Excellent progress has been made in the Middle East due to the clever replacement of the United States as a third party. First Turkey, which helped engineer the official channel of a rapprochement between Syria and Israel, and now France in terms of a rapprochement of Syria and Lebanon. They have both played pivotal roles in dramatically changing the possibilities on the ground. I heard through the grapevine that Syrian officials had said over a year ago, “If you see us moving toward Iran it means war, if we move toward Turkey it is peace.” This does not mean that Syria does not maintain a deep relationship with Iran, but all its major public moves of late are moving Syria toward Turkey and France.
Most significant is that for the first time in modern history there is a real chance that Syria and Lebanon will engage in an amicable separation.
Syria and Lebanon agreed in Paris to exchange diplomatic ties for the first time in 64 years of independence from French mandate rule. The historic agreement was announced Saturday evening by presidents Bashar Assad and Michel Suleiman, in a joint press conference with their French and Qatari counterparts, Nicolas Sarkozy and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, respectively.
The agreement, that has to be approved by the constitutional institutions of both Syria and Lebanon, gained immediate welcome from the Arab World and international community. Sarkozy described the move as “historic. It reflects the joint will to develop relations between the two states.” However, he said, the move requires “settling some legal issues.”
Israel has been forced to leave Lebanon twice after two miserable wars, Syria was forced to leave a couple of years ago in a most humiliating way for its troops, but now the independence of Lebanon will be etched in legal and diplomatic stone, an actual demarcation of borders, and an amicable exchange of ambassadors. Based on all my years in Syria, I cannot emphasize how much of a milestone this is. It is the end of an era of influence for certain groups in Syria that still believe that Lebanon is Syria. That does not mean that Syria will not assert a role in Lebanon in the same way that powerful neighbors do all the time. But Bashar Assad is setting the stage for an above board relationship with his neighbors. This is revolutionary.
Finally, due to the power sharing agreement brought about between the Lebanese factions, Shi’ites are in a better position than ever before to achieve real political power and security. In my opinion, this sets the stage next for asking Iran to leave Lebanon as well. Hizbollah will do just fine on its own, heavily armed as it is. What the Middle East does not need is Iran sitting with a virtual proxy on the border with Israel. Hizbollah needs to be free to act on its own in the Lebanese national interest and its own Shiite constituency:
The most important elements of preventing war in the Middle East right now is for Iran to withdraw from the Arab/Israeli conflict, and for Israel and the United States to withdraw any existential threat to the Iranian regime. The only serious alternative that will not create an international disaster is the biggest carrot in the room—full diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran in exchange for fully verifiable demobilization of the threatening elements of Iran’s nuclear program. But this will not happen till next year, at best. So we hold our breaths now and hope that the White House and the Republican Party do not use a war with Iran to hold on to the White House.
© Marc Gopin