Question in Beirut: Will the Syrians, Saudis, Iranians strike a new Lebanon deal?

Malek al-Khoury, The Cradle, February 22, 2024 —

The visit of former Lebanese PM Saad Hariri to Beirut has tongues wagging. Will the impetus of the expanding Gaza war force a Saudi–Syrian settlement that can once more impose stability in Lebanon?

On 21 February, a Syrian website, citing sources in Damascus, broadcasted news that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) would shortly pay a visit to Syria, causing an uproar in regional political circles. Despite government-aligned newspaper Al-Watan denying the report, the prospect of a top Saudi visit evoked memories of an era past when Syrian–Saudi understanding secured Lebanon’s internal balances, which are shaken or resolved based on the tempo of West Asia’s hegemons and the status of their relations with one another.

A decisive response to rumors of an impending MbS visit remains elusive. A Syrian diplomatic source would only confirm to The Cradle that “Syrian–Saudi communication is gradually developing, and the discussions have become more detailed about the mutual common interests of the two countries” concerning the “post-war scene in Gaza.”

While the source did not deny or confirm Bin Salman’s visit, he suggested that the development of communications might reach the stage of “mutual visits” not only with Saudi Arabia “but also with Egypt.”

While the improvement in relations between Syria and Arab states is not limited to Saudi Arabia, discussions with Riyadh have become more significant recently – to the extent that an Arab foreign minister, believed to be the Emirati FM, made an effort in mid-February to persuade members of the US Congress to retract its Syrian boycott law, which US-based anti-Syria activists insist on upholding. A source tells The Cradle that these activists “train with a US agency, alongside the Iranian opposition, on formulating and marketing these lobbying projects and forming pressure groups” to halt any policy reversals in Washington.

But the discussion about reopening relations with Damascus is no longer only taking place in Arab corridors. Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, in an announcement following talks last week with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, revealed “the work of the Republic of Cyprus in cooperation with other member states” to advance European–Syrian ties. 

The EU, in general, shares that view about opening up member-states’ relations with Damascusin discussions which the Syrian source says are also progressing, especially in the matter of identifying “the parts of Syria that are sufficiently safe” for the return of refugee populations.

On 16 February, on the sidelines of the 60th Munich Security Conference in Germany, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan met with EU Foreign Affairs Chief Josep Borrell to discuss several regional issues, including Syria, reports Anadolu Agency, which quotes Turkish Foreign Ministry sources as saying “both sides” stressed the need to involve Damascus “in the political process.”

As for the Americans, the White House is engaged in difficult negotiations with many Arab states “in search of a diplomatic achievement” for the Joe Biden administration as his re-election campaign heats up. Washington is busy seeking mechanisms to consolidate its interests in West Asia within the significant barriers created by the Chinese-brokered Saudi–Iranian rapprochement agreement, which, for the US, has been maddeningly stable thus far. Indeed, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan went to bat in Munich for his “Iranian neighbors,” saying the Iranians “do not want escalation in the region.”

As US–Iraqi negotiations over US troop withdrawal pick up pace, a Syrian source tells The Cradle that an American delegation “visited northeastern Syria, to discuss the possibilities of maintaining a US presence there in the event of withdrawal from Iraq.” Interestingly, the head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units, Faleh al-Fayyad, visited Turkiye on 20 February to discuss “the future of the process of securing the borders from Kurdish organizations in the event that the US–Iraqi negotiations lead to the dismantling of the US military bases and the retention of officers as advisors only,” according to an Iraqi journalist source.

Where does this leave Lebanon?

There is no doubt that the recent Beirut visit of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri – who currently resides in Abu Dhabi, which enjoys friendly relations with Syria – resonated deeply in Lebanon. It was viewed as a harbinger of the return of “Hariri-ism,” which comes laden with regional political settlements and top-level shuttle diplomacy – and reflected a tacit sign of new Saudi approval.  

During his visit, Hariri spoke in the language of his father – former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, assassinated in Beirut on 14 February 2005 – about “peace and stability” in Lebanon and its neighborhood, and even invoked, during an interview with Saudi news channel Al-Hadath, his father’s key political role in Lebanon’s civil war in paving the way to the Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement that settled the 15-year conflict.

It is important to note that Riyadh–Hariri relations have been estranged for years – unlike the close Saudi relations his father enjoyed. Tensions between them grew during the war in Syria, with Hariri’s inability or unwillingness to curb Lebanon’s Hezbollah from defending the Syrian state from a Saudi-backed war.

While Hariri said during his Beirut stopover that the time was not yet ripe for him to return to Lebanon’s muddy political arena, he offered his “intervention” if he “felt that the Sunni community in Lebanon was leaning toward extremism.” Many have linked his comments to the trial of 84 civilians in the UAE last week, charged with membership in “Muslim Brotherhood” (MB) organizations – a group banned in the UAE – as well as Turkiye’s remarkable withdrawal of MB leading figure Mahmoud Hussein’s citizenship amidst Ankara’s thrust to mend ties with Abu Dhabi.

A Lebanese source who accompanied Hariri on his visit hints to The Cradle that “concern over the Muslim Brotherhood may pave the way for the return of Hariri’s relations with Syria.” In other words, the former PM could gain support from the anti-MB Saudis, Emiratis, and Syrians if he toes this political line within Lebanon. Interestingly, a Lebanese figure close to pro-MB Qatar attacked Hariri immediately upon his arrival at the airport via X (formerly known as Twitter).

Regional winds appear to be shifting direction, in large part because the Gulf’s traditional “guarantor” of security, the United States, is knee-deep in fanning an untenable crisis by unconditionally supporting Israel’s assault on Gaza. In Munich, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry sought a “Palestinian consensus” that would pave the way for a “two-state” settlement, in which, according to him, Hamas is excluded. The Arab–Islamic consensus is currently seeking a long-term Palestinian solution after the dust in Gaza settles, which would necessarily include luring “Hamas” and “Fatah” into a national consensus government.

In Beirut, former President Michel Aoun senses this consensus and has made a show of opposing any links of “Lebanon’s fate to Gaza.” Aoun, who once opposed the Taif Agreement, awaits the opportunity to oppose it again. This is, of course, a domestic play mainly to ensure the country’s minority Christian voice is heard in whatever political arrangements lie over the horizon. 

But Gaza remains unavoidable in Lebanon, with Israel waging war against Hezbollah on the country’s southern border, which reached 45 kilometers into the country this week when Tel Aviv struck civilian sites near Sidon. The Gaza war is now being played out in multiple theaters – in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen – and has the potential to expand and deepen further. It is this war waged by Israel and its US ally that is rapidly drawing Arab states to recalibrate the region’s direction from within and amongst themselves. 

This begs the question now frequently heard in Beirut: What if Damascus, Riyadh, and Tehran agree this time? Everyone is waiting for that moment to reserve their seats in West Asia’s latest theater.

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