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Middle East: Analyst Nadim Shehadi On Lebanon, Syria, And The International Community

Prague, 17 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nadim Shehadi directs the Center for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University in Great Britain and is a fellow at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs. Yesterday, the Lebanese-born scholar spoke with RFE/RL about this week's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and its implications for the future of Lebanon and the region. [For RFE/RL's related story on Lebanese-Syrian relations and the international community, click here --> /featuresarticle/2005/02/dcc831ca-4b5e-4e18-ad0a-bba57cda9eb2.html .]

RFE/RL: In September, Syria pressured the Lebanese parliament into amending the country's constitution to extend the term in office of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahud. Around the same time, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called on Syria to withdraw its 14,000 troops from its smaller neighbor. Since that momentous month, how had the political climate begun to change in Lebanon leading up to Hariri's killing on 14 February?

Shehadi: The real main division in Lebanon is between President Lahud's camp and the prime minister's camp, [former Prime Minister] Hariri. This is a division that's been dominating Lebanese politics since 1998, since the election of President Lahud. This is a fundamental clash, in the sense that it's a clash of two opposing agendas that have a political content in them that goes back to the interpretation of the way Lebanon should be reconstructed after the war, the way society should be reconciled and all that. This division is not sectarian and has nothing to do with the divisions of the civil war; it's a purely political division and on both sides there are Muslims, Christians, and Druze.

RFE/RL: Can you elaborate on their different visions?

Shehadi: If your conclusion is that the freedom that we had before the war was more of an anarchy than it was freedom, and that the economic laissez-faire and liberalism led to a breakdown in the social fabric and was a contributing factor to the war; and if you believe that the cosmopolitanism was really lack of nationalism and lack of cohesion in the country, then you would be constructing a society in which there's a little bit less freedom and much more control by the security services and by the state apparatus. You'd be constructing a society which is a little bit more xenophobic because you don't want interference from outsiders whom you blame for having had a free hand in your country before. You'd be also constructing an economy which has much more intervention with social services and pension plans and health plans and all that. And that's basically what the agenda of President Lahud was, and that's why he was trying to spend so much money on the army and on state intervention.
Harari's funeral has been more like the biggest demonstration that Lebanon has ever seen on Beirut's streets. First of all, it's overwhelming numbers; second, it's multiconfessional: Christians, Muslims, Druze.

If your conclusion is that Lebanon was an OK place before the war and that it can resume the same role and that for it to resume the same role you have to have a liberal, non-interventionist state, free enterprise should be encouraged and freedom of the press and absolutely no taxation and as little intervention from the state as possible, then you'd be doing exactly that: recreating what was before the war. So one agenda thinks it's recreating what was before the war, the other one thinks that's very dangerous because it's what caused the war.

RFE/RL: And obviously, Hariri belonged to the camp that wanted to recreate what Lebanon was before the war. Yet both camps, at least until last fall, were pro-Syrian, though with some subtle differences, right?

Shehadi: [The opposition] is no longer pro-Syrian, but it was always pro-Syrian. I mean, Hariri and [Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt were always allies of the Syrians. But the difference is, in political terms, whether you are pro-Syrian because you perceive the need to accommodate Syria for your own political ends or whether you are pro-Syrian by conviction because you see that this is necessary for the security and stability of the country. I think that the Jumblatt and Hariri camp, if you like, were more accommodating to the Syrians. Hariri is a businessman, and he had a very clear vision of what he wanted to do in Lebanon; it's a vision that he started developing long before the war had ended. He had a base in Paris and he had the plans for the development of Beirut and the reconstruction and all that already being developed before the war had finished.

So for a man like Hariri, who has a contractor's mentality, the relations with Syria are a hurdle that needs to be accommodated in order to get the job done, rather than for a man like Lahud who thinks in security terms, that the formula that used to maintain Lebanon's security before the war, which was based on Western protection and balancing regional powers at a time when there was a Cold War happening and when most of the regional powers were in the Soviet camp except for Saudi Arabia -- that sort of formula has completely collapsed. You have to replace that with a very firm alliance with Syria and also by having a very strong army.

RFE/RL: In recent months, as Washington upped its pressure on Syria, the UN resolution was passed and Syria engineered the extension of Lahud's term in office, did Hariri and his camp maintain their stance of accommodating Syria, or were they becoming more radical in demanding Syria withdraw from Lebanon?

