Fraternal but independent
Syria and Lebanon have taken another step towards fraternal but ultimately sovereign relations between them, writes Raed Rafei
Lebanon and Syria's official sealing of diplomatic ties for the first time since their independence was an important symbolic step towards paving the way for more customary bilateral relations, politicians and analysts say. But according to many observers the prospects of Damascus respecting Lebanon's sovereignty after three decades of direct political influence over it remains uncertain.
"There has been a deep crisis of trust between the two countries," said Future Movement MP Nabil De Freige. "We think the establishment of diplomatic relations is a good step, but we need to see first how it would translate on the ground," he added.
Last Wednesday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem and his Lebanese counterpart Fawzi Salloukh signed in Damascus a joint document establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. According to the Syrian national news agency, SANA, this statement stipulates 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."
As a first response, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora said in a statement that he hoped the move was "a prelude to a new page that will benefit both Lebanon and Syria, having learned from lessons and experiences of the past."
Already in August, after a meeting in Paris, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman pledged to establish ties at the embassy level. Wednesday's step was hailed by the United Nations as a "historic" move and welcomed by the international community.
"Opening an embassy is good. But who will the ambassador be? Are the Syrians going to use diplomatic channels in their relations with Lebanon?" asked Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, a Beirut-based think tank. "It remains to be seen whether this entails real change in Syrian attitudes and not mere window dressing."
Syrian-Lebanese relations have been sour since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005, which was largely blamed on Damascus. Syria denied any involvement and withdrew its troops from Lebanon shortly after. Although the international tribunal formed on the assassination of Al-Hariri is yet to determine the culprits, Lebanon's parliamentary majority decided to separate the trial from the issue of bilateral relations with Syria.
"The tribunal is in the hands of the UN today," said De Freige. "We agreed from the beginning not to link our relations with the Syrians and the formation of the tribunal. We understand that the interest of the country is more important than anything else."
Contacts between Lebanon and Syria have dramatically improved since an accord was sealed in Doha between Lebanese feuding parties with the support of the Syrians. Syria was pushed by the French to help stabilise Lebanon and was pulled out of international isolation as a reward.
Observers say that Syrians feel reassured today with regards to the Lebanese government after their allies have gained more political strength. The election of Michel Suleiman as head of state also helped ease tensions.
"President Suleiman is someone who reassures the Syrians," said Fadia Kiwan, head of the Political Science Department at Beirut's Saint Joseph University. "His recent visit to Damascus was an indication that relations were heading towards a normal course."
The improvement of relations between the two countries is also noticeable with signs of cooperation between the two countries emerging on security matters, especially after the two states were victim recently of bomb attacks believed to be perpetrated by extreme Islamist movements.
"There is a shift in the official Lebanese stance towards Syria, from accusations of fostering instability to an understanding that both countries are facing common dangers," Kiwan said.
But despite a sense of rapprochement between Lebanon and Syria, several issues of dispute are still pending. Although Damascus has agreed to demarcate borders between the two countries, it has not yet been willing to help provide proof of Lebanon's sovereignty over the Shebaa Farms area. This small patch of land is occupied by Israel, which claims it is part of Syrian territory.
Following an official visit to Cairo Monday, Druze MP Walid Jumblatt, who had been one of the fiercest foes of Syria in Lebanon in past years, said that "the rapprochement [with Syria] was started by setting up diplomatic ties and we wait for the border demarcation."
There is also the file of hundreds of Lebanese who went missing during the Lebanese Civil War and who are believed to be detained or dead in Syria. A joint committee was established to look into cases of the disappeared, but conclusive results are still to be announced.
Another complicated issue is the revision of a friendship and cooperation accord that has been tying the two countries together at the economic, political and security levels since 1991. Anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon have criticised these treaties as serving the interests of Syria over those of Lebanon.
No matter how relations between Lebanon and Syria will be shaped, some observers believe that Damascus as a foreign power will continue to have the upper hand in Lebanon for geographical, historic, demographic and sociological reasons.
"Syria will remain the strongest foreign powerbroker in Lebanon," said Ghassan Al-Azzi, professor of political science at the Lebanese University. "Lebanon is much smaller than Syria and it's weaker on the military level. Syrians also have strong allies in Lebanon," he added.
Azzi added that there were two major developments that prompted the return of Syria as a regional power. First, there was the launching of indirect peace talks, via Turkish mediation, between Syria and Israel. Second, there was the French decision to use soft power and diplomacy with the Syrians, which appears to have paid off.
"Syria has been successful so far in striking a deal with the West," Azzi said. "The Syrians are gaining time. They are waiting for a new US administration and a new Israeli government, to see what the new regional prospects will be."