Syria's Triumph in Lebanon: Au Revoir Les Ententes / Gary C.Gambill

Since the ignominious withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005, Damascus has managed to regain dominion over the country by exploiting its adversaries' conflicting interests and weak resolve.

As the Lebanese political crisis worsened, and their own situation became more perilous, their focus became more and more narrow; rather than rallying the Lebanese people to save their state, they focused on rallying foreign support… they remained at war with each other over strategy and control of policy.

In the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, Syria faced a seemingly perfect storm of American, French, and Saudi determination to end its longstanding domination of Lebanon. Today, these same foreign powers have come to accept a creeping restoration of Syrian influence over the country that has yet to fully peak. Although Syrian troops have not returned, that is precisely what makes the transformation so remarkable. Subduing Lebanon without having to occupy it is a goal that has eluded the Syrians for decades.

While the sheer scale of this volte-face by the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia implies that some fundamental miscalculation was made in their bid for strategic and political preeminence in Lebanon (for surely things turned out much worse than they anticipated going in), most analysis of the issue has been exculpatory and vacuous. Lamentations about Syrian subversion skirt the question of what unanticipated problem threw a wrench into the works (no one underestimated Syrian capabilities after the Hariri assassination). Talk about the regional balance favoring Damascus obscures the fact that developments in Lebanon fueled this tilt, not vice versa.

While there were many intervening variables, the seminal miscalculation underlying the Western-Saudi defeat concerned the strength and unity of Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 coalition. In a nation where Christians and Shi’a comprise roughly two-thirds of the population, this motley political alliance failed to win a clear popular vote majority outside of the Sunni and Druze communities in three tries at the ballot box,[ii] captured just one of Lebanon's troika of high government offices, and never gained primacy over critical administrative, judicial, and security institutions. Too weak to capture a controlling stake in government, yet too fragmented to remain united in pursuit of anything less, the coalition's raison d'être hinged on expectations that Syrian President Bashar Asad would be forced by the international community not merely to desist from obstructionism, but to help clear away the political roadblocks.

Despite their unparalleled combination of military, economic, and sociocultural power, Washington, Paris, and Riyadh never came close to winning such a decisive Syrian capitulation in Lebanon. The three governments were driven by conflicting interests in the Syria-Lebanon theater that ruled out most of the key ingredients typically found in successful coercive diplomacy. Insofar as they shared a common consensus on how to deal with Syria, it was plagued by split-the-difference compromises and diplomatic free riding that facilitated Asad's escape from international isolation.

Like the March 14 coalition, the international alliance was united primarily by an instrumental logic that failed to obtain absent the prospect of a game-changing Syrian reorientation that would meet everyone's needs. Both ententes began to crumble once that ship had sailed, as all of the major domestic and foreign players in the Lebanese arena began seeking their own self-interested accommodations with Damascus. The emerging equilibrium bears more than a passing resemblance to the past.


With 17 officially recognized sectarian communities, each with distinct transnational religious and ethnic ties, no country is more politically attuned to its external environment than Lebanon. Since the days of the Ottoman Empire, its feudalistic elites have drawn protection and patronage from interested outsiders, much as they dispensed the same at home. This cross-fertilization of external and internal power dynamics is enabled by a political system that distributes fixed allotments of executive and legislative power by sect (though no longer commensurate with current demographics),[iii] virtually mandates a weak state, and reifies sectarian solidarities in myriad other ways.

Foreign patronage comes in a dizzying array of types. Substantively, it can take the form of economic, military, political, and diplomatic support. It can be aboveground or covert. It can accrue directly to particular political groups or indirectly to a governing coalition by way of official aid channels.

While ethno-sectarian identity encourages certain pairings (Shi’a and Iran, Sunnis and Saudi Arabia, etc.), patron-client relationships tend to be primarily functional, often fungible. In Lebanon, those who most vocally commit themselves to bold political agendas are not infrequently among the first to abandon them when circumstances change. During the 1975-1990 civil war, Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) commander Elie Hobeiqa transformed from a reliable friend of Israel into a loyal henchman of Syria in just a few years. His successor, Samir Geagea, went from fighting the Syrians to supporting their 1990 rout of Gen. Michel Aoun's beleaguered army units in as short a time. Parliament's 1982 election of Bashir Gemayel as president (unthinkable prior to the Israeli invasion months earlier) was perhaps the most striking collective manifestation of this adaptive trait, but it was on continuous display during the "era of Syrian tutelage" (1990-2005).

The true strength of external loyalties in Lebanon is not always apparent, as each client often has structural incentives to present itself as more extreme (relative to mutual adversaries) than its patron: maximizing the quid pro quo it receives for compromising (from both its patron and its opponents) and maximizing its patron's quid pro quo for ostensibly moderating a recalcitrant ally. Outward displays of friction between patron and client are quite frequently the product of tactical coordination.

External allegiances are often more diversified than they appear. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the undisputed master of "triangulation," is said to have secretly met with senior Israeli officials in the early 1980s, even as he battled Geagea's Israeli-backed militiamen with Syrian arms. "Machiavelli would have been out of his depth in this web of intrigue and violence," wrote the late British war correspondent Edgar O'Ballance.[iv] Although Lebanese frequently complain about the mercurial external allegiances of their leaders, very few cry foul when their favorite politicians play this game successfully.

Syrian-occupied Lebanon was stable because foreign governments that had the power to subvert it chose not to. In return for Syria's "help" securing the release of American hostages in Beirut, membership in the 1990-1991 Gulf War coalition, and willingness to negotiate with Israel, Washington publicly opposed Aoun's "war of liberation" against Syrian forces,[v] green-lighted Syria's invasion to topple him,[vi] and supported the occupation[vii] well into the next millennium. Saudi Arabia poured billions of dollars in aid and investment into Lebanon (and Syria) to advance the late Prime Minister Hariri, a billionaire who spent most of his adult life in the kingdom and assumed Saudi citizenship. European governments provided a steady lifeline of debt relief assistance, subsidizing an economy that hemorrhaged nearly 10 percent of its GDP in graft.[viii] Even Iran played a part in propping up the system...



*Gary C. Gambill, formerly editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin and Mideast Monitor, is a New York-based political analyst who has published widely on Lebanese and Syrian affairs.


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