Although Syria has interfered in Lebanon's presidential elections throughout the country's modern history, Damascus’ current manipulation of Lebanese elections has boiled down to an unprecedented disregard of that country’s sovereignty.
During an extraordinary ministerial session that lasted a meager ten minutes, the prime minister of Lebanon, reflecting the views of a plurality of his pro-Syrian cabinet, announced his decision to amend the Lebanese constitution to extend the presidential term by three years. This decision came against a background of almost unanimous international and internal opposition to the constitution’s amendment. In fact, Lebanese of various political views and religious affiliations, including those in the Diaspora, have been vocal in their demand to have timely and free presidential elections, as prescribed in both the constitution and in the accord of national understanding, known as the Taif accord.
Significantly, the religious leaders of the Sunni and Shi'a communities had supported the call by the Christian Maronite Patriarch for honest and free elections without outside (Syrian) interference. Similarly, the US, France and other countries have come together for the first time, calling on Syria to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty and to allow the Lebanese to determine their own presidential elections.
The cabinet’s decision, justified as stemming from regional and internal dynamics, betrayed in no equivocal terms how Damascus continues to make a mockery of the Lebanese democratic process. Not too long ago, in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria stated at the height of Lebanese speculations over the presidential elections that “the extension decision is a Lebanese and not a Syrian decision.”
The Syrian-backed decision to extend the term of the pro-Syrian Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, stems no less from Syria’s attempt to consolidate its regional position vis-a-vis the United States and Israel than from its lack of a strategic regional vision, heightening the chances of a confrontation between Damascus on one side, and the United States and many Lebanese on the other. On the surface, it is baffling to see the Syrian leadership thumbing its nose at Beirut and Washington at a time when many Lebanese are calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. The ink has also not dried on the US Congress’ ‘Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act’, which calls for sanctions against Syria and, among other things, also for Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Some analysts, mainly in Europe and the Middle East, have misguidedly observed that this Syrian decision is simply a "backfire" reaction to American pressure on Damascus.
On a deeper level, however, this decision is a product of tactical measures taken by the Syrian leadership that show its confused state of mind.
Admittedly, Damascus is at the center of a volatile area whose regional order has been shattered following the collapse of the Iraqi sister Ba'thi state at the hands of US forces, which will most likely remain next door for a considerable time. Syria does not want to face the US in Lebanon and wants to weather American pressure. The Syrian leadership apparently believes Washington is interested more than anything else in a Lebanese presidential candidate who is not supportive of Hizbollah, the Islamist party credited by many Arabs for driving Israel out of Lebanon and labeled by the US as a terrorist organization.
By trying to keep Lahoud in office, the Syrian leadership has preferred continuity over untested loyalty and/or unpredictable future positions by some Lebanese presidential candidates. Lahoud has unequivocally supported Syria and its apparent desire to strengthen Hizbollah as a resistance movement, even at the expense of Lebanon’s sovereignty. An extension of Lahoud’s presidential term, according to the Syrians, will not disrupt Syrian-Lebanese patron-client relations, as well as present the Americans with a situation whereby it would be preferable for Washington to continue to deal with Lahoud rather than clash with Syria.
Significantly, on the other hand, this Syrian position has reinforced the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbollah axis as a hedge against a Pax Americana in the region. By extending Lahoud's presidential term, Damascus indirectly supported Tehran by keeping (and enhancing) its influence in Lebanon through Hizbollah, Iran’s ideological stepchild. At a time when Iran is facing threats of pre-emptive attacks by Israel over Tehran’s suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons, Hizbollah extends Iran’s reach to Israel’s borders, with the blessing of the pro-Syrian Lebanese government.
At the same time, it is no coincidence that the ridiculous “ten minute” deliberations regarding the three-year term extension had taken place at a time when the Bush administration (especially its hawks) is distracted by the US presidential elections and is concerned about a suspected pro-Likud spy in the Pentagon, purportedly affiliated with the neo-conservative hardliners, who may have given Israel sensitive information on Iran.
Notwithstanding the fact that it is disregarding Lebanese aspirations for freedom, Damascus is ominously basing its decisions on a tactical and misguided reading of the political map of the region and the world at large, improvising its policies. Already, the US government is reviewing a draft for a UN Security Council resolution calling on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.
Suffice it to say, Damascus cannot expect that the majority of the Lebanese will remain quiet in the face of such a gross illegal intrusion into their democratic process and that the US will turn a blind eye to democracy in Lebanon while promoting democracy in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular. No doubt, Syria is walking toward confrontation with Washington and with the many Lebanese both in the region and in the Diaspora.
Professor Phares is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, and Dr Rabil is a professor of Middle East Studies at Florida Atlantic University and academic advisor for the American-Lebanese Coalition.