Written by Jonathan Spyer
This week, beleaguered Syrian dictator Bashar Assad gave a speech in which he referred to protesters as “vandals” and re-issued a tired promise of reforms. The speech did nothing to lessen the anger of his opponents, and the uprising against the regime is continuing apace.
Yet in neighboring Lebanon in the same week, the Assad regime and its allies scored a signal achievement.
After 140 days of wrangling, Syria, Hezbollah and its allies held the first meeting of the new, pro-Syrian government in Beirut.
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This is an important development that represents a victory for the Iran-led regional coalition. It is also an indication that excited declarations of plans for a “Syria without the Assads” may be a little premature.
The Iran-led strategic architecture in the Levant of which the Assad regime is a part has its own ideas about the direction of events. These do not include its quiet submission to the verdict of history and subsequent departure from the stage.
Syria had a clear interest in ensuring the emergence of a new, pro-Damascus government in Lebanon.
Walid Jumblatt, the currently pro-Syrian Lebanese Druse leader, told the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper this week that “Assad asked his allies to accelerate the cabinet formation, because [the formation of] a cabinet in Lebanon will diminish the pressure on Syria.”
The new cabinet contains 18 members of the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance out of a total of 30 ministers.
Such a government will secure Syria’s “western flank.”
Assad may now be assured that the power in place in Beirut firmly supports the suppression of the uprising against him.
In addition, the slow-burning but potent issue of the special tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri is about to return to relevance.
There are reports of the imminent issuing of long-awaited indictments against those accused. These may well include both Syrian regime figures and Hezbollah officials. The formation of a Lebanese government that will seek to brush aside any such indictments is essential for Assad.
The Syrian role in the formation of the new government was central and crucial. Only Assad could have forced the necessary concessions from his various Lebanese clients to make the new cabinet’s formation possible.
First of all, the fact that President Michel Suleiman agreed to sign off on the cabinet was almost certainly a result of Syrian pressure. Suleiman has lost his ability to play a balancing role in the new March 8 cabinet. That he agreed to his own effective political neutralization suggests pressure from outside (in this context, Syria).
Second, Amal leader and parliament speaker Nabih Berri’s agreement to “cede” a Shi’ite cabinet place also suggests a higher Syrian hand. The new cabinet is to contain five Shi’ite ministers and seven Sunnis, rather than an equal distribution – a significant concession from the Syrian client Berri.
A focus on the tedious minutiae of Lebanese cabinet wranglings may seem out of place with Syria on fire and the fate of the 40-year Assad family dictatorship hanging in the balance. But the political process in Lebanon, largely ignored by the international media, should remind all observers that a key part of the regime’s strategy throughout its existence has been interference in the political processes of its neighbors.
Lebanon, smallest and most powerless of these, has borne the main brunt. Over the last two weeks, Assad has demonstrated that he and the regional grouping of which he is a member are capable of consolidating their control over their smaller neighbor.
Before the dust had even cleared from the last Syrian APC crossing the Lebanese-Syrian border in an easterly direction in 2005, the regime in Damascus was already planning its return to dominance by other means in Lebanon. This goal has been pursued tenaciously over the subsequent half-decade. The means used to attain it have consisted of political violence and the employment of Syria’s own clients in Lebanon, as well as those of its ally Iran – most importantly Hezbollah. This week, with the first meeting of a Lebanese cabinet made possible by Syrian pressure, the process was completed.
Assad’s latest speech showed that he cannot change. He is unwilling to bow to the will of the protesters.
Instead, he offered vague and meaningless promises of elections in August and dialogue with the opposition. In real terms, his refusal to bow leaves only one other option – to fight to the end.
The announcement of a government in Lebanon dominated by Syria and its allies shows that the will, tenacity and cunning of the Assad regime should not be underestimated. On the smaller stage of Lebanon, Assad refused to accept what looked five years ago like the “verdict of history.” Ultimately his appeal of this verdict won the day.
Assad faces longer odds in his current fight. The persistence of protests, the potential drying up of the economy, pressure from the powerful Turkish neighbor, are all stacking up against him. But the barely noticed events in Lebanon this week are testimony to the sometime efficacy of the brutal methods this regime is prepared to use to achieve its goals.
Those engaged in busy preparation for Syria without the Assads should understand that this will not happen through wishing for it. Rather, a far more determined and united Western and international push to remove the dictator is necessary if Assad is not to recapture Syria as he finished doing with Lebanon this week.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010) and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He served in a front-line unit of the Israel Defense Forces in 1992-3, and fought in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. Between 1996 and 2000, Spyer was an employee of the Israel Prime Minister's Office.