الراصد القديم


The Ongoing Battle for Beirut: Old Dynamics and New Trends- part2

Chapter 1
The Usual Suspect: Syrian Involvement in Lebanon
Understanding Syrian foreign policy is not a straightforward matter. Ambiguity, double-speak, rapid shifts in interests and alliances, and contradictory gestures can leave international observers speculating as to what the regime actually wants and what its core strategic interests actually are.

Nevertheless, even in this situation of ambivalence and uncertainty there are a number of core political interests that have remained unchanged and that characterize the regime, its identity, and its political strategy. Among this list of strategic priorities is the Alawite minority’s interest in its self-preservation, the perpetuation of the Alawite regime, and the maintenance
of internal stability. The preservation of a strategic relationship and a high degree of political infuence in Lebanon are also prominent among Damascus’ strategic interests. Syrian attention to Lebanese affairs and its deep involvement in Lebanon has characterized Syria’s foreign policy since the creation of an independent Republic of Lebanon in 1943. Moreover, the Syrian interest
in Lebanese affairs differs from that of all other foreign powers active in Lebanon, because Syria is the only country that de facto sees Lebanese politics as both a matter of foreign as well as domestic policy. This Syrian “exceptionalism,” which prompts the country to claim “distinctive relations” (alaqat mumayyaza),(1) has both historical and ideological roots. Historically,
the relationship between the two countries has always been extremely strong, starting with the Lebanese-Syrian cooperation towards ending French occupation preceding the declaration of independence in the early 1940s.(2)(16)

Ideologically, Syrian interest in Lebanon was backed by the belief in the notion of a “Greater Syria,” an idea that was summarized by Hafez al-Assad who said, “Throughout history, Syria and Lebanon have been one country and one people.”(3) This belief was originally grounded in the idea that the creation of an independent Lebanon was simply an aberration and a direct result of foreign interference, contrary to the history of the Lebanese and Syrian people. Modern day Lebanon was in fact created by the French mandate in the aftermath of World War I. France divided the area of “Greater Syria” mostly to protect the Christian minority of Mount Lebanon by granting this group a state.(4)

However, to make the new Christian protectorate viable and to ensure its independence, the French administration expanded the territory,incorporating the traditionally Shiite areas of Jebel Amal and Bekaa, further eroding “Greater Syria.”(5) In the years preceding the 1943 independence of Lebanon, those who believed in the concept of Greater Syria harshly opposed the partition and
demanded the reunifcation of the two countries. However, after the Lebanese independence the idea of territorial reintegration began to decline and was gradually replaced by the idea of preserving a special relationship between the two countries, one where Syria could act as a “guardian.”(6)
In this vein, Syria continued to assert its strategic interest in maintaining a special relationship with Lebanon, for example by refusing to establish diplomatic relations or setting up an embassy in Beirut (which was frst opened after the 2008 “normalization”), and maintaining an open border allowing for the free fow of people between the two states.(7)

Thus while the conventional narrative stresses the role of Syria after its 1976 intervention in the Lebanese civil war, in the decades preceding the outbreak of sectarian hostilities Syrian infuence was already strong in Lebanon. Damascus in fact fnanced the Arab nationalist groups responsible for the 1958 uprising(8) and used its leverage within Lebanon over the presidency to stir domestic policies in a pro-Syrian direction. In addition, from the 1960s Syria established partnerships with groups outside the traditional power establishment composed predominantly of Christian Maronites and Sunnis, for example, by supporting the Palestinian resistance movement
through the PLO(9) and by supporting the Lebanese Shiite community.(10)

In addition to the historical and ideological connections between Syria and Lebanon, Syria has also claimed the right to “monitor” its neighbour’s domestic politics based on geo-strategic considerations. In the Syrian narrative, for example, Lebanon is seen as crucial for Syria’s defence, especially in the context of the Arab-Israeli confict, as Lebanon’s southern mountains create a natural defense line. The country’s historical position has been that “it is diffcult to draw a line between Lebanon’s security in its broadest sense and Syria’s security.”(11) This stance partly accounts for Syria’s interest in maintaining a strong foothold in Lebanon, especially given the Syrian regime’s fear that either Israeli or Western infuence could become
dominant in the absence of strong Syrian involvement – a scenario that is perceived as threatening to both the security and the internal stability of the regime in Damascus. Indeed, it is diffcult to disentangle Syria’s involvement in Lebanon from Syrian interests in the Arab-Israeli confict. Over the past decades, Lebanon, as an intermediate geographic arena between Syria and Israel, has been a critical site of political and at times military competition with Israel. Syria has also taken advantage of Lebanon’s institutional weakness and internal divisions both to support and rely on proxy groups to wage war against Israel.

In turn, this has served an important interest of the Syrian government: to gain legitimacy, both internally and regionally, by strengthening its role as the main military and political foe of the State of Israel, and by stressing its position as the sole Arab regime continuing to confront it (through itsactivities in Lebanon). Leveraging Pan-Arab and anti-Israeli sentiments is especially important for Damascus, ruled by an Alawite minority with a constant need to legitimize its power and role, both internally and among the region’s Sunni regimes.

Finally, Syria has always had strong economic interests in Lebanon. Until the 1970s, Syria largely depended on Beirut’s port for foreign imports. Syrian foreign workers in Lebanon have always comprised a substantial and remittance-generating community,(12)and Lebanon has served as an outlet to diffuse internal economic pressure. Thus due to historical, ideological, military, political, and economic reasons, Syria’s interest in maintaining a strong role in Lebanon has remained constant over the past decades, although the means and strategies it has employed to attain this goal have shifted over time. (18)

From the Civil War through the Tutelage (1976-2005)
From the Battlefeld to the Negotiating Table: The Road to Taif (1976-89)
Syrian military and political involvement in Lebanon is in part a function of the inherently weak and factionalized nature of the Lebanese government. Sharply divided along religious and sectarian lines, Lebanon has never been able to move beyond the confessional-based mindset of its principal
religious groups (while the Constitution recognizes more than 17 groups, the main established communities are the Christian Maronites, the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Druze).
In turn, this lack of a strong and cohesive national consensus about the nature and identity of the country, combined with a socially fragmented society, has laid the foundations for constant internal turmoil. Indeed, outbursts of ethnic and religious violence have been a recurrent pattern
in Lebanese history. In addition, the country’s sectarian political system – frst ratifed in the 1943 National Pact and allocating a fxed quota of high posts and Parliament seats to each confessional group(13)– perpetuates and exacerbates societal divisions and confict dynamics, further fueling the already delicate and unstable internal balance of power among the different
ethnic and religious communities.

