Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Ides of March 2007: Berriri

Blessed with a "positive atmosphere" that seems to have been mysteriously missing for the past five months, the recent Berri-Hariri talks come ahead of a looming deadline for the Syrian regime to change its behaviour in Lebanon or face a tightening of the continued isolation it has been subject to among its "Arab brethren".

The deadline comes as Saudi Arabia prepares to host an Arab summit at the end of the month, in which the kingdom's fellow participants would be quietly asked to back a joint statement backing the Lebanese government's efforts to establish an International Tribunal, to try those charged with the assassination of former premier Rafic Hariri, and its ratification under terms vague enough to allow for the possibility of it being passed under a UNSC Chapter 7 mandate. The UN Investigation tasked with finding Hariri's killers has so far implicated the Syrian regime (and its allies within the Lebanese security apparatus) in the assassination.

Through the ongoing Berri-Hariri talks launched over the weekend, the Saudis have allowed the Syrians a chance to talk, through their chief representative in Lebanon, Nabih Berri, and thereby avoid the potential green-lighting of what would amount to the most severe UN-sanctioned action taken against an Arab country since a coalition was mobilized to free Kuwait from invading Iraqi forces in the early nineties.

However, the methods with which the Syrians have obtained this dialogue of representatives in Lebanon remains a brisk reminder of why it is so critical for the health of this country-of-representatives that the Syrians remain isolated and subject to the enactment and jurisdiction of the International Tribunal when it comes into being. Nevertheless, there is method to the Syrians’ maliciousness. The Syrians, at least, seem to have been successful in grabbing the Saudis’ attention through the escalation of the bombing and assassination campaign they have been conducting in the country for well over two years now. No longer satisfied with the subtleties of assassinations targeting predominantly Christian districts as a demonstration of their abilities to unleash a Sunni-Shiite struggle in Lebanon, the Syrians have “upped the ante” recently with a series of false bomb alarms in Sunni (and perhaps some Shiite) districts throughout the country.

There is, however, another threat posed by the Syrian manoeuvre, and by a possible Saudi reward for it, that lies in the danger that those calling the shots in Damascus will eventually seek to play this emphasis on the avoidance of Sunni-Shiite discord in order to effectuate a return of the Christian camp to the Syrian fold. If the Syrians can successfully pull off a temporary de-escalation of tensions with Saudi Arabia while at the same time averting an immediate ratification of the International Tribunal bill, they will be free to pursue a broadening of the political crisis stage onto the platforms of the Presidency of the Republic and early Parliamentary elections.

If the regime in Syria is to stand any chance of surviving the continued drive at the establishment of Lebanese sovereignty in the face of the Syrians’ aggression, then in all likelihood, it will need to move to shift the current balance of representative power in Lebanon and bring about the formation Christian-Shiite-Alawite alliance that can defeat the current parliamentary majority in early elections, and bring a halt to any real progress in the International Tribunal (e.g. passing it under Syrian law). The man for this job today, as he was yesterday, will be none other than the General himself, his Excellency Michel Aoun.

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