Alwaght- Grappling with political and economic crises for several years, Lebanon has recently asked regional partners for help to get rid of this complicated situation. The Lebanese officials are well aware of Syria's political weight in the Arab world and are taking steps to improve relations with this country to take advantage of the Arab-Syrian convergence opportunity in favor of their country.
To this end, former President Michel Aoun visited Syria through land border and met with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Nashrah news website quoted Lebanese sources as saying that Aoun stressed on the continuation of relations and the strategic position of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) towards Syria. He also intended to explain to al-Assad that FPM’s opposition to the election of Hezbollah choice Suleiman Frangieh for the post of president has nothing to do with its position on Syria; rather, it thinks that if Frangieh is elected, the consensus of Christian groups will be at stake.
Hosting Aoun after 14 years, al-Assad told the ex-president that stability of Lebanon is in the interest of Syria and region, adding: “You played an important role in maintaining the fraternal relations between Syria and Lebanon. I am confident that the Lebanese people will be able to overcome difficulties and establish the role of their national and legislative institutions.”
He further said that the Syrian and Lebanese challenges cannon be looked at separately. The inter-Arab convergence that took place recently and showed itself in Jeddah Arab League summit will leave positive influence on Syria and Lebanon, al-Assad said.
For his part, Aoun emphasized that Syria, thanks to the awareness and faith of its people in the army and leaders of this country, managed to pass the difficult period and the prosperity of Syria will have a positive effect on Lebanon and its people.
The last time Aoun visited Syria was in 2009 and before the Lebanon's parliamentary elections and his recent visit is considerable from several aspects.
After visit to Syria of Iranian President Seyyed Ibrahim Raisi last month, Aoun is the second senior foreign official visiting Syria since the start of the devastating civil war, something showing that Damascus is important for the neighbors and regional states. Though his presidential term ended on last October, Aoun remains symbolic leader and pushes to improve ties with Damascus as the country faces power vacuum while the political factions have so far failed to elect a president.
Return of refugees
Due to having common borders and good relations in the past decades, Lebanon and Syria have been sharing many security cases, which have caused interdependence and security cooperation between the two countries. Even though Lebanon tried to stay away from the Arab-Western-Israeli-hatched conflict during the Syrian crisis and did not take a hostile position against the Syrian government, the interactions between the two countries, affected by the Arab pressure, dropped to some extent. But now that the central Syrian government has managed to patch up the security situation with the defeat of the terrorist groups, the leaders of Lebanon are trying to revive the past relations.
One of issues of the past decade that has now brought Syria and Lebanon close to each other is the Syrian refugees. Lebanon officials try to pave the way for their return to their country. According to statistics, about 850,000 Syrian refugees are hosted by Lebanon, and since Lebanon plunged into a deep economic crisis in 2019, the return of this number of refugees to their country will take a heavy burden off shoulder of 5-million Lebanon. Lebanon's officials are striving to conclude the case of the refugees. In September last year, Lebanese and Syrian officials discussed their return and Damascus assured the Lebanese side the it will make arrangements for the Syrians to return home. Hezbollah and its domestic allies have been pursuing the case of refugees for a long time after the restoration of relations with the Syrian government, but the internal and external obstacles have so far prevented the return of the refugees. Lebanese officials announced last year that the UN and the US plan to permanently settle Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but Beirut voiced its opposition to the plan. Therefore, Aoun is seeking a solution to the refugees case involving the Syrian government.
Syrian influential role in settling Lebanon political impasse
Before the beginning of its crisis, Syria played an important role in Lebanon's internal developments, and even during Lebanon's civil war in the 1990s, the Syrian army was deployed to Lebanon to help Beirut government, and these forces remained in Lebanon until 2005. The Syrian government, both in the past and now, has always worked for stability and security in Lebanon, and as President al-Assad put it, it is not possible to separate the issues of these two countries. Therefore, the Damascus officials will do everything possible for peace in Lebanon. Al-Assad, who has good relations with Hezbollah and some other political factions in Lebanon, to some extent can help unblock the political stalemate since Lebanon's political calm will be good for Syria as well, and can contribute to their better interactions.
The progresses the regional diplomacy witnessed following Iran-Saudi Arabia détente agreement also influenced Lebanon, and according to Hezbollah, the political groups have made substantial developments that bring them closer to president election.
Additionally, terrorism is one of the common issues between the two countries that takes more cooperation to tackle. Syria has been fighting against terrorist groups for more than a decade and honed its skills in counter-terror combat, and since Lebanon's borders are also threatened by takfiri terrorists, Beirut leaders can count on Syrian army's help to deal with the security jeopardies.
Syria, the bridge to Lebanese economy's salvation
In addition to political crisis, growing economic problems are challenging to the Lebanese who are seeking ways to beat them. Despite being on the Mediterranean coast, Lebanon has no land routes with any Arab country except Syria that makes a bridge for it to other countries. In the past decade, due to the severance of Arab relations with Damascus, it was impossible to do business with the Arabs via Syria, but with the recent Arab reconciliations with Damascus, there is room for Lebanese economic interaction with these countries.
Syrian return to the Arab League allows Lebanon to make a bridge to the Persian Gulf through al-Assad due to Damascus role and position in regional developments. Having in mind that part of Lebanon's political and economic challenges derive from Saudi, and to some degree the Emirati and Qatati, obstructionist actions, Beirut expects the Syrian president to facilitate Arab-Beirut convergence as these days he holds friendly relations with the other Arab states. Aoun also pursued this goal during his Syria visit. Once staunchly hostile to Syria, the Persian Gulf monarchies have chosen a path of reconciliation recently, therefore, settlement of Saudi differences with the Lebanese will not be difficult.
Odds are the Arab countries engage in Syria reconstruction, and economic progress and rebuilding of the infrastructures in Syria will be advantageous to Lebanon. Last year, Iran dispatched fuel tankers to Lebanon via Syria, and given the political activism in the region, transit partnership between Lebanon and other Arab countries will see a boost. Since Lebanon's population is not large, injection of several billion dollars into its collapsed economy by the wealthy Arab monarchies will settle much of Lebanon's problems.
With Lebanon's railway connection to the other Arab countries, part of its economic challenges will be resolved and the ‘bride of the middle east’ will re-embrace its past prosperity. After all, continuation of the economic crisis beside political deadlock will put people of Lebanon in a tight spot, with negative consequences even impacting other Arab countries.