Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Syria's Triumph in Lebanon: Au Revoir, Les Ententes

by Gary C. Gambill

Since the ignominious withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus has managed to regain dominion over the country by exploiting its adversaries' conflicting interests and weak resolve.

As the Lebanese political crisis worsened, and their own situation became more perilous, their focus became more and more narrow; rather than rallying the Lebanese people to save their state, they focused on rallying foreign support… they remained at war with each other over strategy and control of policy.

Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, on Lebanon's March 14 coalition.[1]

In the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, Syria faced a seemingly perfect storm of American, French, and Saudi determination to end its longstanding domination of Lebanon. Today, these same foreign powers have come to accept a creeping restoration of Syrian influence over the country that has yet to fully peak. Although Syrian troops have not returned, that is precisely what makes the transformation so remarkable. Subduing Lebanon without having to occupy it is a goal that has eluded the Syrians for decades.

While the sheer scale of this volte-face by the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia implies that some fundamental miscalculation was made in their bid for strategic and political preeminence in Lebanon (for surely things turned out much worse than they anticipated going in), most analysis of the issue has been exculpatory and vacuous. Lamentations about Syrian subversion skirt the question of what unanticipated problem threw a wrench into the works (no one underestimated Syrian capabilities after the Hariri assassination). Talk about the regional balance favoring Damascus obscures the fact that developments in Lebanon fueled this tilt, not vice versa.

While there were many intervening variables, the seminal miscalculation underlying the Western-Saudi defeat concerned the strength and unity of Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. In a nation where Christians and Shi’a comprise roughly two-thirds of the population, this motley political alliance failed to win a clear popular vote majority outside of the Sunni and Druze communities in three tries at the ballot box,[2] captured just one of Lebanon's troika of high government offices, and never gained primacy over critical administrative, judicial, and security institutions. Too weak to capture a controlling stake in government, yet too fragmented to remain united in pursuit of anything less, the coalition's raison d'être hinged on expectations that Syrian President Bashar Asad would be forced by the international community not merely to desist from obstructionism, but to help clear away the political roadblocks.

Despite their unparalleled combination of military, economic, and sociocultural power, Washington, Paris, and Riyadh never came close to winning such a decisive Syrian capitulation in Lebanon. The three governments were driven by conflicting interests in the Syria-Lebanon theater that ruled out most of the key ingredients typically found in successful coercive diplomacy. Insofar as they shared a common consensus on how to deal with Syria, it was plagued by split-the-difference compromises and diplomatic free riding that facilitated Asad's escape from international isolation.

Like the March 14 coalition, the international alliance was united primarily by an instrumental logic that failed to obtain absent the prospect of a game-changing Syrian reorientation that would meet everyone's needs. Both ententes began to crumble once that ship had sailed, as all of the major domestic and foreign players in the Lebanese arena began seeking their own self-interested accommodations with Damascus. The emerging equilibrium bears more than a passing resemblance to the past.


With 17 officially recognized sectarian communities, each with distinct transnational religious and ethnic ties, no country is more politically attuned to its external environment than Lebanon. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, its feudalistic elites have drawn protection and patronage from interested outsiders, much as they dispensed the same at home. This cross-fertilization of external and internal power dynamics is enabled by a political system that distributes fixed allotments of executive and legislative power by sect (though no longer commensurate with current demographics),[3] virtually mandates a weak state, and reifies sectarian solidarities in myriad other ways.

Foreign patronage comes in a dizzying array of types. Substantively, it can take the form of economic, military, political, and diplomatic support. It can be aboveground or covert. It can accrue directly to particular political groups or indirectly to a governing coalition by way of official aid channels.

While ethno-sectarian identity encourages certain pairings (Shi’a and Iran, Sunnis and Saudi Arabia, etc.), patron-client relationships tend to be primarily functional, often fungible. In Lebanon, those who most vocally commit themselves to bold political agendas are not infrequently among the first to abandon them when circumstances change. During the 1975-1990 civil war, Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) commander Elie Hobeiqa transformed from a reliable friend of Israel into a loyal henchman of Syria in just a few years. His successor, Samir Geagea, went from fighting the Syrians to supporting their 1990 rout of Gen. Michel Aoun's beleaguered army units in as short a time. Parliament's 1982 election of Bashir Gemayel as president (unthinkable prior to the Israeli invasion months earlier) was perhaps the most striking collective manifestation of this adaptive trait, but it was on continuous display during the "era of Syrian tutelage" (1990-2005).

The true strength of external loyalties in Lebanon is not always apparent
, as each client often has structural incentives to present itself as more extreme (relative to mutual adversaries) than its patron: maximizing the quid pro quo it receives for compromising (from both its patron and its opponents) and maximizing its patron's quid pro quo for ostensibly moderating a recalcitrant ally. Outward displays of friction between patron and client are quite frequently the product of tactical coordination.

External allegiances are often more diversified than they appear. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the undisputed master of "triangulation," is said to have secretly met with senior Israeli officials in the early 1980s, even as he battled Geagea's Israeli-backed militiamen with Syrian arms. "Machiavelli would have been out of his depth in this web of intrigue and violence," wrote the late British war correspondent Edgar O'Ballance.
[4] Although Lebanese frequently complain about the mercurial external allegiances of their leaders, very few cry foul when their favorite politicians play this game successfully.

Syrian-occupied Lebanon was stable because foreign governments that had the power to subvert it chose not to. In return for Syria's "help" securing the release of American hostages in Beirut, membership in the 1990-1991 Gulf War coalition, and willingness to negotiate with Israel, Washington publicly opposed Aoun's "war of liberation" against Syrian forces,
[5] green-lighted Syria's invasion to topple him,[6] and supported the occupation[7] well into the next millennium. Saudi Arabia poured billions of dollars in aid and investment into Lebanon (and Syria) to advance the late Prime Minister Hariri, a billionaire who spent most of his adult life in the kingdom and assumed Saudi citizenship. European governments provided a steady lifeline of debt relief assistance, subsidizing an economy that hemorrhaged nearly 10 percent of its GDP in graft.[8] Even Iran played a part in propping up the system, insofar as its financing of the Lebanese Shi’i Hizballah movement's social welfare network enabled the governing elite to indulge in retrogressive socioeconomic policies without sparking civil unrest (It had only to tolerate the presence of a private guerilla army on Lebanese soil hell-bent on fighting Israel.). While Aoun's predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) spearheaded boisterous campus demonstrations against the occupation, most Lebanese refrained from any form of civil disobedience so long as the outside world preached quietism toward Damascus.


In 2004-2005, the United States and France launched a coordinated effort (tacitly backed by Saudi Arabia) to subvert Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, first by unsuccessfully pressuring Damascus to allow parliament to elect a successor to President Emile Lahoud without interference, then by lobbying the UN Security Council to demand a Syrian withdrawal and encouraging the formation of a pro-independence political front capable of winning a decisive legislative majority in the 2005 elections. Though united in pursuit of this goal, the three governments were motivated by different interests.

American interests in Lebanon are primarily extrinsic. Three successive U.S. administrations tacitly backed Syria's occupation to encourage its "moderation" in other regional theaters. President George W. Bush progressively withdrew this consent to retaliate for Syrian material and logistical support for anti-U.S. militants in Iraq, first with a warning shot (Secretary of State Colin Powell's March 2003 use of the word "occupation," hitherto absent from the U.S. diplomatic lexicon on Lebanon),
[9] followed by sanctions and an impressive campaign of multilateral diplomacy. As Syrian control of Lebanon began to crumble, the administration resolved to win a more comprehensive strategic capitulation, including a halt to Syria's transshipment of Iranian arms to Hizballah and the expulsion of extremist Palestinian leaders from Damascus.[10] Few Bush administration officials were truly in favor of regime change--most wanted a Qadhafi-style turnabout by Asad, and inciting opposition to his regime in Lebanon and Syria was considered the most promising method of turning the screws.

In contrast, the French and Saudis have primarily intrinsic interests in Lebanon, rooted in cultural, religious, and linguistic links (to Maronite Christians and Sunnis, respectively); geographic proximity; and economic ties. While these interests are both reinforced by and balanced against other regional interests, they are not defined primarily by the pursuit of positive externalities. French President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) and most of the Saudi royal family were decidedly unsympathetic to the Bush administration's broader regional aims--their primary grievance about Syrian misbehavior in the region was Lebanon
[11] (third for Washington, behind Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian theater), and this grievance largely concerned politics, not security. Under Chirac, French policy toward Lebanon aligned closely with that of the Saudis (and away from the marginalized Maronite political establishment), as Hariri was a close personal friend (and reputed political financier)[12] of the president.

