Lebanese Election Outcome No Setback for Syria

Damascus believed to be unconcerned by victory of anti-Syrian March 14 group.

Lebanese Election Outcome No Setback for Syria

Damascus believed to be unconcerned by victory of anti-Syrian March 14 group.

Wednesday, 17 June, 2009
The Syrian authorities are hoping that the defeat of their allies in the recent Lebanese general elections will not lead to deteriorating relations between the countries, say local observers.

According to commentators interviewed by IWPR, Syrian officials believe that the winning March 14 coalition could risk the support of the West if it decides to take a hostile stance towards Damascus.

The US is unlikely to back the March 14 group if it chooses to adopt a belligerent attitude towards Syria as it has done in the past, said Sami Moubayed, a political analyst and editor-in-chief of Damascus-based English-language magazine Forward, who is thought to be close to the regime.

At the June 7 polls, March 14 – which has repeatedly accused Syria of fomenting instability in the country, thus helping reinforce the international isolation of Damascus – retained its majority in parliament, winning 71 of 128 seats.

The opposition March 8 group, led by Hezbollah and supported by Iran and Syria, was defeated, securing just 57 seats.

But while this outcome might seem like a setback for Syria, observers here say its improving relations with the US offer it some protection from any Lebanese hostility.

Between 2005 and 2008, former US president George Bush supported the anti-Syrian stances adopted by some Lebanese political groups.

Washington imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, which were extended in 2006 and tightened the following year. The US withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in 2005, partly in protest against Syria’s meddling in Lebanese affairs.

But America’s attitude towards Syria seems to have changed since President Barack Obama came to power.

Moubayed said that Syrian officials believe the new administration is keen on pursuing dialogue with Damascus, as suggested by recent delegations of US officials to the country.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell visited Damascus on June 13, which was taken by the regime as a sign that the Obama government might be willing to broker a peace deal between Syria and Israel, say local observers.

The Syrian pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan reported on June 14 that a US military delegation had met Syrian officials to discuss cooperation on the security situation in Iraq.

The talks, which were held on June 12 and were the first of their kind since 2004, arose from an American request, said the title.

A US embassy official had told the French news agency AFP on June 13 that a group of senior US army officials had met officials in Damascus, saying they had “positive and constructive” talks but without mentioning Iraq.

“Syrian officials are confident that their relations with the US will improve and that peace will be possible,” said Moubayed.

Damascus-based political analyst Adnan Ali agreed. “The regional realities have changed… Damascus is engaged in dialogue with the most important backers of the March 14 forces today,” he said.

“These forces [now in power in Lebanon] would be isolating themselves if they adopted an aggressive stance towards Syria.”

Indeed, relations between the two countries seem to be improving. In recent months, the March 14 parties have become less aggressive towards Syria.

One of the most outspoken anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon, the member of parliament Walid Jumblat, head of the Progressive Socialist Movement, has repeatedly noted that his country cannot become a base for those wishing to destabilise the Damascus regime.

Commentators here say that the two countries could mutually benefit from enhanced cooperation.

According to Ahmad Nakrash, a Damascus-based economic and political expert, Lebanon and Syria share many economic interests.

“The differences between the Syrian and the Lebanese economic systems create many opportunities for… cooperation,” he noted.

The areas of banking, services and tourism have the potential to grow considerably in Syria, which could certainly benefit from the expertise of its neighbour in these sectors, he said.

At the same time, Lebanon depends on Syria to export its products to Persian Gulf countries since most of Lebanon’s land border is shared with Syria.

In the past, when tensions between the countries peaked, Lebanese exports suffered considerably any time Damascus closed its border with its neighbour, even only briefly.

The fact that the Lebanese elections took place in a calm, stable atmosphere proved that Damascus had kept its promise to the US that it would not interfere in internal Lebanese politics, said a Damascus-based political analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Damascus is waiting to be rewarded by Washington for sticking to its pledge, said the analyst.

Meanwhile, some Syrian civil society groups have hailed the conduct of Lebanon’s election.

“Syrians envy Lebanon for the blessing of democracy they enjoy,” said a June 13 editorial published in the website of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Changes, an umbrella organisation for Syrian dissident groups.

The editorial expressed hopes that the results would open the door for new relations with Syria based on mutual respect and joined interests.

But ordinary Syrians expressed mixed feelings about the poll results.

Sobhi Khalife, 45, a school teacher in Damascus, said that the elections were marred by “sectarian incitement”, as well as what he said were the tremendous financial resources spent by political campaigners.

For Nour Kilani, 23, a dentistry student who also lives in the capital, the political choices made by the Lebanese should be respected, despite any flaws in the electoral system.
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