Over the past few weeks, Lebanese politicians from groups as diverse as Hezbollah and the Christian Lebanese Forces have been meeting intermittently in what has been dubbed a “National Dialogue.” Their primary objective is to forge a consensus for Lebanon’s future in the wake of the withdrawal of Syrian forces last year. But what their dialogue has exposed is how much Lebanese politics continues to be shaped by external forces.
The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad retains huge influence over key levers of the Lebanese state, including the security and intelligence apparatus, the army, and the judiciary – not to mention an alliance with the militarily powerful Hezbollah. Though Syrian soldiers may have withdrawn a year ago, Assad’s regime never got over its departure from Lebanon, and it seeks to re-impose some form of hegemony over the country.
Syria’s stance is complicated by an ongoing United Nations investigation that accuses it of involvement in the February 14, 2005, assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. While Syria’s Lebanese allies have called for improved ties between the two countries, the Hariri murder makes this doubtful. For the moment, the Lebanese parties have agreed not to allow their territory to be used as a base for any presumed threats to the Syrian regime.
At the same time, Egypt and Saudi Arabia want desperately to avoid the downfall of Assad’s regime. Publicly, they support the UN’s investigation, but privately they have encouraged, even pressured, the Lebanese government to lower the heat on Syria. Lebanese adversaries of Syria have resisted such demands, but the Egyptian and Saudi stance highlights how, for reasons of self-interest, Arab regimes rarely like to see fellow despots fall.