France and Saudi Arabia also have significant intrinsic and extrinsic interests in Syria. Like Lebanon, the country is a semi-francophone former colonial mandate of Paris and therefore a natural center of gravity for the projection of French soft power in the Middle East. The Saudi royal family is of many different minds regarding Syria (ranging from the dovish billionaire al-Walid bin Talal to the hawkish Bush family confidante Bandar bin Sultan), but the general consensus is that Asad can and should be co-opted. At the time of Hariri's killing, the Saudis had poured more investment capital into Syria than all other Arab nations combined.

Washington, Paris, and Riyadh all strongly supported Asad before his controversial hereditary ascension in 2000 (a notable case of effective diplomatic patronage in an authoritarian setting) and tried to groom him as a partner until the Syrian leader insisted on marginalizing Hariri in favor of President Lahoud (the primary French and Saudi grievance in Lebanon) and permitting Hizballah to operate unhindered (the primary American grievance in Lebanon). With Washington abandoning its traditional appeasement policy toward Damascus in the wake of its invasion of Iraq, the French and Saudis concluded that the time was right to challenge Syrian primacy in Lebanon. After Hariri's assassination, this sober calculation was reinforced by a deeply personal thirst for justice on the part of Chirac and many in the Saudi royal family. However, neither government was willing to contemplate a complete break with Asad, or even apply economic pressure, for fear of compromising its pursuit of an advantageous accommodation with Damascus down the road. Both had to contend with competition from rival governments that have no overriding interests in Lebanon (and therefore fewer qualms about dealing with Syria). In a classic illustration of regional triangulation, Turkey and Qatar took the opportunity to improve relations with Damascus after Hariri's assassination, as did Russia and China.

Consequently, Syria faced little exogenous financial hardship even at the height of its diplomatic isolation. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country more than tripled in the four years after Hariri's assassination,
[14] while its GDP and foreign trade nearly doubled.[15] Even American trade with Syria continued to increase steadily, in spite of bilateral U.S. sanctions.[16]

Nevertheless, it was widely presumed that Lebanon's extrication from the Syrian orbit could be achieved (albeit with some temporary curtailments of its sovereignty in the security realm) simply by forcing Syrian troops out, holding internationally monitored elections, and establishing a UN investigation into the Hariri assassination to deter Syrian malfeasance. The Franco-Saudi pursuit of political payoffs in Lebanon dovetailed neatly with the American pursuit of strategic payoffs only so long as this roadmap remained viable.


The murder of Hariri was not the unmitigated blunder once proclaimed by many Western analysts.
[17] At the time of his killing, Hariri's Sunni-dominated Future Movement had entered into a tacit alliance with Jumblatt and Christian opposition leaders with the intent of thrashing the pro-Syrian Lahoudist bloc in parliamentary elections that spring. Like the killing of President-Elect Bashir Gemayel 23 years earlier, the assassination was "the last remaining Syrian option to prevent a broad-based opposition bloc from materializing," observes Walid Phares.[18]

It worked. After the Syrian withdrawal in April 2005, the anti-Syrian coalition split along pre-existing lines of rivalry as Jumblatt and most of the Christian political establishment fell out with Aoun, refusing to offer the FPM a share of seats in the coalition's campaign slates commensurate with its proven electoral strength.
[19] Jumblatt (and, to a lesser extent, Hariri's son and successor, Sa’ad) preferred having a loose group of weak Christian governing partners over Aoun, while Aoun's Christian rivals were willing to risk anything to avoid taking a back seat to their longtime political nemesis.

The result was rump coalition with majority support only in the Sunni and Druze communities. The Hariri-Jumblatt axis managed to win a slim legislative majority in 2005 because of occupation era gerrymandering that diluted Christian votes and a pact with Hizballah and the pro-Syrian secular Shi’i Amal movement (known as the Quadripartite Alliance),
[20] but it fell short of capturing the two-thirds supermajority needed to overcome the Lebanese constitution's extensive minoritarian checks.[21] This ruled out the impeachment of Lahoud and left the coalition unable to purge the military-intelligence apparatus and judiciary of Syrian appointees.

Washington and Paris did little to discourage the Christian split, partly owing to their longstanding distrust of Aoun and partly because they took at face value assurances from local supplicants (some disingenuous) that his Change and Reform coalition would win no more than a handful of seats. American and French diplomats in Beirut had little inkling that the pursuit of a supermajority had been seriously jeopardized until Change and Reform swept majority Christian districts. By then, it was too late to defuse the long-brewing intra-Christian rivalry, as Aoun's electoral success fed political ambitions that his rivals would never be willing to accommodate, even in the service of battling Syrian domination.
[22] After the elections, they refused to accept top-tier cabinet representation for the FPM, fearing (correctly) that this would strengthen Aoun's bid for the presidency.

Instead, Sa’ad Hariri and Jumblatt invited the Shi’i bloc (and even a few Lahoudists) into the cabinet, which issued a ministerial statement effectively recognizing Hizballah's right to bear arms.
[23] While the constitution allows a legislative majority to form a cabinet entirely of its choosing (provided it is confessionally balanced), excluding the most powerful political representatives of the country's two largest religious communities was a recipe for political turmoil that (rhetoric aside) Hariri was never willing to consider seriously. In short, the parliamentary majority was too politically weak to govern without the acquiescence of Asad, as underscored by the July 2005 arrival of new Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora (a Hariri loyalist) in Damascus.


While the Hariri assassination suggested that Asad was not inclined to accept Lebanon's departure from Syria's orbit, American, French, and Saudi officials were initially optimistic that he could be coerced into doing just that. The murder was thought to be the Syrian leader's Achilles heel, as it was virtually certain that some node of his intelligence apparatus was involved,
[24] and highly unlikely that any node would take such drastic action without say-so from the very top. With the UN's state-of-the-art International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) on the ground in Beirut and a cooperative Lebanese government in place, it was presumably only a matter of time before conclusive evidence implicating senior Syrian officials came to light.

Once this smoking gun was found, Asad would presumably be forced to surrender the perpetrators for trial, refuse to do so and endure UN sanctions, or make concessions to his adversaries beforehand to stave off the imminent threat of indictments against his inner circle--any of which would enormously bolster the parliamentary majority in Lebanon. Expectations that the IIIC would conclusively establish Syrian complicity peaked after IIIC prosecutor Detlev Mehlis issued an October 2005 interim report featuring witness accounts of Syrian orchestration of the murder.

Paradoxically, however, early confidence in the IIIC undermined the entente's willingness to apply other forms of pressure on Syria. The French were reluctant to push for European Union (EU) sanctions before the IIIC completed its investigation, in part because they assumed that the findings would make the imposition of sanctions either unnecessary (if Asad cut a deal) or unavoidable (if he did not). The Saudis (and the Egyptians) concluded that the seemingly marginal benefits of adding further to Syria's diplomatic isolation were outweighed by the reputational costs of appearing to collaborate with the occupier of Iraq in subduing another Arab regime. During a critical window of opportunity when anti-Syrian sentiment in the region and Asad's fear of the IIIC investigation were both at a peak, Damascus faced no multilateral economic sanctions or stifling regional diplomatic isolation, and this was partly because so many people believed that such measures would not be needed to bring Asad to heel.

Confidence in the investigation also led Washington and Paris to push the parliamentary majority into a politically costly effort to ratify the establishment of a "robust" international tribunal to try Hariri's assassins. When the majority passed a cabinet resolution asking the UN to establish a tribunal in December 2005, the Shi’i bloc began a two-month boycott of the cabinet. A year later, March 14 cabinet ministers unilaterally approved a charter for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) that facilitated American influence over judicial appointments, allowed for in absentia trials (critical, because few expected Asad to turn over suspects), and relaxed the evidentiary threshold for issuing indictments,
[26] touching off an 18-month boycott that paralyzed the government. All of this was for naught, as the opposition blocked ratification by preventing the requisite parliamentary quorum.

Although the tribunal was later established by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN charter, it never made good on the political capital spent in pursuit of it. The IIIC and the STL played an important role in bolstering Lebanese perceptions of Western resolve, but they proved to be ineffective deterrents against assassinations in Lebanon (which continued unabated) and unreliable instruments of pressure on Syria (in part because explicit, irreversible guarantees of immunity could not legally, and therefore not altogether credibly, be offered to Asad in exchange for strategic or political concessions).

