Uncomfortable moments

It must have been one of the more uncomfortable moments of Fouad Siniora’s political career when, at the end of July, he visited Damascus for the first time as prime minister of a Lebanon newly released from Syria’s tight embrace.

Relations between the two countries have soured since the end of April, when Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in response to massive protests in Beirut and unrelenting international pressure. An economic blockade on the Lebanon-Syria border, combined with a series of deadly car bombings, have created a fraught atmosphere as Lebanon sheds the last vestiges of 15 years Pax Syriana and emerges into an uncertain era of independence.

Re-establishing ties with Syria, however, is far from the only challenge facing Siniora’s new government. Other tasks include restoring security in the country; tackling the disarming of the militant Hizballah organization; creating a new electoral law; and implementing long-awaited economic and political reforms.

In early July, Syria began to squeeze Lebanon by closing the border to commercial traffic. The move left hundreds of trucks stranded at the frontier and cost Lebanon some $300,000 a day. Several Lebanese fishermen were detained for entering Syrian territorial waters north of the coastal city of Tripoli, an unprecedented action.

The Syrian media attacked leading Lebanese political figures, particularly those that were part of the anti-Syrian opposition, and a Syrian government minister demanded compensation for the deaths of at least 30 Syrian workers. They were allegedly murdered in Lebanon in revenge for the assassination in February of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, whose death many Lebanese blame on Syria.

The Syrian authorities insisted that the border blockade was intended to prevent weapons and militants from entering Syria. Many Lebanese, however, believed that Syria was acting out of spite.

Talal Salman, the editor of Lebanon’s As Safir newspaper, wrote in mid-July that the border restrictions "expressed Syria’s feeling of depression and humiliation" after the forced "expulsion" of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Indeed, 24 hours after Siniora visited Damascus on July 31, Syria relaxed its border blockade, suggesting that its purpose had more to do with muscle-flexing toward Lebanon than internal security concerns.

In its policy statement to parliament, the new Lebanese government stressed its "eagerness to build healthy, serious, unique and solid relations" with Damascus. But the border crisis merely underlines the difficulty both countries face in allaying the ghosts of the past and forging a new and equitable bilateral relationship. Furthermore, the UN investigation into Hariri’s assassination hovers over Lebanon and Syria like a sword of Damocles. The UN commission headed by Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, is reportedly making progress in tracing who was responsible for Hariri’s death. If it transpires that senior Syrian officials were involved, it would pose a potentially insurmountable obstacle for the resumption of normal relations between Beirut and Damascus. Siniora was a lifelong friend and ally of Hariri, and the largest Lebanese parliamentary bloc is headed by Saad Hariri, the former premier’s son and political heir.

Siniora was appointed prime minister following the final round of parliamentary elections in mid-June. Thus began a tortuous negotiating process on the composition of the new government, in which Siniora sought to strike a viable balance among the main parliamentary power blocs.

Michel Aoun, a former army commander who has emerged as a populist Christian leader, eventually opted to remain out of government to spearhead the opposition in parliament. While his decision will enliven parliamentary debate and is probably healthy for Lebanese democracy, it does mean that the Christian community lacks a truly representative figure in the government, which risks aggravating their sense of marginalization in the new Lebanon.

Fifteen cabinet seats were secured by the former anti-Syrian opposition alliance, which includes the Future Movement headed by Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Democratic Gathering, the Christian Qornet Shehwan group and the Lebanese Forces. Of the other nine seats, five went to Hizballah and Amal, the two main Shi’ite parties in Lebanon, and the remaining four to allies of Emile Lahoud, the Lebanese president who was Syria’s most faithful ally. The nine portfolios held by Lahoud and the Hizballah/Amal alliance exceed the one-third required to block government decisions. That veto power could complicate the government’s ability to usher in vital economic reforms to generate revenues and curb Lebanon’s public debt of around $38 billion. It could also hamper the smooth appointments of new chiefs to the main intelligence and security services, vital to improve the precarious security climate. Hizballah is not expected to approve anyone who is less than committed to sa! feguarding the Islamic Resistance, Hizballah’s military wing.

Syria’s disengagement from Lebanon increased Hizballah’s vulnerability to international and domestic demands that it dismantle its military wing in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. Hizballah’s decision to participate in the government for the first time is an attempt to safeguard its resistance priority from continued international pressure.

Although the Bush administration is determined to see the implementation of 1559, it is apparently willing to grant the government some leeway in recognition of the sensitivities surrounding the subject of Hizballah’s arms. Clearly, disarming Hizballah is an issue that the government is unwilling to address at this stage. It has officially declared the resistance as "a genuine and natural expression of the Lebanese people’s national rights to free their land and defend their dignity from Israeli aggressions, threats and designs, and to continue the effort to free the Lebanese territory".