The outbreak of Lebanon’s main civil war (1975-89) was in this sense a by product of preexisting internal tensions combined with an unsatisfactory political system, which was generally perceived as sharply favoring the Christian community. In this context, the rise of an alliance in the 1970s
between the increasingly active Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, led by the PLO, and the local Muslim communities, who largely felt under-represented and marginalized by the Maronite Christians, was met by a Christian counter-reaction and mobilization. This quickly led to the rise of confessional militias and escalated the political confict to a full-fedged armed confrontation.

Syria frst intervened in the civil war in May 1976, at the peak of sectarian hostilities, when the rapid advance of the Muslim National Front and the PLO started to resemble a victory, relegating the Maronite Christians to a defensive position and threatening to result in a partition of the country.(15)

Under these circumstances and following a Christian “invitation,” Damascus intervened on behalf of the Christian community, reversing its traditionally friendly policy toward the PLO leadership.(16) This decision, at the time quite The Ongoing Battle for Beirut: Old Dynamics and New Trends
unpopular within the rest of the Arab world, was strategically in line with Damascus’ historical and ideological connections with Lebanon, as well as with its core strategic interests in maintaining its infuence in the Lebanese Republic, while preventing partition and a large scale Israeli intervention. Syria’s first objective in intervening was to prevent a total collapse of the Lebanese state, as such profound instability within Lebanon could potentially have spread to Syria. In addition, both the collapse of the government as well as a partition of the country would have made it more diffcult for Syria to continue in its role as Lebanon’s “protector.” Damascus particularly feared a potential partition, seeing it both as fatal for the Arab nationalist cause and an almost inevitable precursor to massive Israeli intervention to “stabilize” the south of the country.(17) In contrast, by intervening to restore a measure of
stability, Syria further demonstrated the importance of its role as “keeper” or “guarantor” of Lebanese affairs.

Second, the rise of a radical PLO-led regime operating from within Lebanon was deemed a threat to Syrian security, given its ability to drag Damascus into a renewed state of hostility with Israel.

Third, Syria feared that if it did not intervene in support of the Lebanese Christians, Israel would step in. In that case, Syria would become directly involved in the confict on behalf of the losing side, further strengthening the Christian-Israeli alliance as well as its direct role in the Lebanese civil war.(19)

Finally, Syria had a core interest in preventing a clear victory by any of the sides involved in the civil war,(20) as the creation of a stable internal order within Lebanon would also have inevitably led to a demise of the Syrian role in domestic politics. Instead, thriving on the local internal divisions and factionalism, Syria could strengthen its role as guarantor of peace and stability, an argument that would become paramount during the post-civil war years of the Syrian
tutelage (1990-2005). This last consideration partially explains one of Syria’s distinctive patterns of involvement during the civil war, namely, its ability to enter and dissolve alliances and change sides rapidly whenever the Lebanese balance of power started to shift in a way that was unfavorable for Damascus, irrespective of previous ideological considerations or commitments.(21)
This accounts, for instance, for Syria’s gradual cooling of its relations with Lebanon’s Christians after its initial intervention on their behalf. In fact, after having successfully prevented their defeat, Syria became interested in ensuring (20) that the Maronites would not be able to gain the upper hand in the war, growing increasingly suspicious of the relationship between the Lebanese Christians and Israel.(22)

In turn, the demise of the Christian-Syrian marriage of convenience led Damascus once again closer to the Sunni and Palestinian side, a move facilitated by the “mysterious” death of key anti-Syrian leader of the National Movement, Kamal Jumblatt.(23)

Political assassinations soon became a trademark of Syrian involvement in Lebanon, continuing far
beyond the end of the civil war. Another important trend characterizing Syrian involvement in the Lebanese civil war was its reliance on proxies: supporting and employing local militias to challenge both Israel and the presence of international troops within Lebanon. An example of this was Syria’s support for both the Shiite Amal and Hizbollah, after its creation in the early 1980s.
Whether through shifting alliances, assassinations, proxies, diplomatic pressure, or direct military and political intervention, Syrian involvement in the civil war was characterized by a precise strategy: to maintain hegemony within Lebanon and frustrate the ambitions of other foreign powers, especially Israel following its second invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Indeed, with respect
to its principal enemy, Israel, Syria’s strategy focused specifcally on three main objectives: first, to prevent enlargement of the territory under Israeli infuence and confne it to the “security zone”;(24) second, to rely on proxies to wage war against the IDF within the security zone; and third, to use all means to prevent the upgrade of relationships between Lebanon and Israel.(25) While the civil war years allowed Syria to impose its military presence and political infuence on Lebanon and to frustrate the goals of other foreign powers, the termination of the confict and the national reconciliation process that followed allowed Syria to better consolidate its role in the Lebanese Republic. In this sense, the way it engineered its political role in post-civil war Lebanon represents Syria’s political masterpiece. The process that led the belligerents to meet in Taif, Saudi Arabia, in the fall of 1989 and to ratify the Taif Accord (offcially known as the Document of National Accord)(26)was headed by both Saudi Arabia and the Arab League,highlighting Syria’s failure to act as mediator and end the confict. However,
even if Syria was somewhat marginal in the process that led to the Taif agreement, which offcially sanctioned the end of the civil strife, Assad The Ongoing Battle for Beirut: Old Dynamics and New Trends successfully managed to turn the situation on its head and obtain a favourable agreement.
First, Taif recognized that “between Lebanon and Syria there is a special relationship that derives its strength from the roots of blood relationships, history, and joint fraternal interests,” asserting that Lebanon would not “allow itself to become a pathway or a base for any force, state, or organization seeking to undermine its security or Syria’s security.” Furthermore, the agreement recognized Lebanon’s national “responsibility” to “confront the Israeli aggression,” ensure Israel’s withdrawal, and “liberate” the country. In addition, the agreement recognized the role of Syrian troops to “thankfully assist” the Lebanese government to reassert its sovereignty, stressing that the issue of “Syrian redeployment” (withdrawal, in this case) would be decided
jointly at a later date. Finally, the new political arrangement established by the Taif Accord, which equalized the ratio of seats allocated to Muslim and Christian representatives in the Parliament, had the primary effect of checking the political power of the Maronite Christians, a move that was also seen favorably by Syria. With these provisions, Syria de facto obtained a legal basis to maintain a military presence in Lebanon, together with the recognition of its special
relationship with Lebanon and its role as “guarantor” of Taif. This served as an ideological reassurance that Lebanon would be part of Syria’s “resistance” against Israel and provided legal justifcation for treating perceived security threats within Lebanon as a matter of domestic concern, thus blurring the sovereignty lines between the two countries.

