Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In death, as in life, ‘Syria’s man’ proves Assad’s folly

The death last week of the former Lebanese prime minister, Omar Karami, had an interesting subtext. Mr Karami was a prominent ally of Syria, and his political fortunes after 2005, when he last served in office, were a useful illustration of the decline of the Syrian regime and its capacity to tarnish friends.

Mr Karami gained national political prominence following the assassination of his brother Rashid in 1987. The brothers hailed from Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city. Rashid was one of the country’s leading Sunni politicians, the son of the important independence-era figure Abdel Hamid Karami and a pro-Nasser Pan-Arabist who served eight times as prime minister.

Omar Karami became prime minister in 1990, heading Lebanon’s first post-civil war government. The end of the conflict was effectively based on a Syrian-Saudi understanding. It gave Syria free rein in Lebanon, but would eventually pave the way for the arrival of Rafik Hariri as head of government in late 1992, partly to protect Saudi stakes in the country.

Omar Karami served in the interim before Hariri took office. He was toppled in May 1992 after popular protests against the declining economic situation. The fact that many of Syria’s allies participated in the protests suggested Damascus had sacrificed Karami. After parliamentary elections organised by the interim government that summer, Hariri took over, gradually overwhelming traditional Sunni politicians.

Not surprisingly, then, Omar Karami’s return as prime minister came at a moment when relations between Syria and Hariri had virtually reached breaking point. President Bashar Al Assad had forced Hariri and his bloc to vote in favour of extending the term of Lebanon’s president Emile Lahoud, who was Hariri’s bitterest political enemy.

Moreover, Syria held Hariri partly responsible for the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarmament of Hizbollah. Worse, the former prime minister intended to challenge pro-Syrian candidates in the parliamentary elections of 2005, and was more than likely to defeat them.

To many observers, this is what led to Hariri’s assassination in February 2005, effectively turning Lebanon’s Sunnis against Syria. Omar Karami found himself uncomfortably in the middle, having threatened Hariri before his assassination, even if no one seriously believed he was involved in the crime.

Karami resigned as anti-Syrian protests grew, then sought to form a new government. This proved impossible and the prime minister stepped down for good. As a sign of how low he had fallen, he was not a candidate in the parliamentary elections, knowing that he would be humiliated by his pro-Hariri adversaries. It was a stunning reversal for a Karami in Tripoli.

The final humiliation came in 2011, when Karami was momentarily touted as a replacement for prime minister Saad Hariri who was ousted by Hizbollah and its allies. But the symbolism in bringing back a pro-Syrian who was in office when Rafik Hariri was killed was too stark even for Hizbollah. There was some consolation when Omar Karami’s son Faysal became a minister in 2011, perpetuating the political line, but things were changing in Tripoli. In January 2013, Faysal’s convoy was attacked, prompting the aunt of a Christian politician allied with the Karamis to exclaim: “What are things coming to when the Karami boy is shot at in Tripoli?”

But Omar Karami’s problem was not the breakdown of deference but his association with Mr Assad. In Tripoli, support for Syria’s uprising is strong and memories of Syrian rule are bad. The Alawite regime in Damascus had always kept the mainly Sunni city on a tight leash, to ensure it would not affect sectarian politics inside Syria.

In Lebanon, where the Syrians imposed their hegemony for 29 years, they failed to leave anything lasting. Aside from Hizbollah, which has an independent political base, most pro-Syrian politicians and parties were marginalised after the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.

Under Mr Assad, Syria seriously mismanaged its Lebanese alliances, alienating many of its oldest partners. In order to impose Mr Lahoud for several more years, Mr Assad lost Hariri and the Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, both pillars of the Syrian order in Lebanon. This was foolish when the Syrians could have easily brought in another president as loyal as Mr Lahoud.

The episode spoke volumes about Mr Assad’s insecurities. Where the Syrian president enforced his will through threats, his father Hafez used violence in a discerning fashion. Hafez Al Assad was ruthless, but he was also cautious and respected the complexities of the Lebanese system. He knew that building coalitions in support of his agenda was always better than force.

Omar Karami paid a price in 1992 when his government fell, but there were compensations. He was a political fixture in Tripoli, and remained a perennial alternative to Hariri. It was his misfortune that Hariri was murdered on his watch, and his predecessor’s demise precipitated his own political end.

Karami was buried with the customary expressions of regard for a former official. Yet few had truly forgotten. He came from a distinguished political family, but will continue to be remembered, and denigrated, as Syria’s man.

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