x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

US-Syria détente overshadows Suleiman's Washington visit

Analysis Some observers express concern that America's improved relations with Damascus may erode its commitment to Beirut, but others say the US policy towards Lebanon is characterised more by continuity than by change.

WASHINGTON // The Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, embarks today on a high-profile if delicate visit to Washington, where he will encounter a US administration willing to engage it as part of its broader Middle East peace policy, but wary of its domestic situation.

Washington's interest and investment in Lebanon deepened after the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops, a policy that continues to enjoy bipartisan support, said Firas Maksad, the executive director of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation, an advocacy group. Since then, the United States has also engaged Syria. Lebanese analysts and officials are concerned that the US relationship with Syria could over time erode its commitment to Lebanon. The United States is expected to send an ambassador to Damascus after a five-year downgrade of diplomatic relations, but according to people aware of US-Syrian talks, little progress has been achieved so far.

According to analysts in Washington, Lebanon should not worry. They argue that US policy towards Lebanon is characterised more by continuity than change. Mr Maksad said: "Lebanon remains important to Washington for a number of reasons including its relevance to the challenges posed by Iran, Syria and Hizbollah. "US policy is bound by a number of UN Security Council resolutions - This will not change. While diplomatic engagement with Damascus and Tehran is being given a go, the policy objectives on Lebanon remain unchanged."

Toni Verstandig, a former US official now with the Aspen Institute a think tank, said the United States is looking for ways to support Lebanese institutions as part of a broader regional strategy to bring peace and stability to the Middle East. US officials and analysts recognise that shifting Lebanese and regional politics have considerably complicated this task, with the western-backed coalition losing political momentum despite winning legislative elections in the spring.

The Hizbollah-led opposition, with ties to Syria and Iran, has been given considerable power in the incoming cabinet. Importantly, the new Lebanese ministerial statement, issued when the prime minister Saad Hariri's cabinet was approved, provides legitimacy and political cover for Hizbollah's controversial armed status by stating the right of "Lebanon, its government, its people, its army and its resistance" to liberate all Lebanese territory.

The pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper cited a source predicting Mr Suleiman would demand that the United States no longer insist on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 because it now contradicts the cabinet statement. That resolution requires the disarmament of all armed groups, including Hizbollah. Oussama Safa, the director of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, said Barack Obama, the US president, "understands the constraints under which the Lebanese cabinet has been formed and the need for a compromise as reflected in the statement. He [Mr Obama] does not like it, but in reality this is the best that could have been done."

Other powerful voices are not as accommodating. Last week, 31 members of Congress urged the administration to "pressure the Lebanese government and the United Nations to [make an effort to] prevent Iran from using Hizbollah against Israel, and to stop [Hizbollah from] violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701," which demands that the Lebanese state extend its full and exclusive control over Lebanese territory. Mr Suleiman will argue that Lebanon's foremost threat comes from its southern neighbour and close US ally, Israel.

Mr Suleiman will also raise his country's concerns that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal could require that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to settle there, upsetting its fragile demographic balance. Mr Maksad said Mr Obama may offer assurances: "There is recognition in Washington that Lebanese allies of Syria and Iran have been using the fear of possible naturalisation to undercut the western-backed March 14 coalition. President Obama could give his Lebanese counterpart the reassurances he needs on this delicate issue while treading carefully so as not to undermine any future negotiations."

Mr Suleiman and his interlocutors here are also expected to discuss US military assistance to Lebanon. Since 2005, the US has allocated more than US$400 million (Dh1.5bn) in equipment and training to the Lebanese armed and internal security forces. Concerns on Capitol Hill that this weaponry could fall into the hands of Hizbollah, which the US deems a terrorist organisation, have been assuaged by the administration.

Mara Karlin, a former director for Lebanon at the US defence department, insists that "the US has made a decision to help build the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] and I see no reason why this assistance will not continue in the near term assuming the LAF continues to act in a responsible manner." In Lebanon, criticism of that aid has focused on the perception that the aid is conditioned on Hizbollah's disarmament and that it excludes such hi-tech weaponry as an air defence system that would deter Israeli overflights and air attacks. Mr Safa expects that "the quality and quantity of that assistance will not improve" as a result of the visit.