The Syrian Tutelage: Consolidating Power and Infuence (1990-2005)
In the years following the end of the civil war and the signing of the Taif Accord, Syria worked to consolidate its military and political influence within Lebanon. This process of institutionalization of the Syrian role in Lebanese affairs took place largely undisturbed, as foreign powers generally accepted Syria’s limited hegemony in Lebanon as a fait accompli.
For instance, in the early 1990s the United States rewarded Syria for its cooperation during the Gulf War and its willingness to enter negotiations with Israel by turning a blind eye to the country’s strategy and tactics in Lebanon.(27)
In the following years, the international community at large maintained a similar acceptance of Syria’s role in Lebanon, at times even (22)hinting at Syria’s positive “stabilizing” presence in a country perceived as too weak and divided to function autonomously. Taking advantage of this positive laissez-faire attitude, Syria developed an intricate strategy to preserve its hegemony in Lebanon, in a system grounded in military presence, intelligence infltration of the Lebanese
government, political control of key posts within the government, electoral manipulation, and silencing of political opposition. First, after having expanded its military presence in Lebanon in the period preceding the Taif agreement, while the international community’s attention was focused on the Gulf crisis, Syria retained approximately 30,000 soldiers deployed in Lebanon.(28)
The purpose of this presence was officially to facilitate the implementation of the Taif agreement and assist the Lebanese government and its armed forces in extending its control over the country.
In practice, the military deployment was a guarantee of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon; the troops did little more than provide symbolic assistance in the course of the military confrontations between Israel and Lebanon in 1993 and 1996.(29)

At the same time as it was consolidating its military presence, Syria also developed a large cadre of Syrian intelligence agents within Lebanon, who through infltration of the Lebanese state and their political and economic ties with important political and economic players within Lebanon, de facto guaranteed that no major national decision would be carried out without Damascus’ knowledge and approval. The intelligence apparatus was also in charge of a second, equally vital, role: monitoring and silencing internal opposition to the Syrian tutelage. As such, this involved continuing the proven method of political assassinations already employed in the civil war
years. Another tactic to neutralize serious political opponents permanently was to arrest, detain, and transfer political dissidents to Syria, where they would be imprisoned and held incommunicado, often for an indefinite period.(30)

In addition, Syrian intelligence worked to monitor and check the activities of any group not perceived as pro-Syrian. For example, the intelligence apparatus scrutinized the activities of Salafst-Islamist groups within Lebanon, preventing them from criticizing the government and the
occupation, and thereby reducing these groups’ political status and rendering
them politically ineffective. Both the military and the intelligence presence strongly contributed to institutionalizing Syrian infuence in Lebanon through the development of military and economic alliances with local clans, militias, politicians, and businessmen, and the development of a complex network of pro-Syrian clients and allies. These ties were also strengthened by the existence of a strong Syrian community of roughly 300,000-500,000 workers living and
working in Lebanon, a trend that continues to this day.

Second, while controlling Lebanon militarily, Syria invested heavily in boosting its bilateral relations through a series of cooperation agreements signed throughout the 1990s aiming to improve the political, security,cultural, scientifc, and economic ties between the two countries, while
asserting Syria’s role as “senior partner” in the Lebanese-Syrian alliance.(33) Third, Syria’s strategy to maintain infuence over Lebanon rested upon preserving control of the political system. To this end, Syria took measures to fll the key political offces in Lebanon with loyalist politicians, while working to empower its political allies and marginalize its potential
opponents. This strategy led them to ostracize the main Christian parties, at times by detaining its activists and leaders – for instance, the arrest of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and the outlawing of his party in 1994.(34) Moreover, the Syrians promoted the ratifcation of new electoral laws that systematically gerrymandered districts in a way unfavorable to Christians, resulting in a large proportion of Christian seats being delegated to non-Christian districts.
(35) While marginalizing Christian leaders within the political arena, Syria invested heavily in the election of a pro-Syrian president, vetoing the Christian candidates for the post who were not
perceived as aligned with Damascus’ interests, and settling frst on Elias Hrawi (1989-98) and then on General Émile Lahoud (1998-2007). Along with the disempowerment of the Maronite Christians, the Syrian strategy also aimed to protect and strengthen parties and communities perceived as
“loyal,” such as the Shiite community. However, even in cases of strong political alliances, such as between the Shiite groups Amal and Hizbollah and Damascus, Syria never ceased to act as the “senior partner,” while occasionally intervening in its protégés’ decisions. (36)
The relationship between Syria and the Sunni community was also rather amicable in the years following the end of the civil war. In the early 1990s the Sunni community found a new leader in Rafq Hariri and his Future Movement (Tayyar al-Mustaqbal). Hariri, a self-made billionaire
who amassed his fortune in Saudi Arabia, had no preexisting strong ties with Syria, but during his frst term as prime minister (1992-98) managed to attain some measure of equilibrium and preserve a working relationship with Damascus, as well as the Saudi backing of his political rise.

However, even if by the end of the 1990s Syria seemed to have found a perfect recipe for reserving its hegemonic infuence over Lebanon, this pax Syriana did not continue in the new millennium, as new domestic, regional,and global dynamics gradually started shaking the foundations of Syrian
power within Lebanon. The year 2000 represented a watershed for the Syrians. Hafez al-Assad
died and was succeeded by his son Bashar, opening a new chapter in Syrian domestic and foreign policy. Overall, Bashar evinced far less astuteness in his handling of the “Lebanese fle” and generally took Lebanon and its politicians for granted, an attitude that likely contributed to the rise in tension between the two countries. The year 2000 also saw the unilateral redeployment of the IDF behind the Blue Line in Lebanon, an internationally recognized border, in compliance
with UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 425 and 426 (1978) that called for an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

Following the withdrawal,voices from both the international community, as well as from within
Lebanon, started to question the purpose of Syria’s presence more openly.Moreover, Syria’s position within the international community deteriorated sharply in the aftermath of 9/11, as the country became more isolated internationally. In fact, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks
against the US, Syria’s ambiguous position with regard to fnancing and otherwise supporting terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah came under stricter scrutiny and criticism from the international community.
Furthermore, de facto Syrian support for insurgent activities in Iraq following the American invasion in 2003, combined with the Bush administration’s policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East, led the US to reverse its traditional “appeasement” of the Damascus regime and position itself on the offensive, pressing Assad to withdraw from Lebanon. Damascus’ response to the mounting international pressure was to tighten its grip on Lebanon by cracking down on political dissent and preparing to extend President Lahoud’s term following its offcial expiration in 2004.

