The Daily Star, 13 October 2004

While Syrian democrats cannot but rejoice at the prospect of a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon, they regret that the partial withdrawal that took place recently from areas south of Beirut occurred as a result of heavy American and European pressure, not in response to the wishes of the Lebanese people. It was not an effort to put an end to the military and security characteristics underlying Syrian-Lebanese ties, nor was it an attempt to base the relationship on parity, brotherhood, active coordination and mutually beneficial exchange.

The Syrian authorities rejected the notion that their soldiers’ withdrawal, or redeployment, came as a result of outside pressure and insisted it was part of a new vision for the next phase in relations between Syria and Lebanon. Apart from the fact that the latter statement was erroneous, as evidenced by the fact that the decision to withdraw was announced to the Americans before it was to the Syrians and Lebanese, it gave us an idea of what the power elite in Syria cares most about: maintaining its sense of grandeur and appearing as a cohesive force in front of its own people, whom it seeks to keep in perpetual fear.

What is more important than any partial or total Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon at this juncture is to know the basis on which the relationship between the two countries will be based after this occurs. Will it be based on close coordination on important matters, such as the peace process, or will Lebanon, regardless of Syria’s position, be the third Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, as Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom recently declared after the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1559?

Will efforts be exerted to coordinate economic policies in the fields of labor, agriculture, banking, electricity and water in a manner to serve the interests of both Syria and Lebanon? How will the two countries manage to work out the shape of their bilateral relations without third-party interference and without Syria perpetuating its hegemony over its small neighbor? Which mechanisms should be put in place in order to resolve any eventual disagreements between the two countries? How can the cross-border movement of money, merchandise, people and ideas be activated, while also maintaining parity, or near parity, between the two countries as far as accrued benefits are concerned?

Questions like these are, unfortunately, on the table neither in Damascus nor in Beirut. In both countries the ruling elites are incapable of planning and designing strategies of genuine cooperation and coordination. Each elite, especially the one in Syria, is, instead, more interested in power and how to preserve it. The unchecked prioritization of power by the Syrians inevitably makes the subjugation of Lebanon more appealing than dialogue or mutual understanding. In other words, a dependent political elite in Beirut serves the interests of the authorities in Damascus far better than an independent one.

It follows from this that any reform of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship must necessarily be preceded by reform of the political system in Syria (and, by extension, in Lebanon). We say “necessarily” because the corrupted relationship between the two countries has not one but two manifestations: The first is, of course, the existing subjugation of one country by the other; the second is the potential luring of Lebanon into the American-Israeli sphere of influence in the Middle East, and the eventual use of this to pressure, isolate and weaken Syria.

Reforming the Syrian-Lebanese relationship within the context of political reform in Damascus (as opposed to severing it or turning it on its head) is the right approach toward genuine sovereignty for Lebanon. It would also ensure that Lebanon does not see its Syrian overlord replaced with American and Israeli ones.

The possibility of Lebanon turning against Syria in the future is not to be dismissed; and because this is so, the optimal relationship that must develop between the two countries is one that would be formulated by popularly elected rulers in a democratic Syria and Lebanon.

The relationship between Syria and Lebanon was already tense and unstable on the eve of Syria’s military intervention in Lebanon in 1976. This tension was due to the differences between the two countries’ systems of government and their respective views of the world, the region and many other existing challenges. That is why any reform of the relationship should not seek to return the countries to the situation that existed prior to 1976, but rather to build a new rapport that would balance independence and sovereignty on one hand, and brotherhood and exclusivity on the other.

For 28 long years, the ruling elite in Damascus has imposed only a formula of power on the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, one that has closely mirrored its own relationship with the Syrian people. The problem, however, is that such a reality can only survive given two specific conditions: the continued subjugation of Lebanon by Syria; or the subjugation of Syria by stronger forces that would use Lebanon as a departure point for exerting pressure on Syria. That is another reason why there should be a link between internal democratic reform in Syria and reform of the relationship between Damascus and Beirut.

This requires a doubling of efforts by democrats in Syria and Lebanon to elucidate a possible future relationship between their two countries. The questions that should be closely examined within this context are: How can Syrian hegemony over Lebanon end without the latter being drawn into global and regional efforts that would harm its internal cohesion and be used to strike out at Syria? On the other hand, how can the regime in Damascus end its hegemony over Lebanon without risking internal collapse and chaos in Syria? And finally, how can a new Syrian-Lebanese relationship open the door, both in Damascus and Beirut, to a genuine, peaceful and gradual democratic transformation?

A democratic transformation should not be seen as merely the final step on the road to ending an old, regrettable and dysfunctional relationship. Instead, it should be seen, more positively, as the first step toward replacing the dominant military and security paradigm governing the Syrian-Lebanese relationship with a relationship based on freedom and equality.