Across the Bay

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lebanon, Syria, and Christian Marginalization

Take a look at this roundtable on Lebanon featuring Farid el-Khazen and Nick Blanford along with Nizar Abdel-Kader and Rime Allaf.

The following quotes from Nick and Farid respectively highlight the fact, I believe (and I think Michael Young wrote something to this effect as well), that Lebanon won't truly have normal relations with Syria until there is true change in Damascus. First Nick:

[T]he 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.

And Farid:

Lebanon is currently in a transition period after nearly 30 years of Syrian hegemony, and it will take time for the Lebanese government to exercise sovereignty fully now that it has regained it. The duration of the transition period will depend on several developments, some of which are beyond Lebanon's control. In the short run, the outcome of the international investigation of Hariri's assassination will have a bearing on Lebanese politics, perhaps on Syria and, by extension, on Syrian-Lebanese relations. Moreover, the full implementation of UNSCR 1559 concerning the disarming of Hizballah and of armed Palestinian groups is the greatest challenge facing Lebanon in its dealings with the international community. In the long run, Syrian-Lebanese relations will constitute the major source of tension facing Lebanon both internally and in its external relations.

Also, Nick made the following remark about Aoun:

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.

This echoes the sentiments explored in more detail in Michael Young's op-ed today:

When Michel Aoun decided to retreat to the opposition, the act was remarkably, if unintentionally, prescient. Here were the Christians on the threshold of returning to political life, and the general, instead, chose to stay outside the ring. For better or worse, this was an accurate summation of the destiny of Lebanon's Christian community today, as it faces the reality of growing marginalization.

This insight has long been circulating among the numerically declining Christians, but paradoxically it was the Syrian withdrawal - the catalyst of postwar Christian irrelevancy - that brought it home. The reason is that, broadly speaking, there are two forces at the national level today competing with one other, albeit peacefully, to fill the vacuum left behind by the Syrians: the Sunni community around Saad Hariri, and the Shiite community around Hizbullah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. Facing this duopoly, Aoun and Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea have been reduced to playing strident gadfly or subordinate ally.
Michel Aoun made a mistake in segregating himself at a moment when Christians need to be more involved in policy matters. However, his decision to remain outside the governmental game, and the fact that the system is functioning normally despite this, demonstrates that Christians, or at least the more influential leaders of the community, are not as essential as they used to be.

I will return to this issue in my upcoming post on Hizbullah, as soon as I can spare the time.