The latter was a decision made against France’s advice to Syria to avoid meddling excessively in Lebanese internal affairs. The decision subsequently led to the deterioration of Syria’s relations with France, historically Syria’s closet ally in the West. In turn, this led Paris and Washington, supported by regional powers like Saudi Arabia, to press the UN Security Council to address the issue of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon directly, which led to passage of UN Resolution 1559 in September 2004. With this historic resolution the international community’s former legitimization of Syrian tutelage ended abruptly, replaced by the call for an immediate redeployment of “foreign forces” (Syria) and the disarming of all existing militias (Hizbollah). In reference to the presidential elections, the resolution was keen on “underlining the importance of free and fair elections according to Lebanese constitutional
rules devised without foreign interference or infuence” (a clear objection to extending Lahoud’s term). Ultimately, Syria ignored the international pressure and pushed Lebanon’s pro-Syrian Parliament to renew Lahoud’s presidency, which damaged the relationship between Damascus and Rafq Hariri, who at the time was serving his second term as prime minister.

The combination of international criticism of the Damascus regime, together with the gradual shifting of prominent political figures like Hariri to the anti-Syrian camp, led to the rise of serious political opposition to Damascus’ presence. Cornered by the international community and facing the concrete rise of a Christian, Druze, and Sunni alliance against the pro-Syrian and pro-
Lahoud members of government, the days of Syrian tutelage were numbered. Against this background, the assassination of Rafq Hariri on February 14, 2005 greatly accelerated this process by leading to mass protests organized by a new political coalition, originally including main parties like Hariri’s Future Movement, the Christian Lebanese Forces, and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) as well as smaller groups and civil society organizations. Even though Syria’s political allies and clients within Lebanon – mostly the Shiite community represented by Amal and Hizbollah and the pro-Syrian
parties – reacted to this wave of anti-Syrian activism by mobilizing to show their support for the Assad regime, in the end their efforts failed to silence the anti-Damascus sentiments. The new “March 14 Coalition” (the broad anti-Syrian coalition, named for the day of their largest anti-Syrian march), backed by the international community was responsible for pressuring the
Syrian regime, leading to its withdrawal from Lebanon on April 26, 2005. With the anti-Syria demonstrations known as the Cedar Revolution and the end of Syrian tutelage, Lebanon effectively opened a new chapter of
its history. However, did the revolution in fact lead to a decline in Syrian
infuence in Lebanon?
After the Revolution: A New (Syrian) Order (2005-2011)
The New Political Climate and the Role of the Opposition (2005-2008)
The common interpretation of the assassination of Rafq Hariri, in particular among Western analysts and commentators, is that Syria was highly involved in the murder and the Assad regime miscalculated its potential backlash. This narrative carries some weight, as before 2005 it would have been impossible to anticipate the strength of the Cedar Revolution and the determination of
the Lebanese people to oust Syria. As such, it is likely that whatever element orchestrated the murder did not fully predict the backlash that unfolded in the months following the attack. However, when it comes to assessing the actual degree of “success” of such an operation and whether Syria shot itself in the foot, Syria’s perspective on the subject might differ from the
mainstream analysis of the events. In the period preceding February 2005, Damascus faced the most severe challenge to its power and infuence within Lebanon, with the rise of a solid, broad, and truly cross-sectarian anti-Syrian opposition movement. This movement would have been strengthened by the charismatic leadership of Prime Minister Hariri. This possibility was seen as a serious strategic threat to Damascus, which had always centered its Lebanese strategy on a “divide and conquer” approach, taking advantage of Lebanon’s internal fragmentation and sectarian divisions to advance its own political agenda and interests. In other words, the Assad regime had reason to fear the rise of a solid opposition bloc (representing the potential demise of Syrian political
infuence on Lebanon) more than the end of its physical military occupation of the country.
From this perspective, the assassination of Rafq Hariri could be seen as a last resort to stop the rise of such political opposition by depriving the nascent movement of a strong leadership figure.
The hope was that without him, preexisting rivalries and sectarian concerns would reemerge, leading to the dissolution of the opposition movement from within.Indeed, within a few months after the murder of Hariri and the ousting of the Syrians, old divisions resurfaced and undermined the March 14 coalition. More specifcally, in the period leading up to and immediately following
the spring 2005 parliamentary elections, the anti-Syrian coalition started to collapse under the pressure of a rift between a sector of the Christian community and the rest of the March 14 forces.

The divorce between March 14 and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) not only managed to split the Christian community into two political constituencies, but most importantly, it denied the newly elected March 14 government the possibility of enjoying an absolute majority. Therefore, a first consequence of the internal split within the anti-Syrian forces was that even upon its election, the new government lacked the capacity to truly revolutionize the Lebanese political system in a way that could undermine Syria (for example by taking steps to disarm Hizbollah,
or by deposing Lahoud as president). In addition, regardless of the rift in the anti-Syrian bloc, the new cabinet, in order to comply with the Lebanese constitution and represent all main
sectarian groups as well as not alienate a powerful political coalition, required the newly elected majority to enter into a pact with the Shiite Amal and Hizbollah and invite them to join the executive cabinet. Naturally, Shiite participation did not come for free. As leading members of the “March 8” pro-Syrian political opposition, these groups insisted on insurance from the
elected majority not to enter any separate Lebanese agreement with Israel,not to take steps to disarm Hizbollah, and to publicly vow to defend the “resistance.”46 Thus, while protecting its own political interests, the newly formed March 8 opposition was also representing Damascus’ interests,thereby acting as the new “guarantors” of Syrian interests in Lebanon. Moreover, the tight links between the Shiite-led opposition and Damascus put Syria once again at the center of the political stage, as it was clear that without Syrian backing the March 8 forces could at any time resign from the cabinet and propel the government into a political crisis. Influence by proxy was hence strongly reinstated by breaking up the anti-Syrian forces. Newly elected Prime Minister Fouad Siniora recognized this reality as early as July 2005 when as one of his frst acts as prime minister, 28 he visited Damascus after Parliament passed a resolution vowing to defend
Hizbollah’s right to bear arms.47

In the post-2005 political environment, Syria relied even more on its local political allies, including pro-Syrian President Lahoud, Amal Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri, and the political opposition forces led by Hizbollah. A consequence of this new prominence of the Lebanese-Shiite militia was that the group stepped up its political activism, and for the first
time since its initial participation in electoral politics in 1992 decided to join the country’s executive cabinet. Until then, Hizbollah had in fact acted solely as an opposition party, taking part in the legislative activities of the government but refusing to be a member of the executive branch. However, when Syria exited Lebanon, leaving the organization more vulnerable once
the historic “defender of the resistance” was no longer directly meddling in domestic Lebanese politics, Hizbollah decided it was time to become more involved in the country’s executive cabinet. Therefore, the group decided to join the executive, frst in the interim government of Najib Mikati, from April to July 2005, and then in the government of Fouad Siniora.