Moreover, the most sensational witness testimonies recorded in the first IIIC report were largely discredited by the time of the STL's establishment in mid-2007.
[27] The commission made no further mention of evidence directly implicating Syria after the abrupt departure of Mehlis in January 2006, and every suspect arrested at his behest was eventually released. This unimpressive scorecard did little to exonerate Damascus, but it steadily reduced expectations that the hammer was going to fall anytime soon.[28] Asad remained concerned that the hammer would fall eventually, but this only strengthened his determination to regain supremacy in Lebanon (the only way he could be sure of derailing the investigation). Although the IIIC later made progress in linking Hizballah to the killing (which implies Syrian involvement),[29] by that time the battle for Lebanon was effectively over.


Asad's most formidable defense against pressure from Washington, Paris, and Riyadh was his ability to paralyze the Siniora government. Syria's Lebanese clients controlled large minority blocs in parliament and the cabinet; held the offices of president and parliament speaker; dominated both the military and the General Security Directorate, and commanded the preponderance of non-state paramilitary forces in Lebanon.

This weapon was particularly decisive because Syria's three international adversaries had markedly different preferences regarding the breakdown of political cohabitation between Hariri and Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah. Washington favored a breakdown over any political accommodation that limited the parliamentary majority's ability to govern unilaterally, a stance that found strong support from Druze and Christian members of March 14. The French and the Saudis were far less favorably disposed to a breakdown, owing both to their own preferences and to Hariri's strong base of support among the stability-craving Beirut commercial elite. For Asad, fomenting instability and government paralysis in Lebanon was a surefire way of straining consensus within the anti-Syria alliance.

American strategy for neutralizing Asad's instability advantage was premised on the assumption that his Alawi-dominated regime was so threatened by discontent among its own majority Sunni constituents (or could be so threatened) that it would not long stomach a no-holds-barred struggle against a Sunni-dominated coalition just a few hours drive from Damascus. In order to ensure that no holds were barred, Washington and some members of the Saudi royal family encouraged the parliamentary majority to antagonize Hizballah, escalate its anti-Syrian rhetoric, and forge ties with the Syrian opposition. Much as Jumblatt had unleashed barrages of blood-curdling anti-American incitement in 2004 to reassure Asad of his loyalty,
[30] he now called for the overthrow of his former benefactor[31] and hosted a delegation of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the Bush administration began tacitly (and, according to some reports, actively)[32] supporting Saudi funding of militant anti-Shi’i (and anti-Alawi) Salafi groups in Lebanon[33] as a means of making the breakdown of law and order in Lebanon more dicey for Asad.

While this "constructive instability" stratagem may have been based on a sound reading of Asad's anxieties, the logic of threatening his regime's vital interests in Lebanon as a means of encouraging its disengagement from the country was flawed by an implicit assumption of risk-averse Syrian decision-making (strangely, many in Washington viewed the Syrian leader as both fundamentally incorrigible and likely to throw in the towel if pushed hard enough) and underestimation of Asad's ability to manage internal dissent. Rather than spooking the Syrians, turmoil in Lebanon mainly served to undermine Saudi and French resolve.


The most vexing decision faced by each member of the international entente was whether, when, and under what conditions to engage in high-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus. Such contacts were not really necessary to resolve any of the fundamental issues in dispute (all three governments maintained diplomatic relations and longstanding back channels of communication with Syria), ipso facto facilitated Asad's efforts to normalize relations with the rest of the world, and helped defuse local opposition to his regime. Actually reconciling with Riyadh, Paris, and Washington was less important (and more costly) to the Syrian leader than cultivating the popular perception that a rapprochement might happen at any time with one or more of them--making his political opponents at home (and in Lebanon) more wary of going out on a limb.

Despite these exorbitant "transaction costs," one or more members of the entente were engaged in high-profile diplomatic exchanges with Syria throughout most of the battle for Lebanon. Although the Bush administration largely abstained, it did little to discourage either the Saudis or the French from undertaking direct talks and frequently communicated its preferences through their diplomats. All of these engagement cycles failed to produce a lasting settlement in Lebanon for the same reason: Syria was never willing to make the irreversible strategic and political concessions demanded by Washington at any given time, and Washington was capable of obstructing any settlement in Beirut that fell short of its desiderata.

The Saudis remained diplomatically engaged with the Syrians for over a year after the Hariri assassination. With the Arab public clamoring for opposition to U.S. intervention in the region and Cairo seeking to supplant Riyadh's role as arbiter between Syria and the West, they could not allow themselves to be seen as leaving Asad to his fate. In the wake of the first cabinet boycott, Riyadh hoped to secure a "normalization" of Lebanese-Syrian relations that would allow Lebanon to sit out the storm as Syria's (and Iran's) confrontation with the West reached its climax. For this, it was reportedly willing to accept a settlement that recognized Hizballah's right to bear arms
[34] and even floated a proposal requiring the parliamentary majority to desist from anti-Syrian media activity (much as its own media outlets would assuredly do in the event of a Saudi-Syrian détente).

The Bush administration, however, was determined to thwart any agreement that limited the majority's ability to govern unilaterally without major reciprocal Syrian concessions. In particular, it wanted Asad to engineer the resignation (or impeachment) of President Lahoud and the election of a friendly candidate to the Christian post,
[35] which would both strengthen the parliamentary majority and bolster the stature of U.S.-backed Christian leaders within it. As Washington (and Paris) issued public statements opposing "deals or compromises" with Damascus,[36] Jumblatt and his Christian allies torpedoed Saudi draft proposals[37] and began calling for Asad's downfall.

Although Riyadh officially rebuked "voices in Lebanon" advocating violence against the Asad regime,
[38] many Saudis privately encouraged such strident rhetoric as a foil to impress upon him the dangers of being unreasonable. However, this may only have reinforced his reluctance to accept a Saudi-brokered "normalization" in Lebanon absent a Syrian-American détente and explicit guarantees regarding the tribunal. The result was an ad hoc continuation of an untenable status quo in Lebanon. Although the Shi’i bloc ended its first cabinet boycott in exchange for unspecified private assurances regarding Hizballah's arms and a public statement from Siniora implying that the "resistance" was not a militia subject to disarmament under UNSC Resolution 1559,[39] the Quadripartite Alliance was essentially defunct. Nasrallah gravitated toward Aoun, while the Hariri-Jumblatt axis (now having formally named itself "March 14" after the massive 2005 anti-Syrian demonstration in Beirut) continued to escalate its anti-Syrian rhetoric and began to call more openly for Hizballah's disarmament.

However discomforting this turn of events may have been to Asad, the failed Saudi (and Egyptian) mediation efforts palpably relieved Syria's regional isolation at its moment of greatest peril. In March 2006, the Arab League unanimously expressed "solidarity with Syria in the face of international pressure,"
[40] a vote of confidence that would have been unthinkable had Saudi King Abdallah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak not held a cordial summit with Asad weeks earlier with the declared purpose of forestalling "inappropriate foreign intervention in the region."[41] With overt ostracism of Asad by his regional peers failing to materialize, pro-democracy forces in Syria began to lose momentum and Syria felt free to deepen its alliance with Iran.[42]

The international entente belatedly rallied against Asad in the wake of Hizballah's deadly July 2006 raid against Israel, but this burst of resolve was premised on erroneous expectations that Israel's retaliatory campaign against Lebanon would critically weaken Hizballah politically.
[43] It did not. After the war, the Shi’i bloc joined the FPM in demanding a national unity government with a blocking minority of opposition cabinet seats and (following the tribunal charter dispute) formally withdrew from the Siniora government. This left March 14 facing a united opposition front claiming majority support among Shi’a and Christians, massive anti-government demonstrations,[44] and public opinion polls indicating that most Lebanese wanted a new government.[45]

Far from damaging Syria's international standing, the turmoil in Lebanon became the primary catalyst of its reintroduction into polite diplomatic society. In late 2006 and early 2007, Asad played host to the foreign ministers of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, as well as the chief foreign policy advisor of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana--all seeking first and foremost to talk about Lebanon. French and Saudi officials soon followed.


However inartfully worded, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's remark (upon embarking for Syria) that "the road to solving Lebanon's problems passes through Damascus"
[46] captured perfectly the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington, Paris, and Riyadh in the spring of 2007. Her detractors in the White House did not really dispute that a solution to Lebanon's problems would ultimately require some kind of understanding with Syria--they simply objected to the use of upfront diplomatic carrots (particularly by congressional freelancers) to get it.

