A Syrian Comeback in Lebanon

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By Stratfor

A U.N.-backed tribunal on Wednesday ordered the release of four Lebanese generals, who had been accused of involvement in the plot to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri four years ago, from Lebanons al Roumieh prison. Chief prosecutor Daniel Bellemare said there was insufficient evidence to continue their detention.

STRATFOR is frankly not surprised that these men -- Maj. Gen. Jamil Sayyed, former chief of Lebanons General Security; Maj. Gen. Ali Hajj, former head of the Internal Security Forces; Brig. Gen. Raymond Azar, former chief of military intelligence; and Brig. Gen. Mustafa Hamdan, former commander of the Presidential Guard have been released. Nor are we surprised that the international tribunal for the al-Hariri case has yet to indict or identify any suspects in the plot. The assassination was a show of force by the Syrian regime, meant to demonstrate that the territory encompassed by Lebanon is territory firmly within Syrias grasp. If political leaders like al-Hariri chose to meddle with Syrian designs for Lebanon, they would pay the price.

But with the February 2005 assassination, Syria overplayed its hand: Within months, it was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon under pressure from the West. While this inarguably was a setback for the Syrian regime, it did not signal the end of Syria's dominance of Lebanon (despite numerous media reports to the contrary). In our eyes, this was a classic example of geopolitical priorities overriding political personalities. No matter who holds power in Damascus or which politician has a gun to his head in Beirut, the fact remains that Syria views Lebanon as a matter of fundamental national interest and will do what it takes to ensure Lebanon remains under its control. Without Lebanon, Syria is poor and isolated; with Lebanon, Syria controls a historically vibrant trading hub on the Mediterranean Sea that allows Damascus to project influence far beyond its borders. In short, Lebanon is Syrias economic lifeline, and it wont be sacrificed in the face of diplomatic pressure from the West.

Since withdrawing its troops four years ago, Syria has been steadily rebuilding its influence in Lebanon, while using a variety of techniques -- from funneling militants into Iraq to engaging in Turkish-mediated peace talks with Israel -- to attract the Wests attention. The strategy has worked relatively well: Syria is regaining control over Lebanon, senior U.S. officials are extending a diplomatic hand to Damascus, and both the United States and France have been involved in back-channel talks over Syrian demands that charges against Syrian officers in the al-Hariri assassination should be dropped. And Damascus has given up little in return.

Thus, the tribunal's decision to release the four generals -- regardless of whether they were complicit in the assassination -- was largely politically motivated. A STRATFOR source in Lebanon says that the U.S. and French ambassadors there pressured one of the tribunal judges, Robin Vincent, to agree to their release as part of a political understanding among the Americans, the French and the Syrians. Vincent allegedly refused and resigned. Another source has reported that a number of Syrian officials and officers who might be called to testify before the tribunal have left Syria for Qatar, where they were issued IDs with fake names.

Between the release of the Lebanese officers, the report that key Syrian figures have disappeared, and the possibility that a witness recently arrested in Dubai will be handed over to Syrian authorities, it is logical to conclude that the tribunal will be effectively paralyzed and that Syria will win the "get out of jail free" card it has been seeking. In return, Washington and Paris expect Syria's cooperation in dealing with Israel and on issues related to Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. Syrias negotiating habits are very mercantilist, however, and it remains to be seen whether Damascus will make good on those expectations.

The timing of the generals' release is also critical: Lebanese parliamentary elections are less than six weeks away, and the Hezbollah-led opposition has just scored a symbolic victory against the March 14 coalition -- a Western-backed, anti-Syrian faction led by Saad al-Hariri, the son of the slain prime minister. Now that Syria has most of this tribunal issue cleared up, it will be focused on consolidating its political gains in Lebanon through the upcoming elections.

Speaking in Beirut on April 26 - the anniversary of Syrian troops' departure from Lebanon -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that "the United States will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people." The words were reassuring, but the release of the four generals will send a different message to those in Lebanon who have attempted to resist Syrian domination.

You might call it a Syrian comeback in Lebanon -- but in many ways, the Syrians never really left.

A Stratfor Intelligence Report.
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