Friday, January 27, 2012

A gesture Lebanon must not ignore

On Wednesday the Syrian National Council, which is leading the opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from abroad, made a significant gesture toward Lebanon.

In a statement the council promised, if it took power in Syria, to turn a “new page” with Lebanon. The rapport between the two countries would be built on a foundation of respect for sovereignty and parity, as well as support for ethnic and religious diversity and pluralism. The council promised to review bilateral agreements between Beirut and Damascus—above all the Syrian-Lebanese Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination, signed in 1991—and abolish the Higher Council that was set up through the treaty.

The Syrian National Council also undertook to terminate the role that Syria’s security services have played in Lebanon, and more broadly to end Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. It said that it would demarcate the Lebanese-Syrian border, especially in the Shebaa Farms area, and affirmed that it would create a committee to investigate the matter of Lebanese held in Syrian prisons.

It would be easy to interpret the move as born of necessity, while the Syrian National Council garners Arab support to topple the Assad regime. The council did indeed speak to potentially damaging ambiguities in its public image, not least the fact that many Lebanese Christians fear an Islamist takeover in Syria. The guarantee of ethnic and religious pluralism was designed to reassure on that front.

However, the statement also represented, potentially, a highly significant moment in the uneasy Syrian-Lebanese relationship. There continues to be a perception in Lebanon, perhaps justified, perhaps not, that whoever controls Syria will pursue some form of hegemony over its smaller western neighbor. Long before the Baathists came to power in Damascus, defenders of this thesis argue, Syria had designs on Lebanon, and that won’t soon change.

Whatever the real answer, don’t take anyone’s word for it. At some stage, perhaps even before the Assad regime falls, Lebanese and Syrian democrats must sit together and clarify what the future holds for their two countries. This may not have an immediate impact on official policy, but stated principles, preferably written down in a consensual document, have a way of filling vacuums; and given the direction in which Syria is going today, a vacuum is likely in the country before a post-Assad order can take hold.

The relationship between Syria and Lebanon has been an orphan of the public debate over the Syrian uprising, indeed over Arab uprisings in general. The narrative of emancipation throughout the region has been focused internally, as one of populations rejecting authoritarian leaderships. There has been little room for a consideration of another type of subjugation, namely of one Arab state by another.

That is a reason, perhaps, why the Lebanese Independence Intifada of 2005 seemed to provoke so little interest last year among those taking to the streets against their regimes. And yet so much in that revolt against Syria was replicated elsewhere in the Arab world—from the way public space was used to stage protests, to the discussion of how to place instruments of state repression under democratic control, to the optimal way of approaching international intervention.

Anyone observing the barbarity of the Syrian leadership today cannot help but spare a thought for the Lebanese, who spent 29 years in one way or another under the Assads’ thumb. There were many in Lebanon who sided with Syria during that time; the violence inflicted by Lebanese on fellow Lebanese during the civil war was appalling. But a large number of those suffering during that period—the tens of thousands killed, injured, maimed, kidnapped or humiliated by Syria or its epigones—did not merit their fate, nor were they ever consulted about what Lebanon’s affiliation with Syria should be like.

That is why the initiative of the Syrian National Council is so necessary. There is baggage to clear away, as well as myriad misperceptions on both sides. Lebanese and Syrians must overcome the insufferable sense of contempt they still frequently display when talking about each other. Syria risks today what Lebanon faced three and a half decades ago, so destructive sectarianism is not solely a Lebanese curse. Yet as more Syrians suffer and become refugees, the Lebanese should recall how greatly they welcomed the empathy, and indulgence, of outsiders in their times of need.

One aspect of Arab uprisings today that require more attention is the way the emergence of more representative governments in certain countries will affect relations with countries next door. One can expect that Egypt will no longer deal with Israel or Gaza in quite the same way as it did under President Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia may not have particularly effective sway over developments in Libya or Algeria, but with time a more open society there may deploy democratic “soft power,” to the irritation of autocrats in the Maghreb.

The nature of Syria’s relations with the Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians and Turks will be essential for assessing the success of the Syrian uprising. Syria’s opposition still must triumph and then establish a democratic government. Yet given the Assads’ proclivity for destabilizing those around them, a new order in Damascus must make it a priority to place regional relationships back on an even keel.

To its credit, the Syrian National Council has taken the first step. Now it’s up to Lebanese democrats to push in the same direction from their end, to ensure the rapid start of a dialogue between governments once that becomes possible. Beirut and Damascus are intertwined. It’s a about time that both sides benefit in equal measure.

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