An increasingly politically active Hizbollah was a favorable development for Syria, which could count on the group to effectively represent Damascus’ interests in the political arena. This is not to say that Hizbollah was a mere puppet or proxy of Syria; that would be an exaggeration and an underestimation of both the Iranian infuence on Hizbollah and the organization’s autonomy.
However, the preexisting strategic alliance between Syria and Hizbollah became even more central for Damascus in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Lebanon, and the Assad regime made it a greater priority to work to safeguard the group’s political power and weapons arsenal. By strongly
championing Hizbollah’s cause and by actively facilitating the transfer of weapons to the Lebanese-Shiite militia, Syria made sure that each party needed the other. Thus only a few months following the military withdrawal of Syria, Lebanon was already starting to grasp that gaining independence of Damascus’ political infuence would prove a complex and daunting task. To be sure, in this early stage the March 14 coalition’s attitude with respect to Syria was one of confrontation, albeit more on the rhetorical level than in its actual policy. This sentiment among the March 14 forces can be eloquently summed by a December 2005 statement by the Druze leader
of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) Walid Jumblatt, where he openly The Ongoing Battle for Beirut: Old Dynamics and New Trends condemned Damascus’ “criminal” regime, declaring: “Let it [the Syrian regime] handle the poor Syrian people’s affairs as it wishes but let it leave us our freedom.”49 However, despite the rhetoric, the new parliamentary majority was not in a position to translate its calls against Syrian interference into action, as its attempts to rein in Damascus were consistently frustrated by the opposition forces led by Hizbollah and Amal. Moreover, by late
2005, General Michel Aoun and his FPM had started to drift towards the opposition, a move that led the two parties in early 2006 to enter into a memorandum of understanding,”50 establishing a permanent political alliance and signifcantly increasing the political power and strength of the
Hizbollah-led March 8 forces. Despite facing a stronger and better organized opposition, March 14 still attempted to take concrete steps to check Syrian control and interference in Lebanon. Practically this translated into renewed calls to discuss the disarmament of all existing militias in Lebanon (Hizbollah) and a campaign to bring to justice those responsible for the Hariri assassination. With respect to the former, the March 14 forces lacked suffcient political backing to even begin to take steps to fully enforce UNSC Resolution 1559; however, with respect to investigating the Hariri assassination, March 14 scored a political victory in December 2005 by passing a cabinet resolution that asked the UN to establish an ad hoc tribunal to look into the assassination of the former prime minister.51 In turn, the Shiite political parties organized
a two-month boycott of the cabinet to protest the resolution establishing the tribunal. Nonetheless, the March 14 forces survived the political crisis, after providing Hizbollah with renewed assurance that the government would not attempt to disarm them.52 The actual degree of authority and control of the elected government was put to the test in 2006: frst with the July 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel and then with the opposition’s boycott of the cabinet beginning in the fall of 2006. With the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, the elected March 14
government was dragged into a conventional military confrontation with the most powerful army in the region, without having been previously consulted or even informed in any way. The confrontation constituted a powerful reminder of Hizbollah’s military strength and its consistent refusal to bring its resistance agenda under a national umbrella. Syria also played a role in 30
the confict by politically backing Hizbollah’s actions, providing logistical assistance to the organization through weaponry supplies,53 and using its leverage over Hizbollah and Lebanese affairs as a means to strengthen its position internationally.
After the war, despite the offcial declarations praising Hizbollah’s “steadfastness,” there was widespread irritation among the March 14 forces regarding Hizbollah’s defance of the government. Taking advantage of the terms set forth in UNSC Resolution 1701, which brought an end to the confict and urged Lebanon to assert full control over its territory while disarming its militias, numerous voices from the March 14 coalition started to ask for the group’s disarmament with renewed vigor and sense of urgency. For example, March 14 Industry Minister Pierre Amine Gemayel
(assassinated a few months after giving this statement) said: “Hizbollah has to deliver its weapons to the Lebanese army, and its light weapons to the police. . . . Its fghters are welcome to join the military force and the state will then quickly regain control of all Lebanese territories.”54 However, empowered by the popular support won by its “divine victory” against Israel and the new political alliance with the FPM, Hizbollah and its Syrian ally had no intention of complying with the government’s requests. Instead, from the fall of 2006, the March 8 opposition forces attempted to reassert their political infuence by demanding that PM Siniora create a new national unity cabinet with March 8 forces (including FPM) that would grant
them at least one third plus one of the cabinet seats. Being awarded two-thirds of the seats in the executive cabinet is extremely crucial in Lebanon, as the Lebanese constitution requires this absolute majority in order to pass any substantial reforms of national interest. In other words, starting in late 2006, the opposition began to demand veto power as a condition for participation
in the cabinet. These calls, rejected by the elected majority and by PM Siniora, led the opposition ministers in November 2006 to resign from the cabinet, dragging Lebanon into de facto political paralysis for 18 months, until May 2008. Interestingly, the resignation from the cabinet and boycott of the government originated not so much over the question of obtaining veto power in the cabinet, but rather as a measure to stop the government from approving a protocol for the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL).55
From Damascus’ perspective, this political crisis was useful in at least three important ways. First, it managed to stall and challenge the process of establishing the tribunal, which clearly represented a threat to the Assad regime. Second, it profoundly weakened the anti-Syrian government while de facto neutralizing its ability to act against Damascus. Third, it showed the
international community that Syria, through its strategic partnership with the opposition forces in Lebanon, was still very much calling the shots. Simply by neutralizing the political process and not openly intervening in order to mediate, Syria was by inaction making its power and infuence clear. Not surprisingly, in the months following the crisis and only two years following
Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the international community resumed its visits to Damascus to discuss the Lebanese crisis. 56 It was Syria’s show, all over again. Within Lebanon, the political paralysis of the cabinet also resulted in the inability of the government to elect a successor to President Lahoud, whose term had expired in 2007. On this issue, March 8 and March 14 groups failed to agree on a mutually satisfactory nominee, as the groups had mutually opposing interests regarding the offce of the president (seen respectively as an opportunity to increase Lebanon’s autonomy from Syria by the March 14 coalition and as a way to ensure continuity and nominate a pro-Syrian politician by the opposition). For the majority parties, electing a president
would represent a unique opportunity to consolidate their power within Lebanese politics, as well as strongly diminish pro-Syrian infuences within the Lebanese arena. However, severe internal tensions and political crises prevented them from electing a pro-March 14 candidate, as the coalition lacked the two-thirds of the necessary votes in the chamber of deputies.57