Although more willing to compromise with Asad on some issues of dispute, the Bush administration remained determined not to relinquish its "equity" in whatever government arose from a resolution to the Lebanese crisis. A blocking minority was unacceptable not so much because it would enable the opposition to bring down the government (Hizballah could already do this de facto), but because it would weaken March 14 Christians vis-à-vis Aoun (benefiting Hizballah, at least in the short run). Maximizing their share of the cabinet and securing the election of a friendly successor to President Lahoud were seen as mission critical to ensuring that American interests in Lebanon were not attenuated in the wake of the inevitable Saudi-Syrian détente. Moreover, the administration had staked so much symbolic capital on the ultimate triumph of March 14 that a "no victor, no vanquished" power-sharing formula would have been a blow to American prestige in the region.

Since Hariri remained unwilling to form a new government without Hizballah's endorsement (or even seek to cultivate strong alliances with anti-Hizballah Shi’i figures in anticipation of doing this eventually),
[47] the only path to a political outcome acceptable to Washington and its Lebanese allies lay in Nasrallah effectively abandoning his alliance with Aoun. However, this cross-sectarian alliance was far too powerful a political asset for the Hizballah leader to discard in exchange for the kind of weak assurances March 14 could offer without alienating Washington. Since the Iranians were unwilling to rein in Hizballah at the height of their standoff with the West, this left Syrian intervention as the only possible means of squaring the circle. Syrian non-interference, however desirable in principle, was insufficient in practice to resolve the Lebanese crisis favorably.

Obstructing an undesirable settlement proved easy enough for the Bush administration. Washington vastly increased economic and security aid to the Siniora government (particularly institutions firmly under the March 14 control, like the Internal Security Forces), while gently hinting of a cutoff should the coalition share power.
[48] It authorized covert CIA assistance to March 14 politicians,[49] feted them with warm official receptions in Washington, and turned a blind eye to their embryonic militia forces.

However, the administration still struggled to construct a coherent hypothetical path leading to the kind of Syrian decisions that would resolve the Lebanon crisis to its satisfaction. Damascus was being asked not merely to desist from encouraging obstructionism by Hizballah, but to force the movement to annul both a commitment that Nasrallah had repeatedly declared inviolable and an alliance that clicked perfectly with the logic of Lebanon's sectarian political system. If Asad was indeed capable of such a feat (by no means clear), it could only come at the expense of his alliance with Iran, a relationship more critical than ever to maintaining Syrian influence in Lebanon and the region. With Syria's isolation steadily eroding and the prospect of IIIC indictments growing more distant, it made little sense for Asad to undertake such a "backdoor" strategic reorientation at any price.

Insofar as there was an offense in the administration's efforts to shape the outcome of Lebanon's political crisis, it was its promotion of a bold plan for March 14 to elect its own presidential candidate unilaterally under a controversial interpretation of the constitution that negates the two-thirds parliamentary quorum requirement. Clearly the hope was that the threat of a "50+1 election" would invite Syrian support for a U.S.-approved compromise candidate. However, the threat was never credible, as Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir remained unwilling to offer public support for waiving the quorum requirement (traditionally seen as a safeguard against Muslim deputies imposing weak and pliable candidates to the Christian office) so long as Christian public opinion remained so deeply polarized. The Bush administration made considerable efforts to erode Christian support for the opposition, such as ending official contacts with Aoun and issuing an executive order targeting his Lebanese-American financial supporters, but made little headway.

American leverage was further undermined by the May 2007 departure of Chirac, whose Lebanon policy had become so tarnished at home that his own aides
complained to the American media about his "obsession" with the country.[50] Though more sympathetic to American positions on most regional issues, incoming President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed that French policy toward Lebanon would be "deepened and freed from a personal outlook on things"[51] (i.e., less derivative of support for Hariri) and clearly meant it. Restoring a semblance of France's traditional claim to impartiality in Lebanese politics, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner welcomed Aoun to Paris in June 2007 and hosted a conference of all the major Lebanese political factions the following month.

The French initiative failed to break the impasse, while undermining the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Aoun (not to mention Hizballah), which faltered a few months later when former President Amine Gemayel was narrowly defeated by a virtually unknown FPM candidate in a parliamentary by-election trumpeted by the March 14 press as a de facto referendum on the presidency. By the end of the year, Washington had downsized its ambitions to accept the election of pro-Syrian Gen. Michel Suleiman merely in exchange for Asad forcing Hizballah to back away from its demand for a blocking minority (a combination expected to marginalize Aoun). While publicly maintaining that the choice of a Lebanese president was not up for discussion with Syria, the administration tacitly supported high-level French and Saudi negotiations with Syria to win such a compromise.

French talks with Damascus went nowhere. Facing no credible threat of punishment for non-cooperation and quite content to let the Lebanese crisis drag on, Asad had little reason to intervene, even after Sarkozy vowed to "cut ties with Syria" if it failed to deliver a presidential election by December 22, 2007.
[52] The French suspended high-level contacts when the deadline passed, but not for long.

Official Saudi policy toward Damascus followed a similar trajectory, starting with outreach to the Lebanese opposition (particularly Hizballah), followed by resumption of high-level contacts with Asad (in the wake of his support for the short-lived February 2007 Mecca Accord between the rival Palestinian Fatah and Hamas movements). In March, Kind Abdallah personally welcomed Asad upon his arrival in Riyadh for the annual Arab League summit. Amid intensifying differences with Washington over Iraq, Riyadh was willing to offer Asad a full-fledged rapprochement and implicit recognition of core Syrian interests in Lebanon in exchange for forcing the opposition to make modest compromises.

Like the French, the Saudis eventually gave Syria an ultimatum, vowing to organize a boycott of the March 2008 Arab League summit in Damascus unless its Lebanese allies accepted a proposed Arab League settlement. Like the French, they hit a brick wall. When Asad missed the deadline, the Saudis worked with Washington and Cairo to dissuade Arab heads of state from attending the summit, but the results were mixed (11 came, roughly comparable to previous summits).

The Bush administration was careful not to voice public misgivings about its allies' engagement efforts, which would have been largely fruitless and likely to undermine March 14 unity. However, in projecting an illusion of tacit consensus, Washington may have unwittingly helped insulate Sarkozy and Abdallah from domestic criticism of their policy shifts. Although both suspended their diplomatic openings in response to perceived Syrian backtracking, the overall momentum in Paris and Riyadh increasingly favored compromise with Damascus, particularly with the 2008 U.S. presidential election drawing closer (no prospective successor to Bush was going to be more aggressive toward Syria). By April 2008, Kouchner was again meeting face-to-face with his Syrian counterpart and the Saudi royal family was divided over what to do next.

The failure of engagement efforts left the field open for the Bush administration (and the Saudis) to advance a bold plan to break the stalemate before it left office. In May 2008, the Siniora government proclaimed Hizballah's private fiber optic telecommunications network to be illegal, apparently hoping to bait it into a standoff with "the state" that would turn public opinion (particularly Christian) against the opposition.
[54] However, Nasrallah responded by abandoning altogether his militia's longstanding "purity of arms" in domestic conflicts (much to the surprise of its most vocal Lebanese detractors, ironically) and quickly routing rival Sunni and Druze militiamen with one overwhelming eruption of force, as the Lebanese Army stood idly by. Support for Aoun took a hit. Yet Hizballah's power play more than compensated by dispelling the illusion of competence on the part of Saudi-financed "security companies" and putting to rest the widespread assumption that Syria and/or Iran were too fearful of sectarian conflict in Lebanon to risk such a major armed confrontation. This immediately doused appetites for brinksmanship in Lebanon and abroad. Weeks later, March 14 accepted a political settlement, brokered in Doha, on terms it had rejected previously--an opposition blocking minority, prominent cabinet representation for the FPM, a balanced electoral law, and the election of Suleiman (hitherto acceptable only as a mechanism for avoiding the other concessions).[55]

Washington's failure to mitigate the consequences of a confrontation it helped instigate dealt an enormous blow to American influence in Lebanon and re-opened the floodgates of international and regional diplomatic engagement with Syria. Israel quickly announced that it was secretly negotiating with Syria through Turkish mediators, while Asad was warmly welcomed in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. In July 2008, he was given a red carpet reception in Paris (which Chirac boycotted in protest). Sarkozy arrived in Damascus a few months later. As in 2006, the Syrians reaped a diplomatic windfall for not restraining Hizballah.

