Will Syria's re-entry to the Arab League restore its might in Lebanon?

Whether Damascus will be given a greater role in Beirut's affairs, hoping this may encourage a pushback against Iran, is open to speculation

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad arrives in Jeddah to attend the Arab League last week. Reuters
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For many Lebanese, a question mark coming out of the Arab League summit last week was whether Syria’s reintegration into the organisation would have repercussions for their country. After 2005, when Syria’s army withdrew from Lebanon, and particularly after the Syrian uprising in 2011, Damascus’s role in Lebanon eroded, largely to the advantage of Iran and its local ally Hezbollah.

There are few signs that the Arab states seek to revive a Syrian role in Lebanon, nor should one really expect a clear statement of such a purpose. However, two contradictory dynamics appear to be visible. On the one hand, there is a general reluctance of Saudi Arabia, and therefore of several other Gulf states, to get caught up in Lebanon’s tedious contradictions; on the other, there is the fact that Syria has space to strengthen its role in Lebanon, even if it is uncertain that it has the bandwidth to deal with its neighbour today.

To get a clearer sense of what might happen, there are several things we need to watch.

The first is whether Saudi Arabia facilitates the election of Suleiman Franjieh as president. Mr Franjieh, a prominent ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has been endorsed by Hezbollah and its ally Amal Movement. There have been rumours that the Saudis have no problems with Mr Franjieh, in part fuelled by a well-publicised meeting between him and the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, Walid Bukhari.

On major issues such as refugees, it seems apparent the Arab states presume that a Lebanese-Syrian dialogue is necessary

However, none of this constitutes a formal embrace of Mr Franjieh. It is likely that the Saudis remain ambiguous about him: not opposed to his election, since they are normalising with Iran and Syria, but also unwilling to commit to Lebanon if he is elected. This would confirm a message the kingdom’s officials have transmitted to their Lebanese interlocutors on a number of occasions, namely that Lebanon is not a priority for them.

If that’s indeed the case, then it seems improbable that the Saudis are in any mood to make deals over Lebanon. Beyond pro-forma calls for holding an election, we should probably not expect much on their part when it comes to the country.

At the same time, Mr Franjieh will need two things to be victorious. He will need to secure the votes of at least one of the three major Christian blocs to have communal legitimacy, as all Lebanese presidents are Maronite Christians. For the moment all three oppose him. And, Mr Franjieh has to win over the bloc of the Druze leader Walid Joumblatt, without which, for now, he has no hope of winning a majority.

The Arab states are aware of one overriding reality: the only issue that may provide an incentive for Mr Al Assad to widen his margin of manoeuvre with regard to Iran and Hezbollah is to encourage a greater Syrian role in Lebanon. They realise the Syrian leader will not break with Tehran, nor can he do so. However, they may feel that if Mr Al Assad can bring a bloc of supporters back into Lebanese institutions, this could take up space hitherto controlled by Hezbollah and act as a guardrail to prevent Lebanon from being used against the Gulf states.

The core of a pro-Syrian bloc exists, and the fact that Mr Al Assad and Hezbollah are allies does not necessarily mean that Hezbollah would regard this as a threat. Moreover, a revival of Syrian power, albeit far more modest than what existed prior to 2005, could be portrayed as fulfilling one of the underlying themes of the Jeddah summit, namely allowing Arab states to regain the initiative in their region.

More generally, on major issues such as refugees, it seems apparent that Arab states presume a Lebanese-Syrian dialogue is necessary. Since this implicitly means that Syria will have leverage in any talks, it implies Damascus might be able to make some gains in Lebanon, which a potential Franjieh election would only help consolidate. That could include parliamentarians sympathetic to Syria, who would back the president.

Crucially, there remains the question as to whether Mr Al Assad is interested in making a Lebanese comeback today, let alone putting his weight behind Mr Franjieh, given the Syrian president's monumental domestic challenges. Echoes from the Jeddah summit suggest maybe not.

For the moment, all this suggests the presidential situation in Lebanon is still at a deadlock, one that may last. A number of domestic and regional prerequisites are needed for Mr Franjieh to win an election. For the moment, these are not in alignment. Yet as Lebanon remains adrift, the openings that Syria can exploit in the country will only widen. And Arab states, tired of Lebanon, will do little to push back.

In many regards, it would be a mistake to read too much into the Jeddah summit. Syria was welcomed back into the Arab fold, but it will take time for the Gulf states to change their behaviour towards Damascus. More time will be needed for Mr Al Assad to reclaim the regional role he once played. Lebanon will be a test case for how, or if, this happens.

Published: May 23, 2023, 2:00 PM