In the meantime, as the pro-Syrian forces stalled the political process, an old tactic historically used by Syria to keep its political opponents in check resurfaced to increase the pressure on the March 14 forces: a renewed wave of political assassinations. In November 2006 Industry Minister Pierre Amine Gemayel was shot dead in Beirut. In September 2007, only a week before the scheduled date for the frst round of presidential elections, parliamentary member of the March 14 coalition and member of the Maronite Phalange Party, Antoine Ghanem, was killed in a truck bombing.58 Ghanem was the eighth anti-Syrian politician to be killed since 2004 and the sixth victim of political assassinations of March 14 members since February 2005.59

In all, this indicated that Damascus was feeling increasingly stronger, and that it was thereby growing more defant both within Lebanon as well as 32 internationally, ignoring Saudi or US attempts to convince it to “mediate” in the ongoing crisis. An example of such defance was President Assad’s declarations during UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Damascus
in April 2007, which reiterated that stability in Lebanon was basically conditional upon Syria’s involvement, while threatening further instability and “divisions between the Sunni and the Shias” in the event of the continued UN investigations on Hariri.60 This statement refected Assad’s confdence in Syria’s role and position in Lebanon, which allowed him to threaten the international community even while receiving the UN Secretary General. This remark was also interesting
on another level: because at that time in the investigations the only suspects for the Hariri murder were Syrians nationals and pro-Syrian (non-Shiite) politicians, the warning that the tribunal would cause Sunni-Shiite strife made little sense. Two years later, as the STL began directly implicating Hizbollah in the assassination, Assad’s declaration would – retroactively –
take on a different, more disconcerting meaning.
Amid renewed assassinations and political paralysis, the situation in Lebanon in 2007 was in a downward spiral. Eventually, the escalating crisis peaked in May 2008 in a watershed event that redefned the political landscape within Lebanon and ultimately strengthened Syria’s infuence
and its role as main powerbroker. Political Ascent: It’s All about Syria, Again (2008-2011)
In the months preceding the violent May 2008 clashes between the March 14 and the March 8 forces, the international community, and Saudi Arabia in particular, tried to persuade Syria to “convince” its Lebanese allies to end the crisis and resume normal political activities, but to no avail.61 Syria had in fact emerged strengthened by the ongoing political paralysis and had no intention of pressuring its allies to replace the government with a “more cooperative” unity government.
Syria’s perseverance paid off. In May 2008, Hizbollah reacted to attempts by the Siniora cabinet to remove Hizbollah sympathizer Wafq Shkeir from his post as security chief at the Hariri International Airport and shut down the organization’s communication network.62 Hizbollah felt that the March14 government had crossed a red line in an effort to defy the organization by attempting to regulate Hizbollah’s military activities. In response, the The Ongoing Battle for Beirut: Old Dynamics and New Trends Lebanese-Shiite militia turned its weapons inwards, against its Lebanese political foes, and quickly showed the March 14 alliance its notably superior
military strength. Indeed, military power has historically been Lebanon’s strongest political currency. In this case, taking to the streets of west Beirut resulted in a political victory for Hizbollah. The clashes led the parties in May 2008 to meet in Doha, where they signed a reconciliation agreement that de facto granted the March 8 forces its main demands: veto power in the cabinet, representation of Aoun’s FMP, electoral reforms, and the election of Michel Suleiman as Lebanon’s next president.63

The Doha agreement represented a double victory for Syria. Internationally,it helped boost the country’s position and dramatized to the world the potency of its political alliance with the opposition forces. Within Lebanon, the picture once again indicated major Syrian infuence and the tides of the Cedar Revolution began to turn, further eroding the strength of the March 14 coalition. In August 2008, to mark the favorable situation and to indicate a rapprochement in Syrian-Lebanese relations, Damascus established full diplomatic relations with the Republic of Lebanon.64 Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Doha agreement, a new tendency from within the March 14 coalition seemed to emerge to mend relations – at least somewhat – with Damascus. Druze leader Jumblatt was the frst member of the coalition to demonstrate such intentions, eventually achieving a full “reconciliation” with Damascus and drifting away from the March 14 camp
in the period following the June 2009 parliamentary elections.65 Jumblatt’s exit proved a hard blow to March 14, especially since the results of the June 2009 elections had once again failed to provide the anti-Syrian forces with an absolute majority. The incumbent coalition, led by Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, won 71 of the 128 available seats, but obtained only roughly 45 percent of the total electoral votes, while the Hizbollah-led March 8 coalition received the remaining 55 percent of the vote and 57 seats.66 These results confrmed the sharp split among the Christian electorate, divided between March 14 and March 8, and strengthened the demands of the opposition
to once again be awarded veto power in the upcoming executive cabinet. This demand was further validated by Jumblatt’s decision to abandon the anti-Syrian coalition and reposition himself ambiguously in the “center” with President Suleiman, himself a friend of Damascus.34

In November 2009, the political infuence of the pro-Syrian bloc once again achieved its demands, with the creation of yet another “unity” cabinet composed of 15 members of the March 14 coalition, ten members from the Hizbollah-led opposition, and fve independent candidates appointed by
President Michel Suleiman (perceived as loyal to Damascus).67 As the new cabinet was representative of Lebanon’s political reality and the strong infuence that Syria and its domestic political allies held, the new government and its prime minister, Saad Hariri, recalibrated their attitude with respect to Syria to refect the existing balance of power. Accordingly, Hariri went to Damascus in December 2009, pledging to create a “strategic partnership” with Syria in the interest of “Arabism” and “resistance against Israel.”68 Similarly, the new government increased its diplomatic visits to Syria, while investing in renewed cooperation initiatives.69 The culmination of this trend was PM Hariri’s “apology” for having prematurely accused Damascus of orchestrating the assassination of his father, Rafq Hariri.70