While the French tried to pass off their rapprochement with Asad as a reward for good behavior,
[56] Sarkozy's actions suggested that dialogue with Asad and a more prominent diplomatic role for Paris were less means to an end than "significant objectives in and of themselves," notes Tsilla Hershco.[57] Similar observations have been made of other European governments.[58]

The Saudis, concerned about the growing power of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and smarting from being diplomatically upstaged by Qatar, soon began quietly warming to Asad.
[59] They waited until Bush left office to normalize relations, but quickly made up for lost time following the end of Israel's campaign in Gaza in January 2009. "Divergences on Arab issues are behind us, buried," proclaimed Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal after hosting his Syrian counterpart the following month.[60]

The American-led campaign to force Syria's hand in Lebanon was effectively over by the time the Bush administration left office. It "ended up at a point where we were the ones isolated," recounts Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, one of the key tacticians of its Lebanon policy.


By definitively ruling out the prospect of cooperative Syrian intervention in Lebanon, the May 2008 conflict and its diplomatic aftermath severed the main foundation of March 14 unity. To the surprise of many Washington insiders entranced by his incendiary anti-Syrian rhetoric, Jumblatt was the first to break ranks. After Asad's arrival in Paris, the Druze leader publicly criticized his March 14 allies' "isolationist position," obsession with "taking revenge" against Syria, and sponsorship of "extremist militias."
[62] After Asad's March 2009 arrival in Riyadh, Jumblatt disparaged and ridiculed his Sunni and Christian allies before a private gathering of Druze sheikhs, a video recording of which was promptly leaked to the internet (likely by Jumblatt himself).[63] Although Jumblatt officially (and lucratively, it is rumored) remained a member of March 14 during the run-up to the June 2009 parliamentary elections, he cut side deals with Amal leader Nabih Berri and pro-Syrian Druze leader Talal Arslan to avoid direct competition for seats, while offering Aoun conciliatory gestures.[64]

Jumblatt's clear intention to pursue an independent path (at best) after the elections meant that the overall number of seats captured by March 14 would have limited (primarily symbolic) bearing on the balance of power, as no one expected Hariri and his Christian allies to win enough seats to survive as a parliamentary majority without his 12-member bloc. Moreover, the general disposition of this government was largely pre-determined by the Syrian-Saudi détente underway since January 2009
[65] and the country's surprisingly robust economic growth since the 2008 Doha Accord. Whatever the results of the election, Lebanon was almost certain to have a unity government with a blocking minority for whichever side lost and limited authority to conduct foreign and security policy independently of Damascus.

While March 14 loyalists necessarily campaigned on a pledge not to take part in such a government (having maintained for three years that this was tantamount to surrender), their preparations for this day were unmistakable.
Hariri ceded two seats in his bloc to former Prime Minister Najib Miqati (a close personal friend of Asad), while giving the boot to three-term incumbent Member of Parliament Misbah Ahdab (one of the few Sunni politicians to defy Syria openly before Hariri's assassination)[66] and several longtime associates of his father, who did not go quietly[67] (partisans of one blocked roads with burning tires).[68] Gemayel forced former MP Nassib Lahoud (once the Bush administration's favored presidential candidate) out of the race in Metn,[69] while Geagea sabotaged Hariri's candidate for an Armenian Christian seat in Beirut.[70] Even within its Sunni and Christian loyalist blocs, March 14 was beginning to devolve as an instrument of collective interest aggregation.

Notwithstanding the diminished strategic stakes, the new American administration of President Barack Obama and the Saudis worked hard to bolster the electoral performance of their respective allies.[71] Washington was initially hopeful that March 14 Christians would decisively defeat Aoun's Change and Reform coalition, which would have given them top tier representation in the cabinet and a far more credible claim to speak on behalf of the Christian community. A victorious March 14 Christian bloc, it was hoped, would help make up for the loss of Jumblatt and counterbalance Saudi influence over Hariri, while dissuading President Suleiman and Jumblatt from aligning too closely with the Syrians (or perhaps even leading them into a centrist bloc together). However, despite an unprecedented last minute appeal by Patriarch Sfeir,[72] March 14 remained unable to translate Christian disenchantment with Aoun into tangible results at the polls.

Although March 14 candidates won a slim legislative majority, they lost the popular vote by nearly 10 points
[73] and won only half the Christian vote[74]--escaping the narrow defeat predicted by pollsters, but falling well short of the game changer they were hoping for. The competing sides quickly agreed upon a numerical distribution of seats in the new cabinet that gave the opposition a blocking minority in all but name.[75] Negotiations over the formation of a government deadlocked for five months over Aoun's demand for representation commensurate with his expanded 27-seat bloc (the country's second largest),[76] which would necessarily have limited the cabinet strength of March 14 Christians.[77] Although March 14 supporters in Washington urged Hariri to "relegat[e] Aoun's ministers to peripheral portfolios,"[78] the new prime minister-elect had little choice but to give in--Aoun wasn't going to back down, Hizballah had repeatedly forsworn a "return to the Quadripartite Alliance,"[79] Asad was unwilling or unable to intercede, and the Saudis wanted an end to the standoff.[80]


The establishment of the Hariri government removed the last major issue of contention standing in the way of Syrian rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, and the first major issue standing in the way of U.S. normalization with Syria. Although senior U.S. officials voiced displeasure over Syria's
accelerating transshipment of arms to Hizballah after the details leaked to the media,[81] they avoided publicly criticizing its role in Lebanon. While the current postures of major European and Arab stakeholders clearly constrained the Obama administration's ability to contest Syrian advances in Lebanon, its toleration of this advance reflected a determination to revive the Arab-Israeli peace process and a strong belief that Asad was willing and able to make a decisive contribution to this goal.

Saudi and American reconciliation with Asad removed the last major external incentives for any Lebanese group to continue antagonizing Asad. Hariri and other March 14 loyalists quickly began reconciling with the Syrians (or were rebuffed attempting to do so), evident in the increasing frequency of their visits to Damascus, expanding official security coordination between the two governments, and dwindling expressions of anti-Syrian (though not anti-Hizballah) views in the elite-dominated media sector. Some who lost influence in the new order
still indulged in stridently anti-Syrian rhetoric, but most displayed a discernable commitment to reimagine (not for the first time) Lebanon's relationship with its menacing neighbor.

This metamorphosis suggests that the eleventh-hour battle over the composition of the Hariri cabinet was less integral to Lebanon's broad political trajectory than suggested by the rhetoric of either side. The normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria was invariably going to allow the latter to reestablish a degree of dominance in Lebanon (by virtue of its proximity, coercive power, familiarity with the country, and proven resolve). A slightly larger share of executive power for March 14 Christians would not have been a durable firewall against this "renormalization" of Syrian-Lebanese relations.

The proliferation of reports in 2009-2010 that the STL
had uncovered solid evidence of Hizballah involvement in Hariri assassination[82] came far too late to have a decisive impact on the new political and strategic equilibrium in Lebanon. The fact that no Syrians were facing prosecution alongside Hizballah (though its alleged involvement implies Syrian authorization) appeared tailor-made to American and Saudi hopes of persuading Asad to curtail the group. Asad's success in nevertheless expanding Syria’s dominion over Lebanon amid the final countdown to the indictments--without making major concessions or incurring diplomatic penalties--is a striking manifestation of his adversaries' conflicting interests and lack of resolve.

When news of the impending indictments was publicly confirmed in the summer of 2010, Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah promptly declared cooperation with the tribunal to be treasonous and called on Hariri to renounce it, while warning obliquely of instability and communal strife should he do otherwise. Hariri refused, as disavowing justice for his own father would greatly damage his political stature in Lebanon (a highly patrimonial society), alienate his most passionate supporters in the West, and intimidate his political allies.

While Syria ostensibly stepped in (alongside the Saudis) to "mediate" between the two sides, the conventional wisdom that Hizballah was dragging Asad into the fight for Hariri's unequivocal disavowal of the tribunal was somewhat contrived. The complete termination of official Lebanese cooperation with the tribunal would benefit Asad above all others by hampering the discovery of new evidence and reducing the likelihood that Syrian officials would be charged down the road. However, it would not directly impede the prosecution of those already facing indictment. Ensuring that Hizballah remained the one and only party formally accused of murdering Hariri would be a mixed blessing for Nasrallah.

Adding to Syria's incentives was the fact that Hizballah was taking all of the heat for pressing the leader of Lebanon's failed rebellion against Syria to fall on his sword. Syria's ability to apply pressure on its adversaries by proxy and maintain plausible (if improbable) deniability is the most notable perk of domination without occupation.

The claim that Hizballah desperately needed Hariri's unequivocal disavowal of the tribunal to exonerate itself in the eyes of fellow Lebanese and Arabs is misleading. While Nasrallah was and is rightly concerned that the impending indictments will tarnish his movement's claim to "purity of arms"
[83] and incite Sunni hostility toward Shi'a, it is doubtful that anything Hariri does or says under such obvious duress would have a decisive impact on highly polarized perceptions of Hizballah. Nasrallah desired Hariri's capitulation, to be sure, but mainly for the same reason as Asad--to hobble an otherwise threatening political adversary.

