[Translator's note: The following is the translation of part of a longer article by Fawwaz Traboulsi, which first appeared in Arabic in the Beirut daily as-Safir on June 28, 2007. Three points of clarification to put the article in context:
(1) Traboulsi qualifies the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon as having marked a "violent" rupture in Lebanese-Syrian relations. The qualification does not refer to the withdrawal as such but to the events surrounding it. These events have included several political assassinations, starting with the killing of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, and a standoff between allies and foes of the Syrian government in Lebanon that has fitfully turned violent.
(2) Traboulsi criticizes pro-US Lebanese politicians who have put their trust in the neo-cons in Washington. He points out this trust may yet prove to be an illusory and dangerous gamble as the neo-cons' hold on power in Washington crumbles. As an example, Traboulsi mentions the now-discredited Paul Wolfowitz, often praised by pro-US Lebanese politicians before his downfall, and then makes a sudden contrast with Noam Chomsky still "steadfast in the face of the empire." This is an oblique reference to Chomsky's visit to Beirut in May 2006, a highly publicized event which Traboulsi helped organize and which is still resonating in public commentaries by foes and friends alike. During that visit, whenever asked to comment on the internal Lebanese conflict, Chomsky would repeatedly stress that it was for the Lebanese themselves to settle their own differences and settle them away from external interference.
(3) In the final paragraph of the article, Traboulsi refers to Michel Kilo, a well-known Syrian journalist and human-rights activist. Kilo is one of the signatories of a joint declaration by more than two hundred Lebanese and Syrian writers and intellectuals, which calls for improved relations between the governments of the two countries. This is the so-called Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut Declaration that was published in all major Beirut dailies on May 12, 2006. Within days later, Kilo along with a few of the most prominent Syrian signatories (Anwar al-Bunni, Mahmoud Issa, Khalil Hussein and Suleyman Shummar) were arrested in Damascus by the Syrian police. Since his arrest, government-controlled newspapers in Damascus have published articles about Kilo claiming that he is part of an international campaign to topple the Syrian regime. On March 26, 2007, Kilo was charged in criminal court with "weakening national sentiment," "spreading false information" and "inciting religious and racial dissension," and sentenced to three years in prison. These charges were a response to his role in drafting the Beirut-Damascus/Damascus-Beirut Declaration. -- Assaf Kfoury]
While politicians in Beirut continue their bickering, blaming each other for the continuing governmental crisis, there were several ominous developments at the frontiers of the country in recent weeks — the terrorist attack on the Spanish contingent of the UNIFIL in the south, the expected decision of the Security Council to put UN observers to monitor smuggling of arms across the Lebanese-Syrian border in the east, the closure of transit points between Lebanon and Syria in the north.
These developments did not have to happen for one to be reminded of the dangerous deterioration in relations between Lebanon and Syria, but they certainly make it more compelling to ask: Has the time not come to finally step back from the brink and to consider initiatives that would set relations between the two countries on a new, mutually-beneficial course? Since independence from French colonial rule in the 1940′s, the two countries have experienced a violent breakdown in relations at least twice. The first time was at the onset of the 1975-1990 civil war when Syrian troops entered Lebanon; Syria thus became a direct party in the internal conflict, which abruptly put an end to a three-decade old arrangement between the two countries. The second time was in 2005, when the withdrawal of Syrian troops ended an arrangement that had prevailed during the previous decade and a half.
