Syrian-Lebanese relations are not a zero-sum game

It would have been naive to expect Syrian-Lebanese relations to improve rapidly after Syrian troops finally withdrew from Lebanon in April. Regardless of whether the withdrawal was justified or not, each side felt slighted by the other, betrayed by perceived extreme positions and actions, and took for granted the other’s responsibility for numerous offences or crimes. Most Lebanese didn’t feel the need to wait for any inquiries to be convinced of Syria’s involvement in a number of assassinations, beginning with that of Rafik Hariri. The tempers that had flared after February 14 failed to cool and instead opposing sides waged a war of words and insults, while bombs continued to spread fear and claim victims. Res! entment increasingly manifested itself as outright bigotry and emotions overtook reason.

In the last few weeks, this antagonism culminated with Syria closing its borders with Lebanon, demanding compensation and apologies, and unceremoniously expelling Lebanese nationals from Syria. While most Syrians will feel this is going too far, their patriotic fervor has nevertheless been stoked by the unremitting vitriol of some Lebanese media that didn’t seem to distinguish between the Syrian people and the regime.

The Lebanese establishment is not blameless either. Warlords-cum-democrats and businessmen-cum-politicians have demonstrated as little political acumen as their amorphous nemesis. Greedy ruling elites (on both sides) who had enriched themselves for years at the expense of their compatriots underwent a slick metamorphosis into seemingly respectable legislators, but the rhetoric still lacked sensitivity. That the Syrians needed to prove they were still powerful and that the Lebanese needed to let off steam is only understandable, but what they needed even more were nerves of steel and lucidity, both conspicuous by their absence.

If only for the sake of their own national interests, Lebanon’s new leaders could have played the game better. Three decades of a kind of co-existence that was certainly much too close for Lebanon’s comfort should nevertheless have prepared the main actors for potential Syrian withdrawal symptoms, both in a physical and in a psychological sense. The Syrian regime is touchy about criticism, and paranoid (often rightly) about its security. In an increasingly crowded neighborhood where old local foes have resurfaced and loudly joined the anti-Syrian choir, Syria’s claustrophobia has been intensified by the new sources of "inspiration" of Lebanon’s ruling elite. Indeed, Damascus considers American and French interference in Lebanon as targeting its interests, rather than at securing Lebanon’s. In that, it has a point.

The US has continued to pressure Syria on all fronts, irrespective of the latter’s attempts at reconciliation, and France’s most recent swipe at Syria probably even took Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by surprise: as he hassled Jacques Chirac to control Iran and isolate Hizballah, the French president singled out Syria instead as a "threat to the stability of the region" and complained that the Syrians’ psychology could not be comprehended. Clearly, Syria’s compliance with UNSC Resolution 1559 wasn’t sufficient to douse French ire.

Whether the Lebanese like it or not, Syria (under any regime) will do what it can to retain some form of hold over Lebanon and will consider the latter’s security to be tied closely to its own, especially while the greater conflict with Israel continues to dominate the regional agenda and while there are territorial issues to be settled. This, consequently, means that the wisdom required of Lebanon is doubly needed from Syria.

But how have recent actions been in Syria’s interests? More than anything, the Syrian regime has been accruing mistakes with its knee-jerk reactions and by misjudging their impact. While Damascus pretended it was business as usual in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination, satellite channels were beaming events in Martyrs’ Square into millions of Syrian homes, while not even the killing of innocent Syrian workers at the hands of Lebanese thugs was mentioned in the official Syrian media. For the Syrian government suddenly to lament those workers’ tragic fate and demand compensation, while overdue, scores no points and opens a huge can of worms: how many Lebanese, not to mention Syrians, are entitled to similar compensation and apologies, or just explanation?

Syria is not only skating on thin ice, but seems to be losing sight of its long-term interests. It seems the more it feels pressured, the more it chokes Lebanon; the more it fuels resentment in a new Lebanese generation, the more it hurts itself in the process. By blocking its border and abusing its geographical privileges, Syria has momentarily managed to strangle its small neighbor, with which it supposedly entertains brotherly relations, driving truckers to despair as their produce rots in the sun and their livelihood evaporates. It remains to be seen how these unilateral steps can induce the Lebanese to be less critical of their big brother, and to be less eager to find relief in Franco-American arms, among others. Indeed, by seeking to punish Lebanon for behavior it finds offensive, Syria is merely cutting its nose to spite its face, and its only achievement so far has been a great leap: not the great leap forward promised with the 10th Baath Party Congress, but a great! leap backward in Syrian-Lebanese relations.

Even after Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s visit to Damascus last Sunday and the ensuing relaxation of the border crisis, it is clearly still too soon for the anger to abate and for relations to improve. As long as the protagonists lack long-term vision and continue to believe their own country’s interests are best served at the other’s expense, Lebanon and Syria seem stuck in a self-destructive cycle. It is incumbent on their respective leaders to find the way out.