The Saudis initially believed that they could broker an agreement with Asad whereby the prime minister would exonerate Hizballah in some fashion without renouncing the tribunal (e.g. by publicly declaring the suspects to be "rogue" members of the group, perhaps even disputing the validity of the indictments), in exchange for Syrian guarantees that Hizballah cease political obstruction of the Hariri government, observe limitations on the deployment of its militia, and make other concessions.

Believing that Syria would ultimately be willing to accept and enforce such a compromise, Hariri agreed to condemn his own past accusations of Syrian involvement in the assassination as false and politically motivated in a carefully worded September 2010 statement. Moreover, the prime minister was obliged to publicly acknowledge that false witnesses had "misled" the IIIC early in the investigation and "used the murder for political purposes."
[84] This turned out to be a trap, however, as the Lebanese opposition promptly demanded that Hariri launch a Judicial Council investigation of the "false witnesses" affair and began obstructing the cabinet from dealing with any other matter. In October, a Syrian judge issued arrest warrants for a number of Hariri's associates for their alleged involvement in the affair.

Asad was clearly intent on forcing Hariri either to capitulate or leave office, confident that the Saudis (or King Abdallah, at any rate) would be willing to accept the former if forced to choose between the two. By December 2010, media leaks indicated that Hariri had agreed in principle to terminate his government's cooperation with the tribunal.
[85] It was not entirely clear what assurances he expected or received in exchange, but it hardly mattered—the prime minister's disavowal of the tribunal would be upfront and effectively irreversible, while Nasrallah could stop honoring his obligations at any time (over Syrian "objections" if need be).

Although the Obama administration belatedly intervened to squelch the deal, it refused to criticize Syria publicly (or delay its return of an American ambassador to Damascus) after the Hizballah-led opposition toppled the government in retaliation,
[86] dooming a valiant effort by U.S. diplomats in Lebanon to rally support for the prime minister. After some hesitation, Jumblatt threw in his lot with Nasrallah and Aoun, giving them the legislative majority needed to elect their own candidate. The return to office of Najib Miqati, the last prime minister of Syrian-occupied Lebanon, may not have been Asad's preferred outcome, but it left him squarely in command of the political process.

Ironically, while Asad was surely happy to see the fall of Mubarak (who had persisted in contesting Syrian advances long after the Saudis), the recent uprising in Cairo has proven to be a mixed blessing for Syrian ambitions in Lebanon. The turmoil in Egypt has dampened Obama's hopes of cultivating a breakthrough in the peace process anytime soon, making Syria's cooperation less of a priority. It has also sensitized his administration to charges of abandoning pro-democracy movements to the forces of tyranny.
Washington has encouraged March 14 loyalists to condition their participation in the new government on a pledge by Miqati to continue Lebanese cooperation with the STL. Following the refusal of Hizballah and the Syrians to accept such a pledge, Hariri and his Christian allies announced at a February 14 rally that they would remain in the opposition to fight Hizballah's "armed internal domination."[87]

Although many of Hariri's supporters at home and abroad are portraying his defiance as a second wind of the Cedar Revolution, it is significant that his ire has been directed squarely at Hizballah, not Damascus. Last month, his aides interrupted a member of his parliamentary bloc who began criticizing Asad in a live speech.[88] Thus far, Hariri is not opposing Syria, but trying to win its favor vis-à-vis his political adversaries (indeed his threat to stay in the opposition may yet prove to be a ploy to extract better terms for joining the government). While it is not clear how the current impasse will be resolved, it is quite evident that Syria is once again the supreme arbiter in Lebanon.

*Gary C. Gambill, formerly editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin and Mideast Monitor, is a New York-based political analyst who has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs.


[1] Hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, July 29, 2008.

[2] The three elections are the 2005 parliamentary elections (in which March 14 lost the Christian vote by a landslide and did not contest Shi’i majority districts), a 2007 parliamentary by-election in the Christian district of Metn (narrowly lost by March 14), and the 2009 parliamentary elections (in which the Christian vote split roughly in half and Shi’a voted overwhelmingly against March 14). See Elias Muhanna, "Deconstructing the Popular Vote in Lebanon's Election," Mideast Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July-August 2009), http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0907/0907_3.htm.

[3] See Mark Farha, "Demographic Dilemmas," in Barry Rubin (ed.), Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4] Edgar O'Ballance, Civil War in Lebanon, 1975-92 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), p. ix.

[5] Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger openly derided Gen. Aoun's 1989 "war of liberation" against Syria, telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "things would be worse rather than better" if Syrian troops exited the country--a remark that made headlines in Beirut. Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, March 15, 1989. Washington's disavowal of Aoun was critical to Syria's success in subduing Lebanon's militia elite and most of its political class.

[6] See "U.S. Agreed Not to Block Move by Syria on Aoun, Lebanon Says," The Washington Post, October 16, 1990.

[7] American support for the occupation was mostly diplomatic and political. Particularly significant was American pressure on the Christian political establishment to participate in parliamentary elections rigged to dilute Christian votes. See Gary C. Gambill, "U.S. Mideast Policy and the Syrian Occupation of Lebanon," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 3 (March 2001), http://www.meforum.org/meib/articles/0103_l1.htm.

[8] "Lebanon Loses 1.5 Billion Dollars Annually to Corruption: UN," Agence France Presse (AFP), January 23, 2001.

[9] "U.S. Pessimistic about Full Syrian Troop Pullback from Lebanon," AFP, March 13, 2003.

[10] "America Offers 'Gaddafi Deal' to Bring Syria in from the Cold," The Times (London), October 15, 2005.

[11] Iraq may be more important to the Saudis than Lebanon, but Syrian meddling there has not conflicted with Saudi interests to nearly the same degree.

[12] Le Monde, June 22, 2002; Le Monde, July 11, 2002; "French Intelligence Investigated Chirac for Shady Business Deals: Report," AFP, June 22, 2002.

[13] Saudi investment in Syria totaled $595 million in 2003, accounting for 70 percent of total Arab investment. "Inter-Arab Investment Rises," The Daily Star (Beirut), June 24, 2004.

[14] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, World Investment Report 2009, September 2009, p. 249, http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/wir2009_en.pdf.

[15] "Has It Won? Syria," The Economist, November 28, 2009.

[16] See John Dagge, "Sanctioning Syria," Syria Today, June 2010, http://syria-today.com/index.php/politics/7789-sanctioning-syria.

[17] Including the current author to an extent. See Gary C. Gambill, "The Lion in Winter: Bashar Assad's Self-Destruction," Mideast Monitor, Vol. 1, No. 1 (February 2006), http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0602/0602_1.htm.

[18] Walid Phares, "After the Hariri Assassination: Syria, Lebanon, and U.S. Policy,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, March 2, 2005, http://www.defenddemocracy.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=11774920&Itemid=102.

[19] In a Ba’abda-Alay parliamentary by-election less than two years earlier (the only national election previously contested by the Aounists), a virtually unknown FPM candidate captured over two-thirds of the Christian vote running against the scion of a prominent Christian family backed by the entire governing elite (e.g., Hariri, Lahoud, and Jumblatt) and most of the mainstream Christian opposition Qurnat Shahwan Gathering. The FPM narrowly lost the overall popular vote in the mixed district. See Gary C. Gambill, "FNC Triumphs in Baabda-Aley," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 5, Nos. 8-9 (August-September 2003), http://www.meforum.org/meib/articles/0308_l2.htm.

[20] As The New York Times reported, "The endorsement of the Shiite Hezbollah party was critical" in the 11-seat district of Ba’abda-Alay, where the number of Shi’i voters was substantially larger than the Jumblatt slate's margin of victory. See "Returning Lebanese General Stuns Anti-Syria Alliance," The New York Times, June 14, 2005. Hizballah's endorsement eroded the ability of rival Sunni politicians to mobilize the Arab nationalist current against the Hariri-Jumblatt axis, which was a critical swing vote in mixed Sunni-Christian districts of north Lebanon.

[21] In the Lebanese political system, notes eminent historian Theodor Hanf, "Important decisions cannot be taken by simple majority" and, "in effect, every large community has a right of veto." Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline and Rise of a Nation (London: IB Taurus, 1993), p. 73. See Gary C. Gambill, "Lebanon's Constitution and the Current Political Crisis," Mideast Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 1 (January-March 2008), http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0801/0801_3.htm.

