Friday, December 28, 2012

Persona non grata in Beirut

The sudden departure from Beirut of the Syrian interior minister, Mohammad al-Shaar, was a sign of how much has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship. Shaar allegedly took to the skies after being warned by the Lebanese that Interpol might issue an arrest warrant for him, and that Lebanon would have to implement it.

Shaar was brought to town after he was injured in a bomb explosion at the Interior Ministry in Damascus. According to physicians familiar with his case, he mainly suffered burns, but nothing that warranted an extended stay in the Lebanese capital.

The Shaar episode tells us a great deal about what the Assad regime has lost in Lebanon in the past eight years, since the withdrawal of the Syrian army in April 2005. It comes after a Lebanese indictment was issued against the pro-Syrian Lebanese former minister Michel Samaha and against Ali Mamlouk, a senior Syrian security official. But the Shaar incident tells us more. It shows that when the Lebanese face international demands, they will respect them, regardless of how this may damage Beirut’s ties with countries in the Middle East.

Of course, there are limits. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has requested, to no avail, that four Hezbollah operatives be taken into custody for their alleged participation in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister. However, this only affirms that Syria doesn’t have the same pull in Lebanon that it once had, with Shaar standing out in grim contrast to the Hezbollah suspects.

If Lebanon no longer represents a fallback refuge for Bashar al-Assad’s entourage, especially those who have led the vicious repression at home, then what is its ultimate value for the Syrian regime? Lebanon always served as a convenient extension of Syria, a place where Syrian officials could do as they pleased, and where the risk and blame was invariably pushed onto the Lebanese.

This is particularly true of the welfare of the Assad regime’s financial assets, which has been threatened by the imposition of sanctions on Syrian officials, as well as by other pressures from Western countries. The fear among Lebanese banks that they may be punished for acting on behalf of Syrian regime figures is the financial side of international retaliation against the repression in Syria, of which Shaar’s potential arrest would have represented the human rights side.

Among those who will be watching the aftermath of Shaar’s escape is the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali. The ambassador was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department in September 2011 and accused of being responsible for the harassment and disappearance of Syrian dissidents who had fled to Lebanon.

Hezbollah, too, will observe what happens in the future. The party has resisted all efforts to deliver its members to the Lebanese authorities. However, this won’t make their problem go away. If the state begins to bend to foreign requests, Hezbollah may be caught in the middle. For instance, once a trial in absentia begins in The Hague and details emerge on the specifics of the Hariri killing, it could be much more difficult for the party, and for the Lebanese government, to simply do nothing about the four suspects.

Lebanon is being pried open by other demands coming from outside. For instance, the American Internal Revenue Service will impose on Lebanese financial institutions by the start of 2014 legislation known as the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA. FATCA compels financial institutions worldwide to report on their American clients for tax purposes, or else risk seeing the US withhold 30 percent of their income on American financial assets. In a place that swears by banking secrecy, FATCA is no less a challenge to Lebanon’s traditional red lines than would have been Shaar’s arrest.

That doesn’t mean that FATCA, for all its faults, is equivalent to an Interpol arrest warrant. But Lebanon realizes that its latitude to resist demands from abroad is limited, so that one imposition, like the other, confirms the further breakdown in Lebanon’s ability to say “no.” In that context, the Syrian-Lebanese relationship is bound to be harmed even more in the coming years, as Syrian officials are sought out by international bodies for one reason or another.

Syria is used to hitting out against the messenger, and Lebanon is a vulnerable target. Yet the Lebanese are willing to absorb punishment if they can avoid more damaging retaliation from the international community. The choice between satisfying regional countries with an agenda in Lebanon and those further afield will hardly be easy. Beirut’s airport could be busy as individuals leave a city they had once thought safe, international opprobrium biting at their heels.

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