Shehadi: He still maintained open lines of communication with Damascus and was trying to negotiate a solution and moderate the opposition in Lebanon to find a way out of that crisis, which he saw as very harmful to Lebanon, basically as a stalemate in political life. But at the same time he was perceived by the loyalists -- by those opposed to him and by the government -- as having been the instigator of Resolution 1559 by encouraging [French] President [Jacques] Chirac, with whom he has very good personal relations, to initiate the contacts with the United States and do this joint action together in order to reach what is seen as an intervention in Lebanese affairs. And it's very relevant also that he has instigated this sort of action, because this is in a way a revival of the prewar vision that Lebanon does not need an army, it needs protection from the West.

RFE/RL: Many have said that Hariri asked Chirac to join the U.S. in pushing through Resolution 1559.

Shehadi: There's certainly a basis for it. President Chirac's relations with Hariri go back to before he was prime minister, to the time when he was a resident of Paris and Chirac was mayor of Paris in the 80s. He's had the support of President Chirac throughout. In 2002, President Chirac sponsored an international conference in Paris which brought economic support for Lebanon in order to help it deal with its debt crisis. In 2002, Lebanon was on the verge of financial collapse. And in retrospect now, we can see that that conference saved the Lebanese economy by re-injecting confidence, giving international support, and also injecting cash, which allowed the government to implement some policies which reduced the debt burden and made it go towards a more sustainable path.

And in the same way, his dealings with Syria are also part of a regional agenda. Prime Minister Hariri was in the '80s also financing a study group and a group of experts to work on possibilities of liberalizing the Syrian economy in the future; so his vision incorporated a certain political outcome in Syria itself, and he had lots of allies in Damascus and very good relations with politicians there, and [he] even had a home in Damascus.

RFE/RL: So has anything fundamental changed with his assassination in terms of the opposition's approach to politics and Lebanon's relations with Syria?

Shehadi: Yes. Now, what you call an opposition in Lebanon is, in a sense, a new creation which happened throughout this [past] summer and culminated in the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri. It's a consolidation of two trends: those that were fundamentally opposed to Syria and those that were accommodating with Syria, came together in opposition to Syria's presence and in opposition to the extension of President Lahud's mandate.

So this is a new phenomenon, but I think the new major development also has to do with the way the funeral is progressing and has progressed today. If you watch the funeral on television, the funeral has been more like the biggest demonstration that Lebanon has ever seen on Beirut's streets. First of all, it's overwhelming numbers; second, it's multiconfessional: Christians, Muslims, Druze. It was non-sectarian. It was a huge show of support to the Hariri family but also like a silent, peaceful demonstration against the president and against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. So loyalist, as opposed to opposition politicians, are bound to be affected by this because in the end of the day, these are politicians who seek reelection and if an election was to happen tomorrow in an atmosphere like this, the pro-Syrian camp would be very concerned about their own reelection.

RFE/RL: So do you see this wave of support and outpouring of grief adding up to victory for the opposition in Lebanon's general elections this May?

Shehadi: It is certainly going to be a factor in the elections, yes. But there is no such thing as a victory in a case like this because the absence of Prime Minister Hariri as a shock to the system is going to have a lot of repercussions, both on the Lebanese economy and on Lebanese political life. And it'll take a long time to readjust. I think that we're approaching a period of uncertainty and great danger.

RFE/RL: Is there is a risk of new civil strife, of further violence?

Shehadi: No, absolutely not. In Lebanon, one associates civil strife with sectarian violence and in this case, it is very clear that the division is non-sectarian. There are Christians and Muslims on both sides of the political divide and they're equally as Christian and Muslim as the other side. But where the danger is, is that Prime Minister Hariri, by his own personality and international contacts and his initiatives and most importantly his immense wealth, inspired a lot of confidence in foreign investment in Lebanon.

And his absence may have an affect of denting the confidence in the Lebanese economy. And in a situation like the one Lebanon finds itself in, where any shift in confidence would affect the debt servicing costs in a big way, this could create an imbalance and may cause an economic collapse.

RFE/RL: Obviously, all of this is playing out against a background of intense American military and diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, including growing pressure on Syria endorsed by the United Nations. How do you see Syria's role in Lebanon playing out, if at all? Is its retreat inevitable, or will Syria refuse to quit the country without, as it were, a fight?