[22] The hostility toward Aoun of many March 14 Christian leaders far surpassed their hostility to Hizballah or Syria. A revealing illustration of this came when former President Amine Gemayel's son was assassinated in November 2006. Gemayel refused to allow Aoun to pay his respects, while receiving pro-Syrian Hizballah leaders.

[23] The new cabinet's official policy statement declared Hizballah's "heroic resistance" against Israel to be "an honest and natural expression of the Lebanese people's national right in liberating its land and defending its dignity." See "Lebanon's New Government Defends Hezbollah, Promises Goodwill toward Syria," Associated Press (AP), July 28, 2005.

[24] It would have been virtually impossible for anyone outside of Syria's extended network of clients to pull off such a sophisticated operation in the heart of Syrian-occupied Beirut cleanly (there certainly was no precedent of this). The Israelis might have been able to pull off the hit, but not cleanly (hundreds of former Israeli agents rotting in Lebanese prisons today bear witness to its dismal track record).

[25] First Report of the IIIC, October 20, 2005, p. 5. "This is true confessions time now for the government of Syria," proclaimed U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton after the report was released. "Arabs Silent on the Eve of a Security Council Meeting That Could Censure Syria," AP, October 24, 2005.

[26] Article 3.2 of the tribunal statute states that a suspect can be held responsible for crimes "committed by subordinates under his or her effective authority and control, as a result of his or her failure to exercise control properly over such subordinates," a provision that allows much more latitude in issuing indictments on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Article 9.3 of the statute says that judges are to be appointed by the UN Secretary-General, rather than the Security Council (which is far less malleable in the face of American pressure). The United Nations, Statute of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, 2007, http://www.stl-tsl.org/x/file/TheRegistry/Library/BackgroundDocuments/Statutes/Resolution%201757-Agreement-Statue-EN.pdf.

[27] The first IIIC interim report drew heavily on the claims of a former Syrian agent, Zuhair al-Siddiq, whose credibility was undermined by glaring inconsistencies in his reported testimony before the commission and the Lebanese government's unwillingness to extradite him from France, which released him from custody (Technically, Siniora made the request, but refused to pledge that Siddiq would not face the death penalty, as required under French extradition laws). The first interim report also drew heavily on the testimony of Hussam Tahir Hussam, another alleged ex-Syrian agent who told investigators that a meeting to plan the assassination was held in the home of Asad's brother-in-law and military intelligence chief, Assif Shawkat, only to reappear later in Damascus and retract everything (claiming to have been drugged by Lebanese officials). A third witness was found dead in a ditch after an apparent car accident. See "Who Killed Rafik Hariri? Searching for the Truth In the Middle East," The New York Times, December 18, 2005.

[28] See Gary C. Gambill, "The Hariri Investigation and the Politics of Perception," Mideast Monitor, Vol. 3, No. 2 (August 2008), http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0808/0808_1.htm.

[29] See "New Evidence Points to Hezbollah in Hariri Murder," Spiegel Online (Hamburg), May 23, 2009, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,626412,00.html. "Evidence Links Hezbollah to Hariri Death," The Washington Post, November 21, 2010. Nicholas Blanford, "Did Hezbollah Kill Hariri?" Foreignpolicy.com, April 1, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/01/did_hezbollah_kill_hariri.

[30] See Steven Stalinsky, "Viva La Lebanese Hatred," FrontPageMagazine.com, December 20, 2004, http://www.frontpagemagazine.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=10177.

[31] In January 2006, for example, Jumblatt publicly urged the Bush administration to invade Syria. See David Ignatius, "Mob War in the Mideast," The Washington Post, January 4, 2006.

[32] Seymour M. Hersh, "The Redirection: Does the New Policy Benefit the Real Enemy?" The New Yorker, March 5, 2007.

[33] "Lebanon Warily Watches Its Salafis," Christian Science Monitor, September 24, 2008. See also "In Lebanon, Puritanical Sunnis and a Reputed Playboy Team Up in Politics," Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2008.

[34] According to Michael Young, the opinion editor of Beirut's English language Daily Star, "Hariri supported a draft agreement reached in Saudi Arabia that would have resolved the ministerial crisis by having the government consent to open-ended resistance by Hizbullah in South Lebanon." Michael Young, "What's Gotten into You Michel Aoun?" The Daily Star (Beirut), January 26, 2006.

[35] "Rice's Visit confirms U.S. Support for Lahoud to Go," The Daily Star (Beirut), February 25, 2006.

[36] "Syria Can No Longer Act with Impunity in Lebanon: Chirac," AFP, January 10, 2006. "Rice Threatens Syria with U.N. Action," The Baltimore Sun, January 11, 2006. "Syria Furious As US Warns of New UN Action," AFP, January 14, 2006.

[37] Young, “What’s Gotten into You Michel Aoun?”

[38] "Saudi Urges End to Syria-Lebanon Crisis over Hariri Murder," AFP, January 8, 2006.

[39] "Shiite Parties Call Off Lebanon Cabinet Boycott," AFP, February 2, 2006.

[40] The resolution also expressed support for Hizballah's "resistance." See "Key Points from the Arab Summit's 'Khartoum Declaration, '" AP, March 29, 2006.

[41] This was how the state-run Egyptian daily al-Ahram characterized the summit. Al-Ahram (Cairo), January 9, 2006.

[42] In January 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Damascus to meet with Syrian officials and the heads of Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

[43] David Ignatius, "To Save a Revolution," The Washington Post, July 21, 2006. For a detailed look at official Israeli statements to this effect, see Efraim Inbar, "How Israel Bungled the Second Lebanon War," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Summer 2007), http://www.meforum.org/1686/how-israel-bungled-the-second-lebanon-war.

[44] The police estimated the size of the December 1, 2006 demonstration to be 800,000, while the opposition claimed 1.5 million. The authorities declined to give an official estimate of the size of the December 10, 2006 demonstration, but most journalists gave estimates of at least one million. "Hundreds of Thousands of Hezbollah Supporters Protest in Beirut to Bring Down Government," AP, December 1, 2006; "Million Supporters Come out for Hezbollah," United Press International, December 10, 2006; ABC World News Sunday transcript, December 10, 2006.

[45] "U.S. Reports Plot to Topple Beirut Leaders," The New York Times, November 2, 2006.

[46] "Pelosi Vows US 'Will Not Bargain over Lebanon," The Daily Star (Beirut), April 4, 2007.

[47] This was in sharp contrast to Christian and Druze members of March 14. In a 2008 meeting with U.S. embassy officials, Geagea talked glowingly of his relationship with Ahmad Assa’ad, leader of Lebanon Intima’a ("Belonging"), but complained, according to a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, that "Saad [Hariri] is opposed to Assaad, in part because the Saudis do not want to be at loggerheads with Hezbollah." See "Lebanon Defense Minister Denies WikiLeaks Cable," AFP, December 3, 2010.

[48] "[I]f for any reason the [Siniora] government does not continue, I don't think you have a consensus in the international community about assistance to Lebanon," said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns. He quickly added that he did not "mean to say that as a threat." Interview with Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, LBC Television (Beirut), December 1, 2006, translated transcript released by the U.S. State Department, http://statelists.state.gov/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind0612a&L=dossdo&P=940.

[49] "CIA Gets the Go-Ahead to Take on Hizbollah," The Daily Telegraph, January 10, 2007.

[50] "French Visit to Tehran, Seen as Diplomatic Faux Pas, Is Aborted," The New York Times, January 17, 2007. "Chirac Unfazed By Nuclear Iran, Then Backtracks," The New York Times, February 1, 2007.

[51] "French Presidential Hopeful Says Lebanon 'Surrounded by Enemies'," The Daily Star (Beirut), March 2, 2007.

[52] Nicolas Sarkozy press conference, Cairo, December 30, 2007. Cited in "Engaging Syria: Lessons from the French Experience," International Crisis Group, Middle East Briefing #27, January 15, 2009, http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=5866&l=1, p. 10,.

[53] For documentation on this point, see Gary C. Gambill, “Damascus Summit Attendance Was Close to Average Despite US Pressure,” Syriacomment, April 6, 2008, http://joshualandis.com/blog/?p=652.

[54] A U.S. diplomatic cable filed in April 2008 describes the thinking. "[Telecommunications Minister Marwan] Hamadeh is preparing a 'very strong' internal campaign. This campaign, he said, has the potential to 'destroy' Aoun and mobilize Christians, as well as influence those Shia who are already beginning to worry about Hizballah." "US Embassy Cables: Lebanon Uncovered 'Iranian-Funded' Hizbullah Communications Network (Full Transcript)," The Guardian (London), December 5, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/150105.

