done so with a wary eye on the Lebanese opposition. The prime minister has been, at best, a hesitant Syrian partner, as he knows well that his political base in Tripoli loathes the Assad leadership. Even Hezbollah has been careful not to overstep the boundaries, because the party appears to be preparing alternative options if the Syrian regime falls. Once Assad goes, Hezbollah has no interest in being dragged into sectarian strife with a reinvigorated Lebanese Sunni community.

Such contradictions, oddly enough, have shielded Lebanon from the Syrian crisis. With a foot in each camp, the Lebanese have until now sailed through the Syrian maelstrom relatively unscathed. There are limits to what Syria can do to destabilize Lebanon by firing warning shots at the international community and Israel. Assad can order his collaborators to plant an occasional bomb along the Tyre road against U.N. patrols, or fire rockets across the border. But at some stage these actions merely discredit his friends in Beirut, or push Hezbollah into an unwanted confrontation with Israel.

There are negatives, of course. By most accounts, weapons are being smuggled from Lebanon into Syria. The vacuum in the north is favoring militant groups, particularly in the Sunni community. These are serious developments. Ideally, the state must take advantage of this situation to better assert itself, without favoritism, in areas where its influence is limited. But that won’t happen soon.

Lebanon dodged a bullet by removing the Syrians when they did. This should not be the yardstick for approval or disapproval of what happened six years ago, but it is useful for re-evaluating what occurred. Perhaps Bashar Assad himself might engage in that exercise. How much more potent would the crushing of his own citizens have been had he not lost Lebanon in 2005.

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