Numerous commentators, particularly in the West, were quite puzzled by this statement and failed to understand how, before the fnal conclusions of the UN tribunal investigations were published, Saad Hariri could bring himself to apologize to Assad’s regime. However, when looking closely at
the progressive rise of power and infuence of the March 8 opposition forces and the parallel rise of Syrian infuence in Lebanon since its ousting in 2005, Hariri’s statement looks less surprising and more an act of realpolitik. The statement made even more sense when read in the context of the ongoing mediation process between Saudi Arabia and Syria over Lebanon’s response
to the UN Special Tribunal. In fact, since having been formally established in May 2007, following
the Lebanese government’s request for the UN Security Council’s unilateral endorsement of its constitutive protocol,71 the UN tribunal had been working on Hariri’s assassination case, and as of the summer of 2010, rumors spread that the STL was preparing to issue its frst indictments. More specifically, reliable leaks asserted that the investigations implicated Hizbollah, not Syria, in the murder, a rumor that seemed further validated when Daniel Bellamare of the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon recommended that Lebanon free four pro-Syria Lebanese intelligence offcials that had been detained in connection with the murder in 2005.72

Predictably, the alleged Hizbollah involvement (later confrmed in July 2011 with the public disclosure of the indictments) only contributed to the rising tones of confrontation between March 14 and the opposition forces. Hizbollah, which from the outset was opposed to the STL, significantly intensified its campaign against the UN tribunal. First, the Lebanese-Shiite
organization began to openly dismiss the STL as an “Israeli project,”73 with the group’s Deputy Walid Sukkaryieh declaring: “The credibility of the international tribunal is seriously in doubt as it has proven over time that it was politicized.”74 Second, while questioning the reliability of the STL and dismissing its records and evidence, Hizbollah also began to claim to have
acquired information that directly implicated Israel in the Hariri murders, an allegation frst advanced in August 2010.75

In addition to discrediting the STL, Hizbollah began preparing for the indictments, by declaring that such documents would be a “war declaration” and that the organization would refuse to hand over its members to the tribunal.76 On October 28, 2010, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said:
“Copies of whatever the international investigators collect are transferred to Israel…what is taking place is a violation. The investigation is over. The indictment they say will be issued has been written since 2006. The issue is over.” Furthermore, the Secretary General argued it was incumbent on “every offcial in Lebanon and on every citizen in Lebanon to boycott these
investigations and not to cooperate with them,”77 marking the peak of the anti-STL campaign.
While Hizbollah and its political allies were mounting this campaign against the tribunal, the March 14 forces began to increase their criticism of Hizbollah, while maintaining their support for the STL. Specifcally, March 14 forces began to frame Hizbollah’s refusal to respect the STL
as part of a subversive project to ultimately take over Lebanon through a coup.78
For instance, on November 3, 2010, an offcial March 14 statement defned Hizbollah’s anti-STL stance as part of an “anti-Lebanese intimidation campaign,” adding that “disastrous scenarios are also pumped on a daily basis with the aim of taking possession of the country for good. Hizbollah,
a totalitarian party which is leading the campaign, is mistaken if it believes its conditions and its campaign will force the Lebanese to go back on their constant principles. No one has the ability to turn the clock back or cancel the national achievements made by the independence uprising.”79 In addition, 36 March 14 Christian leaders stressed their perspective on the potential Hizbollah takeover, adding that Lebanon is at present in “grave danger.”80 Against this background of high political tensions, Saudi Arabia and Syria decided to intervene to broker a settlement between the parties and avoid the escalation of violence. From August 2010, Syria and Saudi Arabia became involved in a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings aimed at preventing the escalation of violence within Lebanon and at agreeing on a common approach regarding the STL and how to deal with the indictments once they were fnally issued.
At the same time, as a result of its role as “mediator,” in the same period Syria increased contact with the members of the March 14 forces, allegedly to broker a deal that would allow them
to continue cooperation with the STL, while fnding a loophole to shield Hizbollah from responsibility.82
The Hariri “apology,” therefore, should be read in the context of the ongoing negotiating process between the government, the opposition forces, and Saudi Arabia and Syria. Syria’s role as mediator with respect to the UN STL is especially interesting, and in part sheds light on Syria’s political victory with respect to its former protectorate. Even in the months preceding its establishment, Syria was highly critical of the idea of creating an ad hoc international tribunal to investigate the political assassination of Rafq Hariri. Seen from Damascus, the upcoming STL seemed like a sophisticated method that the international community sought to employ to target its regime. Indeed, in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination, it was no secret that the international community supported creating an international tribunal as a way to finally deal with the elephant in the room: Syria’s long and unpunished history of political assassinations as a way to eliminate political adversaries. However, as the investigations began to point at Hizbollah as the main suspect in the Hariri murder, Damascus could start to breathe a sigh of relief. To be sure, the indictments do not exculpate Syria. Quite the contrary: Hizbollah’s involvement implicates Syria by default, given both the strength of the relationship between the two parties and the extent to which Damascus controlled Lebanon during its tutelage period, elements that ridicule the possibility that a large scale operation such as the Hariri assassination could
have been orchestrated behind Syria’s back. 37
Nonetheless, in the absence of hard evidence, Assad and his regime were at least temporarily off the hook. Without a smoking gun implicating Syria in the Hariri murder, the regime effectively avoided international sanctions and condemnation. In addition, within Lebanon it led the anti-Syrian forces to focus their efforts on singling out and criticizing Hizbollah as the main
culprit and “foreign agent” attempting to take over the country, at least temporarily diminishing their public criticism of the Assad regime. Furthermore, Syria could now freely intervene to help anchor Lebanon’s position on the tribunal by acting as mediator. The mediating role of Syria
with respect to the STL clearly highlighted Syria’s solid grip on Lebanese politics through its cooperation with the opposition forces. It also represented an opportunity for Damascus to support the process of derailing the course of the investigations. In fact, even if for the time being no Syrian national has been indicted for the Hariri murder, the best insurance against any future
indictments would be to undermine or obstruct the STL and its work. In this sense, although at the moment Hizbollah is the only organization implicated for its alleged role in the Hariri murder, it is likely that Assad still wants the investigation tabled just as much as does Nasrallah, if not more. This explains why Syria’s role with respect to the STL has been far from neutral, and how Damascus has been highly supportive of the opposition’s campaign against the UN. For example, in September 2010, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem requested that the STL be replaced by an
exclusively Lebanese investigative team, echoing the desire expressed by Hizbollah and the opposition forces.83
Even more interesting, only a week after these statements were released, a Syrian judge issued arrest warrants for 33 Syrian and Lebanese citizens, accusing them of tampering with evidence
and giving false testimony in relation to the Hariri murder.84
Although the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul Karim was adamant in explaining that the indictments were a purely judicial act with no political implications, it is easy to interpret them as part of Syria’s campaign to discredit the tribunal and the Lebanese government’s efforts to stand by it. This theory acquires particular credibility when considering that the Syrian indictments directly played into Hizbollah’s campaign to undermine the STL based on the prosecution’s alleged reliance on false testimony. Subsequent to these developments, Syrian distress over the STL and the Lebanese government’s renewed support for its work was expressed even more directly. In October 2010 Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Itri openly stated how
his country views the elected government. He said: “We do not take into consideration 14, 15 or 16 since those are a house of cards.”85 In the end, probably because of the strong (and mutually exclusive) interests of the mediators, the mediation efforts did not succeed. Consequently,
Lebanon again found itself in the eye of the political storm in early 2011, when the prolonged disagreements over how to handle the investigations of the death of Rafq Hariri eventually led to the offcial resignation from the executive cabinet of the ten ministers of the Hizbollah-led March 8
coalition and an “independent” minister who had been appointed by President Suleiman.
In turn, this caused the collapse of the national unity government led by Saad Hariri.86
The end of the Hariri government was followed by the rise of a new parliamentary majority dominated by the March 8 forces and the FPM, in alliance with Jumblatt’s PSP and led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, an “independent” candidate with strong and amicable ties with Damascus.
In turn and in typical Lebanese fashion, the new prime minister, after five months of internal consultations and political bargaining, fnally announced the creation of a new cabinet, comprising 18 ministers from the March 8 camp, 12 independent candidates, and no members of the March 14 coalition.
With the rise of the new government, a few trends emerge with regard to Syrian involvement in Lebanon. First, the new government, despite its official declarations pledging to stand by existing international commitments, essentially guarantees that Lebanon will not enthusiastically endorse the STL and its fndings, defnitely a positive development for Syria. More significantly, the fall of the March 14 government and the rise of a new pro-Syrian majority and prime minister bring the country back to the pre-Cedar Revolution era, strengthening the influence of Syria on Lebanese domestic
politics. In fact, Bashar al-Assad’s regime was heavily involved in the process that led to the formation of the Hizbollah-dominated executive cabinet, and Syria has been highly supportive of the new direction of Lebanese politics. In other words, less than a decade after its initial withdrawal in 2005, Damascus has managed to reposition itself in Lebanon, obtaining a high
degree of infuence in the country’s domestic politics while de facto marginalizing its political opponents. Signifcantly, it has found a way to reach this level of political tutelage without having to redeploy a single tank in Lebanon. Or, as put simply by Jumblatt in January 2011: “Geopolitics dictated that we choose between the sea or going to the Arab depth: Syria.”87
The return of Lebanon to Syria’s sphere of infuence is a particularly valuable asset for Damascus, especially given the internal turmoil and the mounting international pressure against the Assad regime. In fact, only a few months following the collapse of the Hariri government and the
reestablishment of a strongly pro-Syrian government in Lebanon, Damascus’ political ascent was brusquely stopped by the onset of the “Arab spring.” By March 2011, the immense wave of social and political unrest that brought down the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt spread to Syria, leading to massive anti-government demonstrations, frst demanding substantial reforms and then explicitly calling for Assad’s resignation. In turn, these protests were met by the regime with a combination of a (small) carrot and a (big) stick. The Assad regime reacted to the protests
mostly by openly and brutally cracking down on political dissent, waging an all-out war against the protesters, refusing to relinquish control yet promising some (minimal) degree of reform. The clashes within Syria, taking the form of sectarian strife between the Alawite-dominated regime and the mostly Sunni opposition (other ethnic-religious minorities within Syria such as
the Christians and the Kurds have been deliberately at the margins of the protests, fearing a backlash against their communities) have also had a strong impact on Lebanon. First, the rising inter-sectarian tensions in Syria have resonated in Lebanon, where the March 14 and the March 8 forces have been engaged in a domestic confict over the social and political protests in Damascus.
On the one hand, Hizbollah and its political allies have stood up in defence of the Assad regime. The Lebanese Shiite organization in fact immediately showed solidarity with the Syrian regime, with the Hizbollah-controlled media waging campaigns to discredit the protest movement, for example by downplaying its size or by accusing the protesters of having been paid to take part in the anti-regime demonstrations. 88 In addition, since February 2011, there were also reports of Hizbollah units deployed along the Lebanese- Syrian border to monitor the situation and assist Assad’s regime. 89
However, in parallel with the progressive escalation of the violence within Syria and
the seeming erosion of the regime’s capacity to put an end to the protests, Hizbollah began to adopt a slightly more nuanced stance with respect to the 40 Assad regime. By late August 2011, Hizbollah, while continuing to praise Syria for its role in fighting Israel, had in fact begun to publicly support the idea of implementing wide reforms in Syria, quite a change from its initially intransigent posture.90

