- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

BEIRUT

Syria has taken the first steps toward recognizing its longtime client, Lebanon, as a separate sovereign country, but the relationship could take new turns depending on the results of the June 7 Lebanese elections and the prospect for Syria-Israel peace.

In August, negotiations between Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar Assad, culminated in an agreement to renew diplomatic ties, open embassies and demarcate borders. The two also agreed to address the sensitive issue of missing persons, promised to tackle corruption and to cooperate on Arab initiatives to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Syria opened an embassy in Lebanon in December, and Lebanon followed suit in Damascus in March. This marked a major improvement in relations since Damascus withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005 after three decades of quasi-occupation. The withdrawal came in the wake of massive anti-Syrian demonstrations following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many Lebanese blame on Syria. Since then, Lebanon has been polarized between the so-called March 14 alliance and the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition - both named for the dates of respective mass rallies.

Lebanese are predictably divided about whether Syria will respect their sovereignty given its repeated intervention in Lebanese politics. Some worry that the Obama administration will improve ties with Syria at the expense of Lebanon, while others see an opportunity to revive longstanding historical and social bonds as well as both nations’ economies.

One potential area of friction was eased last week when Lebanon released four generals held on suspicion of involvement in the truck bombing that killed Mr. Hariri and nearly two dozen others. A U.N. tribunal formed to prosecute those responsible said it had insufficient evidence to charge them with the crime. No other suspects have been detained.

In April, more than 150 Lebanese and Syrian academics gathered at a first-ever conference in Damascus to discuss historic ties and economic interests.

“This kind of [event] is extremely important to have both formal and informal connections … and to allow a public discussion to take place so that Lebanese and Syrians can criticize and debate issues not as a personal attack, but in a critical way,” said Karim Makdisi, associate professor of international relations at the American University of Beirut.

In a recent editorial, Rami Khoury, editor at large of the Daily Star in Lebanon, said that like it or not, Syria and Lebanon have to get along.

“The fates of Lebanon and Syria are inextricably linked, and just as the dismal future of one will rub off on the other, so too can both states reap the benefits of mutual success,” he wrote. “But this cannot happen as long as the Syrians continue to view Lebanon as a lost province, or the Lebanese see Syria as a revanchist ex-hegemon. It can only come about if both states take the necessary steps to work as equal partners.”

Among the issues still to be decided:

• Demarcating the border

The Lebanese government, currently led by the March 14 grouping of Sunni Muslims, Druse and some Christians, has repeatedly called for settling the 198-mile border between the countries, which has remained vague since both gained independence from France in the 1940s.

Some analysts, however, say drawing a border is less important than fostering employment, and that demarcation now, they say, would jeopardize the livelihoods of many families that rely on cross-border trade for services and jobs.

“Do you think that by demarcating borders, youre going to provide more security to Lebanon?” asked Mr. Makdisi. “There is a very clearly demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel. Has that stopped the Israelis from invading and attacking, has that stopped the drug trade? Do you think that by demarcating, its going to stop the Syrians or make you more sovereign?”

He argued that what makes a nation sovereign is having a central government with “more respectability and self-accountability and taking itself seriously and providing essential services to its citizens and having an army that can at least, symbolically, provide security. Thats what sovereignty, independence and security means.”

• Accounting for missing persons

Lebanese support groups say that as many as 600 Lebanese are in custody in Syrian jails, a claim Syria denies. Syria, meanwhile, says Lebanon has failed to account for 800 Syrians who have gone missing in Lebanon between 1976 and 1990.

• Disarming Hezbollah

Arguably the most controversial and intractable issue, the question of disarming the militant Shi’ite group, has not been addressed - at least not publicly - in Syria-Lebanon diplomatic talks.

Since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, repeated U.S., European, U.N. and Lebanese government attempts to pressure the group to relinquish its arms have failed. Local analysts say disarmament is only possible if a strong Lebanese state emerges that represents all of Lebanons sectarian communities. Then the Lebanese army could be bolstered so that the self-styled “Party of God” might put its well-trained forces and arms under the army’s authority.

None of this is likely to happen, however, unless there is a peace agreement between Syria and Israel that returns the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Center at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Lebanons stability is inextricably tied to lessened tensions in the region, and he encouraged the Obama administration to fast-track a peace deal between Syria and Israel. “Without it, we will be an occasional state arena for warfare,” he said.

Meanwhile, election campaigning is in full swing, and opinion polls predict a tight race between the March 8 and March 14 factions.

Observers foresee three possible outcomes: a narrow majority for March 8, a hung parliament, or a slim victory for March 14. The March 8 bloc, comprised mainly of Shi’ite groups and a prominent Christian faction, already has announced that should it win, it will seek a unity government. However, March 14 says it will boycott a Cabinet dominated by Hezbollah, which already has veto power over decisions by the current government.

Mr. Salem said that “whatever the election results are, a national unity government will most likely be formed similar to the one at present.”

If his prediction proves correct, Syria and the new Lebanon government will need to map out a timeline and benchmarks on how to proceed on some of these critical issues.

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