A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Package Deal? Talk of Saudi-Syrian-Lebanese Grand Bargain

Yesterday came word that the US will soon return an Ambassador to Damascus, reports now apparently being quietly confirmed. But there's a lot of buzz out there that suggests some kind of grand bargain is in the making. To sum it all up before I start linking: Syria is going to accept the idea of Sa‘d Hariri as Prime Minister in Lebanon. In turn, Saudi Arabia is going to patch up its relations with Syria. King ‘Abdullah will then visit Damascus. And if the Lebanese can smooth out the outlines of a unity government of some sort, Syria won't stand in the way.

None of this is set in stone until land unless it happens. But here are some of the recent indications:
  • Sa‘d Hariri has just announced that his movement supports the re-election of Nabih Berri as Speaker of Parliament, a gesture to the opposition.
  • There are multiple reports that Syria will not oppose Hariri becoming Prime Minister, and that this will facilitate a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement. (It needs to be remembered that until his father's death, the younger Hariri essentially was operating a business in Saudi Arabia.)
There are still some areas where the plans aren't coming together. Asad recently said that Syria does not see Netanyahu's Israel as a peace partner, since the latter seems unwilling to withdraw from the Golan and thus the peace process with Israel is set back. On the other hand, this piece by Akiva Eldar in today's Haaretz suggests that the US is intent on pressing forward on the Golan, in part as a means of achieving a Palestinian reconciliation. (One minor correction to the English version of Haaretz — introduced I'm sure by a translator and not by Eldar — it's Fred Hof, not Hoff. I've known him since college.)

But a Saudi-Syrian deal could undermine or at least offset Iranian influence in Syria, and a Syrian acceptance of Hariri (and Hariri's acceptance of Berri) removes some (though not yet all) of the obstacles to creating a new Lebanese cabinet. There are still some outstanding issues within Lebanon; the opposition, particularly the Aoun forces and Hizbullah, are still complaining about Cardinal Sfeir's intervention in the election campaign (See my "Holy War Between the Nasrallahs: the Sheikh and the Cardinal" and the links there, and also this column by Michael Young in today's Daily Star; I wish I'd used the "turbulent priest" headline). But a Syrian-Saudi deal, and the US-Syrian rapprochement, should make it easier to forge some kind of working government in Lebanon.

I suspect neocons and others will be upset by the creation of a modus vivendi among the various Lebanese parties if one is indeed achieved, but as I've noted before, the notion that Hizbullah was defeated is pretty much an American one. The March 8 coalition was defeated, but Hizbullah held its own everywhere it seriously contested; it's really Michel Aoun who was defeated.

Even six months ago before the Israeli and Lebanese elections, one could almost have believed a Syrian-Israeli deal would be easier to achieve than a Syrian-Saudi one. But Netanyahu's election and the Lebanese results have reversed the odds considerably.

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