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Lebanon and Syria can't afford not to be friends.

Byline: Marc J. Sirois

Summary: Understanding the features of Lebanon's shifting political landscape has always been a thankless challenge, one made even more difficult by the machinations of foreign powers and widespread fears of same. These factors have been on prominent display over the past couple of weeks as all and sundry have consulted various oracles.

First person by Marc J. Sirois

Understanding the features of Lebanon's shifting political landscape has always been a thankless challenge, one made even more difficult by the machinations of foreign powers and widespread fears of same. These factors have been on prominent display over the past couple of weeks as all and sundry have consulted various oracles to figure out what's next in the North.

First came news that Damascus had deployed something in the order of 10,000 troops on its border with Lebanon's northern extremities, then a bombing that killed at least 17 people in the Syrian capital, followed by another that claimed seven lives in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city. There followed the expected reports that Syrian officials believe their people are being targeted by Sunni fundamentalists in North Lebanon, while anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians charge that their people are being manipulated and intimidated by the Syrian government.

None of this would be necessary if both sides would say what they mean and mean what they say instead of sending coded "messages" and/or releasing statements that are equal parts childishness and paranoia.

It is no secret that a fully independent Lebanon would be a bitter pill for Damascus to swallow. Even without the deeply rooted cultural, historical and social reasons that cause many Syrians to view Lebanon as a wayward province, the realities of the modern Middle East - particularly the presence of an ever-troublesome Israel - mean that Syria has some very good reasons to covet this country as a physical and political buffer.

Just as clearly, a return to Syrian "tutelage" is opposed by large numbers of Lebanese, and, like it or not, Lebanon has been nominally independent long enough to have developed a national identity, although it often seems that several are being nurtured. While it is theoretically possible that Syria is maneuvering to resurrect all or part of its former dominion over Lebanon, therefore, there can be no doubt that such a move would be met by fierce opposition on many levels - including violence. The repercussions would include renewed international isolation and, almost certainly, denial of the economic and security benefits that Damascus would hope to reap.

This is not rocket science, and capable figures in the Lebanese and Syrian leaderships understand what is at stake. But too many people in both Beirut and Damascus appear to be operating under a winner-take-all mentality that can only guarantee net losses for all concerned.

Syria, for instance, has much to win by accepting the loss of its de facto suzerainty over Lebanon and doing everything it can to salvage the situation by seeking a voluntary alliance that would allow it to reclaim many of the advantages it formerly enjoyed with far fewer of the diplomatic costs.

Lebanon also stands to obtain some very important gains from such an arrangement, including much-needed cooperation with a major regional power and some form of counterweight to both the strategic threat posed by Israel and the tactical one embodied by religious extremism.

But despite assurances in their speeches, Syrian officials have been noncommittal in their actions about the permanence of Lebanon's independence. Instead of taking all due care to avoid trampling the sensitivities of Lebanese who feel acutely protective of Beirut's fledgling sovereignty over its own affairs, Damascus has a pronounced tendency to treat its smaller neighbor like an unruly schoolboy.

In turn, many Lebanese leaders pay lip-service to some core Arab principles long championed by Damascus - e.g. no resettlement of Palestinian refugees outside their occupied homeland, no separate peace with Israel, etc. - but many of them seem to regard these as necessary evils rather than irrevocable policies. In addition, the enthusiasm of some officials here to openly ally themselves with the United States creates the impression that Lebanon might be induced to walk away from its Arab brethren.

Hard-liners on both sides of the divide seem not to recognize that their current approaches are making more likely those very outcomes which they (rightly) fear most. Of course their calculations are made more difficult by the inherent contradictions imposed on the entire region by the Zionist enterprise and Washington's unconditional backing thereof, but that is no excuse for allowing unrealistic dreams of the perfect to foil very attainable versions of the good.

Marc J. Sirois is managing editor of THE DAILY STAR . His email address is marc.sirois@dailystar.com.lb .

Copyright 2008, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Oct 4, 2008
Words:803
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