[55] March 14 was willing before the May 2008 crisis to accept the election of Suleiman in exchange for nothing, but only because the opposition was using its ability to obstruct a presidential election as a bargaining chip to win a blocking minority and other concessions.

[56] The only true concession made by Asad was his decision to open an embassy in Lebanon, a largely symbolic gesture likely to have been made freely down the road (if only to allay suspicions that he aspires to reoccupy the country).

[57] Tsilla Hershco, "Sarkozy in Syria: Discrepancies in French Mideast Policy," Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, September 10, 2008, http://www.biu.ac.il/SOC/besa/docs/perspectives48.pdf.

[58] While British Foreign Secretary David Miliband declared that there had been an "important change in approach" by Syria ahead of his November 2008 arrival in Damascus, one British paper characterized the visit as "seizing back the initiative from France… [in] European efforts to end Syria's diplomatic isolation." "Britain in Push to Bring Syria in from the Cold," The Independent (London), November 13, 2008.

[59] While there were few official diplomatic exchanges, there was considerable back channel communication and a definite change in the tone of official Saudi statements regarding Syria. In October 2008, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal referred to his government's dispute with Syria as differences within the "same family." Al-Hayat (London), October 27, 2008.

[60] "Riyadh Wants 'Healthy' New Ties with Syria," AFP, February 26, 2009.

[61] "The Obama Administration's Middle East Policy: Is the Strong Horse Losing Its Lead?" The Hudson Institute, January 19, 2010, http://www.hudson.org/files/publications/Strong_Horse_Transcription.pdf.

[62] The last allegation was worded somewhat obliquely ("the owners of private jets fund extremist militias in Lebanon") but was clearly in reference to Hariri. New TV (Beirut), July 27, 2008. A translated excerpt is available at http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=52875#. See also "PSP Dismisses Reports of Jumblatt Parting Ways with March 14 Forces," The Daily Star (Beirut), July 29, 2008.

[63] Sunni militiamen loyal to Hariri "didn't last more than fifteen minutes” during the May 2008 clashes, he complained, while Geagea's partisans "look[ed] on from the sidelines." "Walid Jumblatt in Closed-Door Meeting with Druze Sheikhs: 'We Have No Choice But to Coexist with the Shi'ites'," MEMRI, June 5, 2009, http://www.memri.net/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD238309. The leak of the video was met with shock and consternation within the coalition. An official March 14 statement said Jumblatt's statements had "harmed both his person and the Maronite confession." "Jumblatt Says His Remarks on Maronites Were 'Unintentional'," The Daily Star (Beirut), April 23, 2009.

[64] In April 2009, he reportedly told an assembly of guests that "there is an Aounist in the heart of every Christian." Al-Akhbar (Beirut), April 28, 2009.

[65] The Syrians and Saudis reportedly agreed that Lebanon would have a national unity government regardless of the election results. Al-Akhbar (Beirut), June 29, 2009.

[66] "A Little Middle East Maneuvering in Downtown Manhattan," The Washington Post, September 3, 2004.

[67] “There was an injustice done to me,” complained Ahdab (who was also picked in part for having publicly accused Hariri's ally, MP Muhammad Safadi, of corruption). Al-Loush called into question "the non-extremism of Miqati.” "Talking To: Misbah Ahdab," Nowlebanon.com, December 4, 2007, http://nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=22412; Abigail Fielding-Smith, "Battleground of the Billionaires," The National (UAE), May 23, 2009.

[68] Hashim al-Ameddine in Minniyah and Muhammad Sleiman in Akkar (Hariri backed down and kept al-Ameddine on the list). Al-Akhbar (Beirut), April 22, 2009.

[69] See "Michel al-Murr," Nowlebanon.com, March 13, 2009. http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=83953.

[70] The LF went through the motions of fielding a candidate for an Armenian Christian seat in Beirut, despite the fact that the incumbent was a close ally of Hariri, solely in order to pressure his allies to include LF candidates on March 14 slates in other districts. The tactic is fairly common and spurred frivolous short-lived candidacies on both sides, but Geagea persisted for weeks in the face of protests by pro-Hariri Armenian parties--at a time when March 14 was desperately wooing Armenian voters in several critical districts (including Metn). Reportedly, Geagea wanted the inclusion of LF candidate Wehbe Qatisha on the March 14 list in Akkar. Al-Hayat (London), May 11, 2009.

[71] See "Foreign Money Seeks to Buy Lebanese Votes," The New York Times, April 22, 2009; Christopher Dickey, "War, Peace and A Political Touch," Newsweek web exclusive, June 9, 2009, http://www.newsweek.com/id/201430.

[72] Though privately sympathetic to March 14, Sfeir had avoided publicly taking sides, dropping only indirect hints of his preferences. He went much further on the day before the election, warning voters of "a threat to Lebanon's character and Arab identity" (clearly alluding to Iranian influence) and urging them to "abort the persistent efforts that, if successful, will change the face of our country." Lebanese National News Agency (Beirut), June 6, 2009.

[73] "A Win for the West; Lebanon's Election," The Economist, June 13, 2009.

[74] Michel Aoun's Change and Reform coalition captured 49-52 percent of the Christian vote. See Elias Muhanna, “Deconstructing the Popular Vote in Lebanon's Election,” Mideast Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July-
August 2009),

[75] The formula gave 15 cabinet seats to March 14 factions and Jumblatt, ten for the opposition, and five "neutrals" to President Suleiman. However, the "neutrals" included a Shi’i vetted by Hizballah, effectively giving the opposition a "one-third plus one" blocking minority.

[76] "The Political Affiliation of Lebanese Parliamentarians and the Composition of the Different Parliamentary Blocs," International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), September 2009, http://www.ifes.org/publication/78bebad918a5cd478b1daddd612cee51/lebanon_parliament_elections_200909.pdf.

[77] After Hariri accepted Aoun's core demands, Gemayel's once powerful Phalange Party, which received only the politically meager Ministry of Social Affairs, initially threatened to boycott the government, as did a longstanding Christian member of Hariri's own Future Movement who was appointed minister without portfolio in lieu of the major position he was expecting. "Government Shaken Hours after Birth as Phalange, Pharaon Threaten to Resign," Naharnet (Beirut), November 9, 2009,


[78] David Schenker, "Lebanon: Back to Square One?" PolicyWatch #1583, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 21, 2009, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3121.

[79] Interview with Hizballah Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassim, Al-Watan (Qatar), August 12, 2009. As translated in "Qassem: No Return to Quadripartite Alliance, Hezbollah Will Foster Relations with Future," Nowlebanon.com, August 12, 2009, http://nowlebanon.com/Arabic/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=108610.

[80] The most spectacular manifestation of Saudi impatience was an October 2009 article by Turki Al-Sudairi, the editor-in-chief of the Saudi government daily al-Riyadh, entitled "Why Shouldn't Lebanon Return to Syria?' See “'Al-Riyadh' Editor: 'Why Shouldn't Lebanon Return to Syria?'” MEMRI, Special Dispatch No. 2595, October 14, 2009, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3705.htm.

[81] "U.S. Strains to Stop Arms Flow," The New York Times, 6 December 2010.

[82] "Evidence links Hezbollah to Hariri Death," The Washington Post, November 21, 2010. Nicholas Blanford, "Did Hezbollah Kill Hariri?" Foreignpolicy.com, April 1, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/01/did_hezbollah_kill_hariri.

[83] Although this image was compromised when Hizballah forces routed embryonic Sunni and Druze militia forces in May 2008, this at least was in defense of a fiber optic telecommunications system that is vital to its military struggle against Israel. The late Hariri made no secret of his desire for peace with the Jewish state and unquestionably encouraged his foreign allies to intercede on his behalf with Syria, but he cannot be said to have posed a clear and present danger to the "resistance."

[84] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), September 6, 2010.

[85] Al-Diyar (Beirut), December 22, 2010.

[86] "We don’t think it is at this moment useful to be pointing fingers or blaming or going about the business of recriminations about what did or didn’t happen, or who did or didn’t do what," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after the government collapse. "Lacking Leverage, U.S. Grasps for a Solution in Lebanon," The New York Times, January 13, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/13/world/middleeast/13diplo.html.

[87] "Lebanon's Hariri Joins Opposition Ranks," AFP, February 14, 2011.

[88] Mohanad Hage Ali, "Lebanon's Return to Syria-backed Rule Is Likely to Keep Hezbollah in Check," The Guardian, January 29, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/29/lebanon-syria-hezbollah.

Original URL: http://www.gloria-center.org/meria/2010/12/gambill.html

Gary C. Gambill

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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