Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Flawed Arab economic summit was a sign of Syria's attempts to reinsert itself in Lebanese politics

As a result the deadlock over forming a government continues, even though Lebanon is in urgent need of reforms to avoid a financial collapse

Lebanese prime minister-designate Saad Hariri at the opening session of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut this week. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
Lebanese prime minister-designate Saad Hariri at the opening session of the Arab Economic and Social Development Summit in Beirut this week. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

The Arab economic summit that took place in Beirut last weekend was, by general consensus, a failure because virtually no Arab heads of state attended. However, what the fiasco did show was that some Lebanese politicians want to help Syria reassert its influence in Lebanon and undermining the summit was a way of doing so.

The controversy began before the event when a key Syrian ally in Lebanon, parliament speaker Nabih Berri, announced his Amal Movement would not allow the Libyan representatives to attend. The founder of Amal, the Shia cleric Imam Musa Al Sadr, disappeared in Libya in 1978 and since then, Mr Berri has been demanding information on his fate. For the speaker, it was a matter of personal legitimacy for him to raise the issue. However, in this instance it served another purpose.

Mr Berri’s claim that he was protesting the failure of the Libyan authorities to provide new information on Al Sadr’s disappearance was not particularly convincing when those currently in power opposed Muammar Qaddafi, who allegedly ordered that the cleric be killed. After the Hezbollah-allied Amal party removed the Libyan flag from outside the summit venue, the Libyan delegation decided to stay away.

In reality – and as many observers noted – Mr Berri’s stance was a bid to subvert the summit and create a tense atmosphere that would encourage other delegations to follow the Libyan example and avoid coming to Beirut. The reason was that the Arab League had not invited Syria and Mr Berri was acting as Damascus’s spoiler in preventing the summit from being a success.

The continuing delay in forming a new Lebanese government is almost certainly also linked to Syria’s desire to hold out for better conditions that would allow it to orchestrate a more favourable government in Beirut. Disagreement over the appointment of a pro-Syrian Sunni minister to the Cabinet, a condition set by Hezbollah on Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri for its participation in the government, has delayed the process. Meanwhile, Iran and Syria's allies are continuing to make a consensus on a solution to the problem difficult.

As a result the deadlock continues, even though Lebanon is in urgent need of introducing reforms to avoid a financial collapse. However, this and the wider regional situation explain why the Syrian regime sees an opening to re-impose its will on Lebanon and marginalise those who opposed a return of Syrian influence after 2005, when the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated with suspected Syrian participation.

In recent weeks, several Gulf states have either reopened their embassies in the Syrian capital or announced an intention to do so. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad feels he has the latitude to reassert his power in Beirut, amid a growing sense that a reinvigorated Syria could contain Iranian influence in the region. That is debatable, but while Gulf states are reconsidering their relations with the Syrian regime Mr Al Assad has no impetus to facilitate a government in Lebanon if delaying it could bring him more benefits.

Yet there remain obstacles to a revival of Syrian influence. For one thing, Syria will continue to depend on Hezbollah as its main enforcer in Lebanon. Syrian and Iranian interests are closely aligned but that doesn’t mean that Syria wants to rely on Hezbollah to manage its interests in Beirut.

Then there is the fact that the Syrian context has become more complicated since 2011. The crimes of the Assad regime continue to make full normalisation with Syria difficult. The US continues to oppose any international co-operation with the Syrian regime. Arab states and their companies will have to take this into consideration or else risk being sanctioned by Washington.

That does not mean that Lebanon will be protected from Syrian interference. However, without a Syrian military presence in Lebanon and given the fact that opposition to the Assad regime remains strong in the country, Syrian influence is bound to be intermittent. Before he can try to restore his power next door, Mr Al Assad has to show that he can do so at home, which until now has not been the case.

It is likely that in the foreseeable future Lebanon will continue to face the turbulence of Syrian efforts to reassert its will by blocking political progress. What makes this serious is not so much that Syria might again control Lebanon as it would like, but that the country is highly vulnerable today because of its disastrous economic plight. A breakdown of the economic system would undercut any lingering ability Lebanon has to push back against Syria and Hezbollah.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Updated: January 23, 2019 03:44 PM