Much has been made about Saad Hariri’s visit to Damascus. Far from the drama that some media had built it up to be, the visit itself turned out to be somewhat anti-climactic.
After 5 years of waging a campaign of personal accusations and political attacks against Syria, President Assad extended an exceptionally warm welcome to Prime Minister Hariri, signaling a willingness to start a new chapter in Lebanese-Syrian relations. Whether the relationship, which has been mired in deep mistrust for so long, actually improves depends, in large part, on Hariri himself.
For Hariri, the visit was a political requisite for many reasons that can be summarized in two:
First, as Prime Minister of a national unity government with the support of the Lebanese Parliament, Hariri is no longer the leader of a Sunni political party, but the official representative of all Lebanese, half of whom do not share his heretofore-adversarial approach to Syria.
Secondly, and more importantly, under the Lebanese constitution, the Prime Minister is effectively the Chief Executive responsible for governing the country and delivering on the people’s agenda. After the Doha agreement and the arduous process of forming his own government, Hariri understood well that, Saudi sponsorship notwithstanding, he needs Damascus’ blessing and support to govern effectively in Beirut. Without such support, his premiership could turn into a grinding series of political battles over minutiae that will prevent him from achieving anything but stasis. The Siniora government of the last few years serves as a dim example.
To secure Damascus’ support, Hariri will have to commit to some core values that are key to Syria: Re-affirming Lebanon’s Arab identity, securing an unambiguous position vis-à-vis the conflict with Israel, supporting the resistance (i.e. Hezbollah) and committing to a distinguished relationship with Syria. From Syria’s perspective, all other issues may be negotiated.
On the Syrian side, after a period of critical evaluation of its pre-2005 management of the ‘Lebanese portfolio’, there seems to be a genuine interest, among the leadership in Damascus, in adopting a new, more institutional approach to managing the relationship with Lebanon, which could present an opportunity for Hariri.
Personally and politically, the visit represented a difficult climb-down for Saad Hariri. However, the visit could serve as the beginning of a personal reconciliation between Hariri and Assad, and consequently, of a political reconciliation between Syria and Lebanon’s Sunni community. Most importantly, harvested well, the visit could be a harbinger for a new type of a relationship between the two countries.
Regardless of how things play out, one thing was clear: After the acrimony of the last 5 years, in form and substance, Hariri’s visit to Damascus symbolized the return of Syria’s preeminence in Lebanon.