Hezb steers Le­banon closer to Syria, strains ef­forts to stay neu­tral

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Hezbol­lah and its al­lies are press­ing the Le­banese state to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad’s govern­ment in Syria, test­ing Le­banon’s pol­icy of “dis­so­ci­a­tion” from the Syr­ian con­flict and ig­nit­ing a po­lit­i­cal row. Calls for closer ties with the Syr­ian govern­ment, in­clud­ing on refugee re­turns and mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions on the Le­banon-Syria bor­der, come as As­sad re­gains con­trol of more ter­ri­tory from in­sur­gents and seeks to re­cover his in­ter­na­tional stand­ing.

The Le­banese pol­icy of “dis­so­ci­a­tion”, agreed in 2012, has aimed to keep the deeply di­vided state out of re­gional con­flicts such as Syria even as Iran-backed Hezbol­lah be­came heav­ily in­volved there, send­ing fight­ers to help As­sad, who is also al­lied to Iran. The pol­icy has helped ri­val groups to coex­ist in gov­ern­ments bring­ing to­gether Hezbol­lah, clas­si­fied as a ter­ror­ist group by the United States, with politi­cians al­lied to Iran’s foe Saudi Ara­bia, un­der­pin­ning a de­gree of po­lit­i­cal en­tente amid the re­gional tur­moil.

While Le­banon never sev­ered diplo­matic or trade ties with Syria, the govern­ment has avoided deal­ing with the Syr­ian govern­ment in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity and the col­lapse of the pol­icy would be a boost a po­lit­i­cal boost to As­sad. It would also un­der­line Iran’s as­cen­dancy in Le­banon, where the role of Saudi Ara­bia has di­min­ished in re­cent years when it has fo­cused on con­fronting Tehran in the Gulf in­stead.

As­sad’s pow­er­ful Le­banese Shi­ite al­lies want the govern­ment to co­op­er­ate with Syria on is­sues such as the fight against ji­hadists at their shared bor­der and se­cur­ing the re­turn of the 1.5 mil­lion Syr­i­ans cur­rently tak­ing refuge in Le­banon. “Ev­ery­body recog­nises (the dis­so­ci­a­tion pol­icy) as a farce to some ex­tent, but at least it con­tained the con­flict and pre­vented Le­banon from be­ing dragged even fur­ther into what is go­ing on in Syria,” said Maha Yahya, direc­tor of the Carnegie Mid­dle East Cen­tre in Beirut. “(A nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions) would be viewed as a vic­tory, if us­ing sec­tar­ian terms, of Shi­ites ver­sus the Sun­nis and will just in­flame ten­sions even more.”

Road to Da­m­as­cus

Le­banon’s re­la­tion­ship with Syria has for decades set ri­val Le­banese against each other. Syria dom­i­nated its smaller neigh­bour from the end of its 1975-90 civil war until 2005. A row erupted this week be­cause of plans by govern­ment min­is­ters from Hezbol­lah and the Shi­ite Amal party to visit Da­m­as­cus next week. Al­though the govern­ment has re­fused to sanc­tion the visit as of­fi­cial busi­ness - cit­ing the dis­so­ci­a­tion pol­icy In­dus­try Min­is­ter Hus­sein Hajj Has­san, a Hezbol­lah mem­ber, has in­sisted they will be in Da­m­as­cus as govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“We will meet Syr­ian min­is­ters in our min­is­te­rial ca­pac­ity, we will hold talks over some eco­nomic is­sues in our min­is­te­rial ca­pac­ity, and we will re­turn in our min­is­te­rial ca­pac­ity to fol­low up on th­ese mat­ters,” Has­san told Al-Ma­nar TV. Samir Geagea, a lead­ing Le­banese Chris­tian politi­cian and long­stand­ing op­po­nent of Hezbol­lah and Syr­ian in­flu­ence in Le­banon, has said the visit to Syria will “shake Le­banon’s po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity and put Le­banon in the Ira­nian camp”.

A se­nior Le­banese of­fi­cial al­lied to Da­m­as­cus de­scribed the row as “part of the po­lit­i­cal strug­gle in the re­gion”. The in­flu­ence of Iran’s al­lies in Le­banon was shown last year by the se­lec­tion of a long­time ally of Hezbol­lah, Chris­tian politi­cian Michel Aoun, as head of state in a po­lit­i­cal deal that also in­stalled Saudi-al­lied Sunni Prime Min­is­ter Saad Al-Hariri.

Syr­ian Re­turns

Hezbol­lah has re­cently stepped up calls for the Le­banese govern­ment to en­gage di­rectly with Da­m­as­cus over the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees, who now ac­count for one in four of the peo­ple in Le­banon and are over­whelm­ingly Sunni Mus­lim. The is­sue is of enor­mous po­lit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­ity in Le­banon, al­though all politi­cians agree they must re­turn to Syria due to strains on Le­banon’s re­sources and risks to its sec­tar­ian bal­ance.

Hariri has said Le­banon will only co­or­di­nate refugee re­turns with the United Na­tions, which says there can be no forced re­turn of peo­ple who fled the con­flict, many of whom fear re­turn­ing to a Syria gov­erned by As­sad. But one branch of the Le­banese state, the pow­er­ful in­ter­nal se­cu­rity agency Gen­eral Se­cu­rity, re­cently held talks with the Syr­ian au­thor­i­ties to se­cure the re­turn of sev­eral thou­sand Syr­i­ans into Syria fol­low­ing a mil­i­tary cam­paign by Hezbol­lah in the north­east bor­der re­gion. Gen­eral Se­cu­rity says the refugee re­turns have been vol­un­tary. The United Na­tions has had no role in the talks. An ex­pected Le­banese army as­sault on Is­lamic State mil­i­tants at the bor­der with Syria has been an­other fo­cal point for the de­bate over co­op­er­a­tion with Da­m­as­cus. The army, a re­cip­i­ent of U.S. aid, has said it will lead the bat­tle alone in Le­banese ter­ri­tory, and does not need to co­or­di­nate with other par­ties. —Reuters

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