Hama becomes the new battleground of Lebanese politics

Lebanon's politicians are caught between political expediency, which demands they cater for Syria's interests, and the growing moral imperative to condemn the Assad regime's brutal crackdown.

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A rare Arab politician who reacted publicly to the violence in the Syrian city of Hama last weekend was Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. That was odd. Since he left Lebanon some months ago, Mr Hariri has been almost invisible on the Lebanese scene. The intervention raised interesting questions about his motives, but more significantly about whether Lebanon might find itself sucked into a growing sectarian maelstrom in Syria.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Hariri said that it was no longer possible to remain silent about Syrian events. He condemned "the massacre to which the Syrian city of Hama is being subjected, and the bloody killings in Homs, Idlib, Deir Al-Zor, Deraa and several Syrian towns and areas on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan". In a phrase reflecting lingering resentment, he noted that the inhabitants of Hama had "witnessed the worst massacre in the 1980s".

Several things might explain why Mr Hariri chose to speak up. In implicitly defending Syria's Sunnis against the exactions of the minority Alawite leadership, Lebanon's pre-eminent Sunni leader may have been making a bid for influence over his Syrian coreligionists. That game can be risky. It was because the Assad regime feared that Mr Hariri's father, Rafiq, might extend his financial and political sway to Syria's Sunnis that he was contained, frequently threatened, and eventually killed during the time that Damascus lorded over Lebanon.

For some observers, Mr Hariri may also have been signalling a change in Saudi attitudes toward President Bashar Al Assad. Riyadh, the former prime minister's political patron, has been quietly supportive of the Syrian regime, avoiding any criticism of the brutal crackdown against protesters. Some say the Saudis have also provided financial aid to keep Mr Al Assad afloat. It's not that they especially like the Syrian leader; rather, they have been keen to hold back the tide of revolt in the Arab world, fearing it might destabilise the kingdom.

There is a view circulating that Mr Hariri would not have said what he did had he not received a Saudi green light. Perhaps, but it is more probable that the former prime minister was pressing his political advantage in a zone of Saudi ambiguity. The Saudis have no stake in alienating Syria's Sunnis, and Mr Hariri helped in that regard. He, in turn, finally said what he had evaded saying until now, namely that he is with the Syrian revolution - sharply differentiating himself from the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, who has praised Mr Al Assad.

There may also have been a domestic Lebanese calculation in Mr Hariri's declaration. The former prime minister has sought to marginalise Najib Miqati, his successor. Mr Miqati, who heads a government dominated by Hizbollah and other pro-Syrian groups, hails from the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli, where outrage at the fate of the Sunni brethren across the border is rising. By taking a critical position on Hama, Mr Hariri trapped Mr Miqati: if the prime minister turns against Syria, he will alienate his allies in government; if he fails to do so, he risks losing part of his political base.

Mr Hariri's ambitions notwithstanding, Lebanon is caught between bad alternatives with Syria. The former prime minister was well justified in expressing his anger with the killings in Hama and the deadly consequences of the muted reaction from Arab capitals. On moral grounds alone, it is no longer tolerable for Lebanese officials, above all those in Mr Miqati's cabinet, to engage in omerta about the Syrian slaughter because of political expediency.

At the same time, the Lebanese are divided when it comes to the Syrian crisis and much else. The prospect of prolonged sectarian confrontations in Syria has risen alarmingly. Such a calamity could have ominous repercussions for other countries with mixed societies in the region, including Lebanon, where Sunni-Shiite relations have worsened in recent years.

And yet on the basis of national interest, Lebanon must be on the right side of the Syrian revolution. Mr Al Assad's policy in the last four months has been folly. Higher levels of repression cannot conceivably resolve the metastasising challenges that his regime faces. The military operation to reconquer Hama may represent the end for Assad rule, even if this takes time. Unless Lebanon prepares for such an outcome sensibly, it could find itself on the wrong side of a new post-revolution leadership in Damascus, to its disadvantage.

The reality is that those in power in Beirut are virtually guaranteeing that there will be antagonism if Mr Al Assad goes. And it is not just Mr Miqati and his ministers. President Michel Suleiman has been ostrich-like when addressing matters Syrian, blandly echoing official Syrian rhetoric. The speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has long been a Syrian echo chamber. Sensing the danger, particularly with regard to his own Druze community, Walid Jumblatt alone has tried to dodge and weave, counselling that the Syrian regime introduce true reform, even as he has endeavoured to avoid a rift with Mr Al Assad.

Mr Hariri may have no remedy for how to spare Lebanon the turbulence next door; indeed, his comments on Hama have surely made matters trickier. But the former prime minister is wagering that the regime in Damascus is not long for this world. If he's correct, Syrians in the streets will not soon forget his backing. However, ultimately it is state-to-state relations that count. And for now the Lebanese state still has all its eggs placed in the Assad basket.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle