Did Assad win or did al-Hariri capitulate? Arab media outlets will be scrutinizing the fine details of the Lebanese prime minister’s trip to Syria Saturday, yet one thing can be concluded at this time already: Saad al-Hariri’s meeting with Bashar Assad constitutes one of the greatest achievements for the Syrian president’s policy, as well as surrender – even if polite and surrounded by pomp and circumstances – by the head of Lebanon’s anti-Syrian camp.
Ever since Bashar succeeded his father, Assad junior kept on getting entangled. Security Council Resolution 1559 from September 2004 that urged him to pull his troops out of Lebanon, and the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005 merely served to boost the international pressure for a Syrian pullout from Lebanon after 30 years. By withdrawing, Assad lost one of the most significant assets left by his father.
Meanwhile, Assad Junior maintained an “open border” policy that allowed terrorists to go from Syria to Iraq. He also nurtured his strategic alliance with Iran, assisted Hezbollah, and endorsed the terror group headquarters in Damascus. This outraged the US Administration, which imposed harsh sanctions on Syria. The Hariri assassination marked Assad as the immediate suspect, and prompted his entanglement vis-à-vis former French President Jacque Chirac, a personal friend of al-Hariri, thus leading to even greater Syrian isolation.
However, Assad refused to give Lebanon up. He continued to interfere in its affairs, backed Iran and Hezbollah, did not go out of his way to cooperate with the US, and did not even comply with the minor demands presented by the European Union. Yet now, a year after the changing of the guard at the White House, Damascus is already reaping the fruit of its actions.
Good reasons to smile
In Lebanon, the Hezbollah-led “resistance camp” indeed lost the elections, but who even remembers the results by now? Hezbollah is a full partner in the unity government, it maintained its military power, and it holds a veto power – in practice if not officially.
Another step in the warming up ties between Syrian and the Lebanese anti-Syrian camp took place in recent days, after the death of Bashar’s brother, Majd Assad. Messages of condolence were pouring to Damascus, including some on behalf of al-Hariri himself. Finally, al-Hariri did what many previous PMs and presidents in Lebanon did before him – he traveled to the palace in Damascus in order to receive its blessing.
If we take into account al-Hariri’s personal circumstances, the visit constitutes true capitulation to Assad. Al-Hariri embarked on his political career immediately upon his father’s assasination while uniting his camp against the presidential palace in Damascus. He spoke out against Assad and accused him of “trading in blood” – Hariri’s political allies referred to the Syrian president as a “mafia don.”
Ever since the assassination, the al-Hariri camp was greatly expecting the international report on the killing to convict Assad. Yet just after he took power in Lebanon, Hariri now chose to travel to Damascus himself – not even send an envoy, as previous PM Fouad Siniora did. In fact, by doing so Hariri pledged allegiance to Assad and granted Syria the kosher stamp allowing it to again rule Lebanon.
Things are looking up for Assad at this time. According to the best estimates, his regime is stable and does not face any meaningful domestic threat. On the international stage, he is receiving favorable signals from Washington, and just recently he visited Paris. On the strategic front Assad does not rest either: Only last week he signed yet another defense memorandum with Iran whose details are unknown as of yet.
And what about Lebanon? There was no Lebanese leader who did not visit Assad or at least send his condolences for his brother’s death. Even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is reportedly expected to leave his hideout and personally offer his condolences to the Syrian president. So overall, despite the mourning, it appears Assad has good reasons to smile.