Lebanon: A sellout to Syria?

A new president in Lebanon who has close ties to Syria might actually benefit the country and the region.

Events in Lebanon are rarely just about Lebanon. They can't be, not with Syria, Iran, the US, France, and Israel all vying for influence in this tiny and tattered democracy. It's not surprising then, that the prospect of a new president in Lebanon also has implications for the region.

In Lebanon, a bellwether for what ails the Middle East, the welcome news is this: After a year of political stalemate, key factions in parliament are coalescing around the choice of Army Chief Michel Suleiman as president. That's quite a feat for a deeply divided country that could easily tip back into civil war and that is still recovering from last year's brief war between Israel and Lebanon's Hizbullah militants.

General Suleiman's election by parliament is not yet a done deal. But the main group opposing him, known as the March 14 Coalition and a pro-US force for democracy, now reluctantly supports him.

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True, March 14 doesn't like that Suleiman is Syria's preferred choice, that he is a military man, or that he is close to Hizbullah. On the other hand, Suleiman is popular for having rooted out radical Islamists from a Palestinian refugee camp this year, for keeping order in Beirut during Hizbullah-organized protests and sit-ins, and for positioning the Army as neutral.

That Suleiman comes with a list of pros and cons is what makes him a compromise. It's also what raises his story to one of regional import.

Some in the March 14 group view the general as a "sellout" to neighboring Syria. It was only in 2005 that peaceful Lebanese protesters threw off Syrian military occupation after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. A preliminary United Nations investigation implicated Syrian and Lebanese security officials in the deed, but its latest report doesn't name names. March 14 believes Syria is also behind killings of anti-Syrian politicians, journalists, and civic leaders in Lebanon since the assassination.

Suleiman was appointed Army chief when Syria occupied the country. He has a working relationship with Syrian military intelligence. March 14 feels betrayed by US support for Suleiman and its recent warming with Syria.

Another way to look at Suleiman is not as a sellout, but as an "investment in" a new geopolitical dynamic that engages Syria in regional peace issues instead of isolates it. The Bush administration seems to be going in this direction by inviting Syria to last week's Israeli-Palestinian peace conference in Annapolis, Md., and expressing openness to an Israeli-Syrian peace deal over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

A US engagement strategy with Syria might look like this: Syria and Israel work out a peace deal that returns the Golan Heights to Damascus; that deal relieves Syria from having to support its anti-Israel military proxies Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza – and loosens its relationship of convenience with Iran; that in turn improves regional stability.

The US labels Syria as a supporter of terrorism, and that makes it difficult for the administration to switch gears like this. But isolating Damascus has not worked, and even Israel has made overtures to Syria. There is an opportunity now to move forward, and Suleiman could actually help that process along – in Lebanon and in the neighborhood.

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