Despite this pragmatic change in discourse, Hizbollah still remains firmly allied with the Assad regime. For their part, the March 14 forces, and specifcally the Sunni Future movement, have expended significant political capital to support the protests, while criticizing Hizbollah for its pro-Assad stance. On this matter, Saad Hariri explained the growing frustration against Hizbollah by stating: “Is there in history any resistance movement that supported an oppressive ruler against oppressed people or supported despotic regimes against peoples demanding freedom?” And, “it is shameful that Hizbollah views the Syrian uprising from the perspective of the Iranian
interest, not the will of the Arab peoples.”91 Second, in addition to heightening the internal tensions between Shiites and Sunnis within Lebanon, the crisis of the Syrian regime has led Damascus to attempt to rely on its infuence within Lebanon to restore both its domestic
and regional standing, as well as to project its power and infuence. The growing number of violent clashes at the border between the two countries, the attacks on UNIFIL troops in May and July 2011, and the kidnapping of Estonian tourists in southern Lebanon in March 2011 are indeed seen by
many analysts within Lebanon as an example of this trend. 92
Accordingly, aside from a spillover of Syrian civil unrest into Lebanon, these episodes would serve Syria’s broader strategy to encourage instability in Lebanon as a way to remind the international community of the consequences of both targeting the Damascus regime or even ncouraging its demise. “If Syria falls, so will Lebanon,” seems to be the message. With the Syrian protests still unfolding and the regime in crisis, it is extremely difficult to understand the long term impact of this dynamic on Lebanon. However, if the Assad regime were indeed to fall, this would presumably mean the end of Syrian involvement in Lebanon as we know it. A new chapter in Lebanese-Syrian relations would be written. The fall of the Alawite-dominated regime and the rise of a Sunni-led new government would likely empower the Sunni community within Lebanon, while a demise of the Hizbollah-Syrian-Iranian alliance would give new life to both the March 14 forces and the Cedar Revolution.

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