MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Andrei Murtazin)
Syria and Lebanon established diplomatic relations on October 15, 2008, sixty years after gaining independence from France in the mid-1940s.
Why have they waited so long?
Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh, who signed the declaration jointly with the Syrian Foreign Minister, Waleed al-Moallem, said Lebanese-Syrian relations were friendlier than ever.
Syrian politicians, along with a majority of their Lebanese counterparts, say the exchange of embassies is only a formality between the two brotherly states. This may be so, but the fact remains that Syria has never considered Lebanon a sovereign state. On the other hand, it saw Lebanon as an inalienable part of "greater Syria," which once included the territory of modern Lebanon.
It is true that Syria has played a positive role in Lebanon's recent history, in particular during the 1975-1990 civil war. It deployed 35,000 soldiers to Lebanon to disengage the warring sides and prevent the country's disintegration. However, the Syrians did not leave after the civil war ended, but remained in Lebanon "to keep the peace" until 2005.
This is why some Lebanese see their "Syrian brothers" as liberators, while others curse them as occupiers. Moreover, the ruling Lebanese clans have changed their attitude toward Syria more than once, at times seeing them as friends, and other times as enemies.
Bilateral relations were most recently shattered after the murder of former foreign minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. The West immediately blamed the murder on Syria's military intelligence chief, Assef Shawkat, and declared a boycott of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria's isolation lasted until French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared, at the Mediterranean Union Summit held in Paris last July and attended by the Syrian president, that Syria and Lebanon should establish diplomatic relations.
However, the two countries reconciled only when Lebanon elected a new president, Michel Suleiman, a figure of compromise between the pro-Western majority in parliament - the Mustaqbal movement led by Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated Rafik Hariri - and the opposition Hezbollah movement, backed by Syrian and Iranian Shiites.
This compromise has cost the pro-Western forces in Lebanon dearly, given that, at a meeting in Doha last May, they gave the opposition the right to veto bills. At the same time, a national unity government of 30 ministers was formed, in which 16 represent the ruling coalition, 11 the opposition, and three are appointed by the president.
In addition, election legislation was amended to extend the rights of Shiite Muslims, who support Hezbollah.
In reality, this was not an internal reconciliation, but rather a camouflaged victory of the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian forces in parliament, and hence signified the continued Syrian and Iranian influence on Lebanon's policy.
The alliance of Syria and Iran bothers not only the US and Israel, but also the French president, the new architect of Syrian-Lebanese relations, who has more than once expressed his dislike of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
France wants to and can become a new regional mediator in the Middle East, alongside the US, Russia, the UN and the EU, whose peacekeeping efforts in the past few years have not been effective. The goal of Sarkozy is to ease Syria and Lebanon out of Iran's grasp, an undertaking that is both openly and secretly supported by all Arab countries governed by Sunni Muslims.
Due to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the war in Iraq, Iran has become the strongest regional power in the Middle East.
The Shiite-led Iran is a theocratic state that sees itself as a messiah to the entire Muslim world. It is trying to spread its influence to all Arab countries, much to the indignation of the Sunni states, primarily Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Assad and his clan are Alavites, a small Shiite sect, whereas the majority of the Syrian population is Sunni. Hezbollah in Lebanon are also Shiites.
Before the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, Syria and Iran considered themselves key political players on the Lebanese political scene. After the assassination of Rafik Hariri and the Syrian troop pullout, Syria's power over Lebanon was shattered - though not lost.
Although Syria has formally recognised Lebanon's sovereignty, it has retained control over its parliament and government with pro-Iranian Hezbollah, whose role was sealed by the Doha agreements.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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