Recent attempts to normalize relations between Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon for the alleged benefit of the Lebanese are not only doomed from the outset, but would consign the region to another bloody repeat of history.
The recent visit of a senior Lebanese government delegation to Syria to discuss the details of the US ambassador’s proposal of Lebanon accessing Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity via Syria was seen by many as part the Biden administration’s wish to see these two nations reestablish normal relations while simultaneously empowering Assad against Iranian elements in both Lebanon and Syria – chiefly Hezbollah. Yet, this renewed spirit of empowering Syria’s dictator is a lost cause, as the region under its current state prevents such a scenario from taking place.
For over half a century the Assad regime has tyrannically ruled over Syria, first under the ruthless Hafez al-Assad and, since 2000, under his equally bloody yet less shrewd son Bashar.
Lebanon’s relationship with Syria and the Assad regime has always been marred with the latter’s refusal to treat Lebanon as a sovereign nation. Hafez, and later Bashar al-Assad, has seen this small Mediterranean nation as a honey pot, one which they can leverage for their own standing in regional conflicts. After the assassination of former premier Rafik Hariri in 2005, Bashar al-Assad saw his hegemony over Lebanon fade, as he was forced to withdraw troops which had virtually occupied Lebanon since 1990 until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US had allowed Syria’s Lebanese operations to continue in 1990, as its interests at the time were limited to Assad joining Operation Desert Storm and forcing former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain out of Kuwait.
The US suggestion to provide Lebanon with both Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity is a last desperate attempt to ensure that Lebanon does not fully collapse. The continuing economic crisis, combined with ongoing smuggling of fuel and essential items to Syria, has brought the country to the brink of disaster, with essential services such as hospitals verging on complete failure. Consequently, the US designed its new plan as a way to provide electricity to the Lebanese without having to give funds to the country’s corrupt political class, and if the price of such a move requires Syrian consent, then so be it.
Naturally, the Lebanese delegation to Damascus was successful in getting the Syrian government’s initial approval, but the ultimate project still hinges on the alignment of a number of factors – mainly the Lebanese political establishment’s refusal to allow such a lucrative sector from being liberated from their control. Coincidentally, the attempt to deliver Egyptian gas to Lebanon had been thwarted in the past by the Assad regime who, upon the request of the Free Patriotic Movement and Lebanese President Michael Aoun’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, blocked the process.
Ultimately, the Biden administration belief that Bashar al-Assad and his archaic, crumbling dictatorship can push back against Iran and its regional expansionist project is not only wishful thinking, but also exposes a sinister delusional mindset – that the region’s future is better left to murderous criminals like Assad.
Furthermore, the optimism that the Assad regime can stabilize Lebanon and return it to normality obviously disregards the fact that Syria’s Lebanese assets, not to say its lackeys, are no longer in control of Lebanon’s political system. More importantly, Hezbollah, which previously operated in Lebanon under the strict auspices of the Syrian regime, has mutated into a transnational fighting force that is in control of four Arab capitals.
Shortly after the Lebanese government delegation returned home, Bashar al-Assad received a huge Lebanese Druze delegation headed by Talal Arslan and Weam Wahab, both insignificant allies of the Syrian dictator. Assad’s insistence of portraying a business-as-usual image does not mask the fact that he is no longer the master of his own fate. No amount of visiting dignitaries can reconstruct his shattered image.
As it stands, the Assad regime is incapable of controlling its own country, and has to share what remains of its so-called sovereignty with an assortment of Iranian militias, the Russian military, Turkish sponsored armed groups and what remains of the Syrian revolution. Giving Assad Lebanon to rule over is not only unrealistic, but a dangerous notion entirely.
In the past, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, acting upon the encouragement of the international community, hosted Bashar al-Assad and his wife at Bastille Day celebrations, and honored him by letting him partake in the parade. Now, both French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden wish to repeat Sarkozy’s debacle, using Lebanon as their podium. As it stands, Lebanon and Syria are both a humanitarian catastrophes, and cannot be doled out to either Assad or Iran with the expectation of stability and prosperity.
Bashar al-Assad is only fit to deal with the caliber of lightweights such as Arslan and Wahab and the rest of Lebanon’s so-called elite, as this once school yard bully no longer musters the respect or fear of his own people. Assad consigned himself to his own ominous fate once he opened the metaphorical Pandora’s box of allowing Iranian influence into Syria. Now, it’s too late for the Syrian dictator to turn back time.