Syria Lebanon diplomacy, diplomatic agreement Syria Lebanon, greater Syria
Bassem Tellawi/AP
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem,
right, shakes hands with his Lebanese
counterpart Fawzi Salloukh.

Syria’s Accord with Lebanon Part of Larger Diplomatic Push

October 17, 2008 09:23 AM
by Josh Katz
Syria has made several foreign policy moves of late, including the recent diplomatic agreement with Lebanon. Some have been in America’s interests; others have not.

Syria and Lebanon Sign Historic Agreement

On Wednesday, a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced his support for improved relations with Lebanon, the foreign ministers of both nations signed a diplomatic agreement putting them on equal footing.

The statement “reaffirms the determination of both parties to reinforce and consolidate their relations on the basis of mutual respect, the sovereignty and independence of each, and to preserve privileged fraternal relations between the two brotherly countries in order to respond to the aspiration of both peoples,” it said.

In the past, Syria has “been the dominant side” of the relationship
between the countries, according to the Middle East Times. The pact is the first time Syria has officially recognized Lebanon as a “sovereign state,” rather than an extension of “greater Syria.”

Opinion & Analysis: Assessing the deal

The Arab press has, for the most part, come out in support of the deal and called it a good step forward. For example, editorials from two newspapers in the Middle East said that relations between Syria and Lebanon have reached a “new era,” according to the BBC. But a number of Lebanese observers remain skeptical, asserting that the agreement is hollow without tangible action on Syria’s part.

An editorial in The Boston Globe sees the current climate in the Middle East as an opportunity for the United States to improve its diplomatic relations with Syria. Syria, it says, is essentially the opposite of what Iraq used to be: Syria has a Sunni majority, but a minority Shiite leadership (called Alawites), whereas Iraq has a Shiite majority but had a Sunni leadership under Saddam Hussein. According to the editorial, Syria is trying to move closer to the West because al-Qaida Sunni fighters fleeing the Iraq war are launching attacks against the Alawite-Shiite government of Syria and Shiite locations in Lebanon.

Related Topic: U.S.-Syrian relations possibly on the mend

In light of the diplomatic agreement, the United States and Syria had been engaged in “high-level meetings” in September, according to U.S. News & World Report, signaling a potential “breakthrough.”

Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, indicated that the talks could point to a Bush administration now inclined to “reconsider U.S. policies toward Syria.”

But a State Department official was more hesitant: “The message is, Syria has a long way to go, and they have to change their behavior in the region and on these policy issues.”

Background: The Assad ‘enigma’

Bashar al-Assad has also been an enigma as of late. He visited France on Bastille Day and engaged in diplomatic talks with Iran and Turkey. He also spoke with Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, on Aug. 13 and 14, in talks that restored relations between the two countries. He appears to be forging the path to peace with the West through diplomacy. As The Economist wrote in an Aug. 18 article, Assad “has been on a diplomatic roll.”

But at the same time, “Syria’s critics maintain that Mr. Assad’s means of getting this message across has entailed combining the role of arsonist and firefighter—creating problems such as the prolonged constitutional crisis in Lebanon and then using its influence to engineer solutions, for which it is happy to claim credit,” according to The Economist.

That same month he was accused of helping to spark a cold war in the Middle East when he spoke with Russia about the possibility of housing Russian missiles in his country. Syria may be seeking closer relations with Moscow as a diplomatic alternative, The Times of London reports. Damascus has been ostracized on the world stage because of its connections to Iran, and Russia could prove a useful ally. According to The Times, “Some Israeli analysts even fear that it could encourage Syria to try to take back the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, by force.”

Historical Context: Syria and Lebanon since World War II

Relations between Syria and Lebanon have been tense for some time now. Since both countries achieved independence in the 1940s, Syrian nationalists have considered Lebanon a part of Greater Syria. In 1976, Syria sent forces into Lebanon to aid the Lebanese Christian nationalists who were losing a civil war to the Leftist-Palestinian alliance. By the time the civil war concluded in 1990, roughly 30,000 Syrian troops stayed in the country, as well as Syrian intelligence agencies.

Israel pulled its troops out of southern Lebanon in 2000, leaving Syria as the sole foreign force in the country. The U.S. also stepped up pressure against Syria at this time to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty. Hostility against Syria increased in 2005, when many blamed Syria for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 20 others. Syria acceded to international opinion and pulled out of the country that year.

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