Shehadi: Resolution 1559 is a resumption of international interest in Lebanon, or at least an indication of a possibility of the resumption of international interest in Lebanon. I don't think the Lebanese can bank on it fully as a reestablishment of a former policy, because policy toward Syria is much more complex than just Lebanon. Policy toward Syria depends on a lot of factors like the war on terror, the Palestinian-Israeli situation, and the Middle East peace process, the relations with Iraq and the situation in Iraq; it also depends on the relations with Iran because Syria is a strategic ally of Iran. So there are lots of factors there, and within all this larger equation, Lebanon could be just used as a pressure point on Syria, and still be irrelevant. So the Lebanese have to weigh how much they can bank on such an American intervention, whether this sort of intervention is really meant to be a reestablishment of a protection that would allow Lebanon some maneuverability, or whether it's just a pressure point on Syria, in which case the Lebanese would be unwise to behave as though they are beneficiaries of this move.

RFE/RL: But given the fact that Washington seems pretty serious about Syria, do you envision any serious steps to have Resolution 1559 implemented and Syria actually pulling out of Lebanon?

Shehadi: Well, there are two aspects to this question. There's no doubt that Washington is serious about Syria, but the question is: Is Washington really serious about Lebanon? The relationship with Syria has been developing since the end of the Iraq invasion and it's been a process of negotiations with Syria, moving between confrontation and kind of deal making. Syria has been trying to show itself very useful in the war and in fact has collaborated a lot in the war on terror and the Americans have acknowledged this. Syria has also been trying to demonstrate that it can be very useful in Iraq, that it has very good intelligence in Iraq; it has good contacts with the former opposition that was based in Damascus, with the tribes; it can help control the border; it can help control radical elements that can go from Syria to Iraq. So Syria has a lot to offer on that front. And Syria has also been trying to show the Americans that it is very willing to resume negotiations with Israel and make concessions on the Israeli-Arab front with the Middle East peace process. Syria has also made a major rapprochement with Turkey, and Turkey is now mediating on behalf of Syria, both with the Americans and the Israelis. And Syria has resolved, very quietly and peacefully, its border issue with Turkey, which is quite a serious border issue. The issue of Lebanon is part of a much broader and complex picture and the Lebanese have to be aware of this.

RFE/RL: Yet there would seem to be a lot in Lebanon for America to be concerned about. The country acts as the operating base of the anti-Israeli Hezbollah militant group, which is supported by Iran via Syria. And the Bush administration is in the midst of a major push to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and certainly would not want to see Hezbollah, which backs Hamas, the main Palestinian militant group, hurting that effort.

Shehadi: Absolutely. But being serious about Lebanon could also mean, within this larger picture that I painted, making a deal with Syria; because Syria basically can make itself useful by creating problems that only Syria itself can resolve, like Hezbollah and also the radical Palestinian factions that are in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon are also supported by Syria. And Syria can press little buttons and either increase the heat on the border with Israel or intensify the problems with the Palestinian refugees, but it can also equally reverse that and show that if you are willing to make a deal with Syria, it can not only provide useful services with Iraq and on the Palestinian front and on the war on terror front, but can also control the Lebanese situation for you, including Hezbollah, of course.

RFE/RL: But perhaps there are people in the Bush administration who would not mind regime change in Damascus -- and, in point of fact, aspire to this end?

Shehadi: This definitely depends on attitudes in Washington. If the attitude in Washington is the neoconservative [one] that, "Whatever happens, we're out of the deal-making mode and we're going to hit at these regimes like Syria and Iran and Saudi Arabia and do regime change in the whole region and not compromise and all that," then all the approaches and everything that Syria has to offer is completely useless. But if [in Washington] there is a tendency to make a deal, then Syria has all that to offer.

But in both cases, the Lebanese situation is only a little pawn on the game, either used to justify and increase the pressure on Syria or used as a bargaining chip with Syria. And in both cases it's not clear that this is in the interests of Lebanon.

RFE/RL: In conclusion, Hariri is gone; Lebanon faces elections; some people expect further violence, maybe more assassinations. What do you expect in the coming months, and what has Hariri left as a legacy to build upon?

Shehadi: Hariri's legacy will continue in the institutions that he created and the agenda that he represents. A lot of his own allies and his team is still in place. The problem with Hariri is that he was at the same like a chairman and chief executive officer of a huge enterprise. And the rest of the people that belonged to that enterprise were more like employees than members of the board of directors or equal partners. And his absence will create a vacuum. It will be a big challenge for these institutions and that agenda to continue, without his presence.