Daily Star staff (DS 25/08/01)
DAMASCUS: The late Hafez Assad was always accused of concentrating too much on foreign affairs during his 30-year tenure and turning a blind eye to the problems crippling Syria at home.
From 1975 until his passing in 2000, the Syrian president was preoccupied with Lebanon. In fact, sources close to the late president confirmed that the Lebanese crisis drained his energy and attention, where not one day passed without him following up on the daily intricacies of Syrias tiny neighbor.
Syria, on the other hand, with its numerous grievances, was left in the hands of officers and officials whom he trusted and authorized to deal with as they saw fit.
Following his death, the international community, his people and the Lebanese recognized him as a shrewd statesman who expanded Syrias regional and international influence. But it was time, some asserted, to pull attention away from regional and global issues and instead concentrate on domestic reforms.
More importantly, it was time to disengage from Lebanon.
Bashar Assad was idealized as a leader who enjoyed all of his fathers strengths and none of his weaknesses. It was hoped that he would not, like his father before him, strive to be the next Gamal Abdel-Nasser of Syria.
The speculation, apparently, proved wrong. The young Assads foreign affairs agenda gives prime importance to Lebanon.
Upon arriving in Damascus from London at the request of his father in 1994, the then-28-year-old Bashar developed an interest in Lebanese affairs. At the time, the Lebanese portfolio was handled by Vice-President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, so the young Assad took a crash course in history, objectives and future policy of Syrian-Lebanese relations. By all accounts, he was not familiar with the Lebanese scene before that.
But by 1996, Bashar was making monthly visits to Beirut, meeting with senior politicians and starting to navigate the complex web of Lebanese politics. Two years later, Bashar was charged with administering the Lebanese portfolio.
That year, in line with the elder Assads wishes, two close associates of Syrias old guard Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri lost power. They were replaced by Syrias new ally, President Emile Lahoud.
Hariri and Jumblatt were considered too close to political figures in Syria that the elder Assad was trying to get rid of mainly former Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi.
Upon assuming power in July 2000, Bashar referred to Lebanon in his inauguration speech and spoke of the need to establish a more ideal working relationship between both states.
Since then, however, a Pandoras box has been opened in Lebanon, releasing every possible headache the Syrian leader could imagine.
It started with the anti-Syrian movement spearheaded by Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Butros Sfeir last September. Two months into his term, Bashar got his first real dose of Lebanese politics when Sfeir demanded a Syrian troop pullout.
Problems then spread like wildfire: in September, the Maronite Council of Bishops demanded Syrian troops withdraw, Jumblatt said in October that the Syrian-Lebanese relationship needed to be rectified and soon after, it was clear that splits were developing between Lahoud and Hariri.
The conflicts intensified on Feb. 15, when Hizbullah, functioning on go-aheads from both Lahoud and Syria, launched an attack against Israeli soldiers in the disputed Shebaa Farms area.
The previous day, Hariri had told a group of foreign investors in Paris that Lebanon was a safe haven for investment and that nothing would be done to jeopardize stability in the country. We have an agreement with our Syrian brothers on the matter, Hariri said.
Following the attack, Hariris Al-Mustaqbal newspaper issued a front-page editorial, dictated by Hariri himself, questioning Hizbullahs monopoly on policy over the Shebaa Farms.
Again in April, following another deadly Hizbullah attack, Al-Mustaqbal questioned the timing of the offensive.
Was the decision to carry out this operation a wise decision and does its timing suit the supreme interests of Lebanon? the editorial asked. Bashar was infuriated by the editorial, canceling a scheduled meeting with the Lebanese premier later that week.
During Hariris visit to Washington, the Lebanese premier initially snubbed the pro-Lahoud Ambassador Farid Abboud, declining to bring him in for talks, and further irritating the Syrian leader.
On June 4, Assad dispatched Khaddam to ease tensions between Hariri and Lahoud.
He also tried to ease a November dispute with Jumblatt. On June 9, he ordered Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass to claim that his earlier remarks to the Beirut daily Ad-Diyar that Jumblatt was a Syrian creation were misquoted. Bashar also invited Jumblatt to Damascus and held talks described by the Syrians as very successful.
On June 13, Bashar took a further step aimed at appeasing his critics and boosting Lahouds image by ordering a Syrian troop withdrawal from Beirut.
While sincerely wanting to disengage, Bashar soon found himself immersed in the Lebanese issue.
The troop withdrawal from the capital was not enough to keep the lid on anti-Syrian groups, however, who demanded that the Syrian military leave the country outright.
Almost two months after the withdrawal, Lahouds security apparatus cracked down on anti-Syrian activists in Lebanon and uncovered an alleged Israeli conspiracy within the ranks of the outlawed Lebanese Forces. Syrian authorities gave the green light for the arrests.
The move apparently upset Hariri, who was intentionally not informed beforehand of the arrests. Bashar and Lahoud were making one point clear the premier had autonomy in economic affairs, but if Syria wished, the prime ministers role would come to a grinding halt there.
Then, on Aug. 20, Bashar re-affirmed Syrias military weight in Lebanon by ordering 25 truckloads of troops and six tanks to cross the border into Lebanese territory. The move was a clear statement that Assad wants to remain a decision-maker in Lebanon and is willing to follow a hard-line policy to preserve the status that his father achieved in Lebanon.
Bashars prime objective in Lebanon today is to safeguard Lahouds regime from Christian opposition, Hariris maneuvers and Israeli threats. His father would have stopped at nothing to secure these three guarantees for the Lebanese president.
Sources in Damascus are already speculating about a second presidential term for the former army commander. If Bashar turns out to be the hard-boiled and stubborn negotiator his father was, Lahoud could certainly be around for a while yet.