Under the cozy, not to mention vague, definition of strengthening bilateral ties, Lebanese-Syrian diplomacy was in full throttle over the weekend with talks in Damascus aimed at establishing closer relations in what appears to be the full spectrum of areas of cooperation – defense to education and everything in between.
It was also announced that a summit between Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would take place in Syria this week, possibly as early as Tuesday. It would, the Lebanese media reported, “tackle joint Lebanese-Syrian issues” and pave the way for a meeting of the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council (SLHC), the controversial body created in 1991 under Article 6 of the Fraternity, Cooperation and Coordination Treaty to oversee the implementation of the treaties between the two countries, but which has been dormant since 2005.
There is a worrying side to the diplomatic hoopla. Given what has passed since 2005, when Syria was forced by the Independence Intifada to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence, and the recent regional understanding between Saudi Arabia and Syria, the Lebanese need to be reassured that Beirut is not once again being absorbed into another one-sided relationship with Damascus. They must be certain that when their country tackles “joint Lebanese-Syrian issues” it does so as an equal partner and a sovereign state.
Even more crucial is Lebanon’s obligation to address outstanding issues of national importance such as border demarcation, the fate of Lebanese detainees in Syrian jails and the future of the SLHC, a body whose presence is a continuous reminder of an era when Lebanese-Syrian relations were certainly not on an equal footing.
In late April this year, UN Special Envoy for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559 Terje Roed Larsen said that border demarcation, although stipulated in the resolution, should be seen as a bilateral matter, one that should be settled through a Lebanese-Syrian agreement. He said it was best that the UN not interfere in the process, unless both parties request its intervention. Indeed, in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Syrian ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Javari also stated the bilateral nature of the issue, so what better time to address it than now?
Demarcating Lebanon’s border with its main neighbor would be a huge step forward in Lebanon’s achingly slow journey to full statehood. It is however, an emotive issue for a Syrian regime, which, despite having agreed to exchange ambassadors in 2009, is historically reluctant to recognize Lebanon as a sovereignty entity.
The current diplomatic activity must also be seen as an opportunity to achieve genuine cooperation on determining the fate of the roughly 600 or so Lebanese from all confessions, as well as Palestinians, whose last know whereabouts were thought to be Syrian custody. Roughly half are thought to still be alive. Syria has an international obligation to come clean on their fate, and President Sleiman should make this highly emotive issue conditional on any proposed bilateral relations.
Finally, in a move that would go a long way to showing Lebanese that a new page has been turned in the way their government deals with its neighbor, the SLHC must either be disbanded, or, at the very least, the bilateral agreements that were rubber stamped during the era of Syrian hegemony and that were designed to benefit Syria’s security and economic interests must be annulled… not tweaked, annulled.
In 2008, Nasri Khoury, secretary general of the Syrian-Lebanese Higher Council, told An-Nahar that “any attempt to cancel out the previous phase of Syrian-Lebanese relations is an attempt to cancel a reality marked by history, geography and the blood of martyrs.”
Lebanon may have settled into a political status quo that falls short of the expectations of many who put their weight behind the 2005 Independence Intifada, but to recognize bodies such as the SLHC as legitimate instruments of bilateral relations is also to deny, as he put it, “history, geography” and, especially “martyrs’ blood.”
Khoury should be aware that such sentiments run both ways.