The two countries have each caused the other to bleed enough, far more than they can each sustain. The government in Damascus is not any nearer to being toppled today than it was two years ago, nor is it any more capable of reimposing its hegemony on Lebanon, contrary to what some may still imagine. Pursuit of these two divergent goals, by opponents and allies of the Syrian regime, has mired the two contending camps in Lebanon in a debilitating gridlock, which has made them bet increasingly on the intervention of external forces and favorable regional changes. Lebanese opponents of Syria are under the illusion they can safely rely on Western intervention and protection because of Syria’s fears of an international tribunal that will implicate Syrian officials in the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri; they view the conflict between the two countries as one that can be limited to putting in place appropriate security measures for policing the borders. But the conflict is more than a matter of deficient security measures. The issue of renewed Syrian influence in Lebanon will be unavoidably taken up in negotiations that the Syrian government has been so eager to start with the United States and the European Union; if such negotiations succeed, Syria will certainly have to concede something for being allowed to exercise anew some influence in Lebanon, just as Syria’s Lebanese opponents will have to concede something for this renewed influence. Under the circumstances, if concessions are to be made by both countries, is it not preferable that they make these concessions to each other directly rather than be obliged to make them by external intervention?
According to Syrian vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa, the “March 8 coalition” of opposition parties allied with Syria is stronger than the “March 14 coalition” that supports the Fuad Siniora government. If this is indeed the case, it is all the more reason for the Damascus government to encourage its Lebanese allies to be the first to make concessions. In doing so, the Lebanese public will hear for once that Damascus has taken a positive initiative towards a settlement of the internal crisis, an initiative to counter the policy of the “stick” that has been used so far to threaten people’s livelihoods by closing trading routes between the two countries.
Put differently, in the interest of all concerned, can’t there be a different way to resolve the crisis — a way that will avoid a logic of boycott and quasi-racist incitement (against Syria and the Syrian government) from one side, and a vengeful determination to reimpose a diktat (on the Syrian government’s Lebanese opponents) from the other side? Media campaigns and verbal attacks may be less painful than violent reprisal, but the continued policy of betting on the neo-cons in Washington in order to topple the regime in Damascus has shown itself to be illusory and has already exacted a heavy price that the majority of Lebanese, from all sides, are no longer willing to pay. Here are the neo-cons, like the failed and corrupt Paul Wolfowitz and others like him, who have been forced to depart from the political scene. (And Noam Chomsky remains steadfast in the face of the empire!) The history of this region is replete with situations when Western powers, faced with a choice between Syria and Lebanon to safeguard their interests, have time and again chosen the first over the second.
Away from the logic of mutual destruction, enmity and revenge, is there still a way to launch a Lebanese or Syrian initiative that will rectify relations between the two countries? Little matters which party will take the first step in such an initiative. All that matters is that it will serve common interests of both countries, accepting their complementarity not their identity, and respecting the differences in their political and economic systems. Such an initiative must be launched, and it will have to start with a truce between both sides, suspending the relentless campaigns of incitement against each other and putting an end to all security breaches between the two.
Who will rise up to the challenge? Who will have the courage to declare both sides made mistakes? Who will publicly admit that revenge only begets revenge, and blood only blood? Now that the International Tribunal has been formed, which side will have the courage to extend a friendly hand to the other? Such tolerance should in no way undermine the investigation to uncover the truth in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and to bring its perpetrators to justice. The investigation should be pursued, and pursued without allowing the US to exploit it in pursuit of its own political agenda in the Middle East.
The question is addressed to both camps in Lebanon differently. To the parties supporting the government: Will you propose something to resolve the crisis other than a US-European “protection” that does not protect? To the opposition parties: Will you break out of a puzzling silence on all pending issues between the two countries (as if such issues do not exist)? As Syria’s self-declared friends and allies in Lebanon, will you advance your vision of friendly relations between the two countries?
Who will rise up to the responsibility of offering a historic compromise between Lebanon and Syria? Indeed, is there anyone there listening?
Right now there is a political prisoner in Damascus who is paying the price for the enmity between the two countries. This is Michel Kilo, who has been in a Syrian jail for more than a year now for wanting to rectify the relations between the two countries. May Kilo’s release be a sign that someone in Damascus is finally listening!
Fawwaz Traboulsi teaches at the Lebanese American University, Beirut-Lebanon. He has written on history, Arab politics, social movements and popular culture and translated works by Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan, Sa`di Yusuf and Edward Said. The translator, Assaf Kfoury, teaches computer science at Boston University.