Syria, Lebanon, Israel: Danger and Opportunity


After three years of intense haggling, threats and pressures from all sides, the United Nations Security Council last Wednesday approved the creation of an International Tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and several other apparently politically motivated murders of other Lebanese leaders. The Chinese have a symbol in their alphabet that simultaneously stands for “danger” and “opportunity,” which seems to summarize the complex, Byzantine issues surrounding Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the United States and other major powers. First and foremost, the approval by the Security Council of the creation of the International Tribunal is a major breakthrough in restoring respect for the rule of law at the world body. Until last week, the pro-Damascus representatives from China and Russia had prevented any meaningful resolution on the apparent Syrian role in the assassination of the pro-Western Rafik Hariri, who was on the road to a political comeback. But those two powers abstained rather than exercising their right to kill the resolution by veto, and the International Tribunal will be created by June 10 if the Lebanese government fails to create its own panel. Until now, pro-Syrian factions in Lebanon, including the Syrian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, had been able to block the weak government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora from creating a commission of inquiry to probe the assassination of Hariri, and other anti-Syrian leaders, including Gibran Tueni in 2005 and Pierre Gemayel in 2006.

In a New York Times story by Hassan M. Fattah last Friday, it was reported that the reaction within Lebanon to the United Nations action to create the International Tribunal was “mixed.” Because of the link of the killing of Hariri and the others to Syrian President Bashar Assad, “the greatest fear expressed by many in the region” was that the its creation “would only result in further turmoil,” reports Fattah. On the other hand, supporters of Hariri, including his son, Saad, and members of his family and political movement called creation of the tribunal “a major step forward.” It was recalled that Hariri, 60, had been a strong prime minister whose personal efforts are credited with the impressive reconstruction in Beirut to repair the damages left by the sectarian civil war in the nation which lasted from 1975-1990. Lebanese outrage over the assassination of Hariri led to the “Cedar Revolution,” in which days of demonstration in Beirut successfully demanded that Syria end its 15-year occupation of the country.


The creation of the International Tribunal to investigate the Lebanese assassinations came at the very time that a pitched battle continues between Lebanese Army troops and a violent Palestinian faction called Fatah al-Islam, at Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. The faction claims a link to Osama bin-Laden’s Al Qaeda, but Michael Young, in an article in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal quotes Palestinian sources as “saying that Fatah al-Islam is acting on Syria’s behalf.”

What then, are the opportunities for positive developments amid all of the grim news? First of all, Syria has been put on official notice that it can no longer hide behind a threatened Russian or Chinese veto to avoid being held accountable for the assassinations of the Lebanese leaders. If there has been one consistent truth about the Assad regimes, both that of Hafez Assad, and that of his son Bashar Assad, is that Damascus views international situations realistically and not recklessly for the most part. The disengagement agreements negotiated by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War have been strictly observed, keeping Syria’s direct border with Israel quiet. The diplomatic isolation resulting from possible criminal indictments in the Hariri investigation is believed to be behind Syria’s continued professed interest in renewed peace talks with Israel. Last Friday’s Wall Street Journal contained an item that stated Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “is exploring possibly renewing Syria peace talks and has indicated willingness to give up the Golan Heights,” quoting an unnamed Israeli official.

Any negotiations over the future status of the Golan Heights would be complex and emotional, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak found when he attempted to negotiate with Syria during his term. Olmert’s grip on power has been deeply wounded over the scathing criticism he received for the mishandling of last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. At the same time, the very isolation felt by Assad and the weakness felt by Olmert could spur both leaders toward seeking a peace agreement. A formal peace treaty between Syria and Israel would complete the circle of formerly hostile nations, after Egypt and Jordan’s treaties, with formal recognition of the Jewish State and its defined borders.

And so, while the situation in Syria and Lebanon is fraught with many dangers for greater instability, it may at the same time present opportunities for progress toward peace if the right elements can fall into place.