Whatever happened to the Beirut Spring?
Five years ago the Beirut Spring in Lebanon was touted as a manifestation of democracy coming to the Middle East. Western media organisations camped out for months in Beirut to report on the street protests asking for Syrian withdrawal and Western governments were keen to associate themselves with the aims of the protestors. But recent events in Lebanon indicate that this episode has all but come to an end, leaving the West to suffer the embarrassing consequences of yet another ill-advised intervention.
"This was a political accusation, and this political accusation has finished." With these words the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri publicly exonerated Syria of the accusation of assassinating his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and effectively declared an end to the political aims of the Beirut Spring (aka the Cedar Revolution). Hariri’s statement comes as part of the recent ‘bridge-building’ with Syria, an attempt to reverse the course of the last few years of his government’s Western-backed antagonistic stance towards the Syrians.
The statement is particularly important because it represents the clearest indication of the transformation of the focus of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the international body set up under international law to investigate the Hariri assassination. The West’s eagerness to embrace the Cedar Revolution played a key role in the establishment of the tribunal and its subsequent use as a stick with which to beat Syria. The UN investigation that paved the way for the tribunal was a piece of political theatre orchestrated by the US and France to boost their credibility in the region.
The prospect of an indictment of Syrian officials has however been seriously undermined by recent revelations about the unreliability of some of the witnesses and the evidence used by the tribunal. At the same time, leaks to the press indicated that the tribunal’s upcoming indictment is likely to point the accusation at ‘undisciplined members’ of Hezbollah. The indictment is not due to be published for a few more months, but it is not difficult to see that this turnaround represents an indication of the West’s lack of appetite for a confrontation with Syria.
US president Barack Obama saw Syria as a candidate for engagement in the Middle East at the beginning of his term, but US-Syrian relations have been mutually ambivalent since. This has been largely due to America’s lack of a clear strategy in the Middle East and Obama’s prioritisation of ‘disengagement’ above all else. The US reluctance to play an active role in the formation of a new Iraqi cabinet is a clear indication of this tendency, allowing Syria and other regional powers significant space to attempt to hammer out a power-sharing deal there.
The American disengagement, epitomised by the recent withdrawal of ‘combat’ troops from Iraq, signals the Obama administration’s clear lack of appetite for further adventures in the Middle East. Lebanon in particular does not seem to represent clear strategic interests for the US, and certainly none that would justify a confrontation with Syria which an indictment of Syrian officials in the Hariri assassination would entail. The Western enthusiasm for intervention in the wake of the Beirut Spring has left an awkward legacy for almost all those involved, in the shape of the tribunal that nobody wants anymore.
For the moment, the pro-Western camp in Lebanon continues to publicly support the STL and insists on its neutrality. But this rhetoric barely conceals the anxiety about its possible findings which continues to trouble both the pro-Western and pro-Syrian camps in Lebanon. In a bizarre theatrical display, the leader of Hezbollah, and Hariri’s main political opponent, Hassan Nasrallah recently attempted to implicate Israel in the assassination of Hariri through evidence and intelligence collected by his party. As I argued at the time, this was a way of offering Hariri a face-saving exit of the tribunal predicament and avoiding the prospect of violent confrontations between the two camps.
This is not as cynical as it seems, Western intervention exacerbated the situation in Lebanon following the Hariri assassination by giving the impression to one political camp that they support their political ambitions. This intervention made the prospect of a political settlement that can fill the void left by the Syrian withdrawal impossible. The country has experienced one political crisis after another for the past few years as a result of this, and the issue of the STL remains one of the main reasons for the continuing division. Nasrallah’s proposal represented an attempt to remove the issue of the STL as a source of internal friction, albeit at the expense of accepting Syrian tutelage once again.
The argument being deployed now to justify the recent change of direction is that stability is more important than truth and justice. The fact that this is being said by one of the Beirut Spring leaders once most enthusiastic for regime change in Damascus is very telling. This politician has apologised for his anti-Syrian ‘phase’, claiming that he was lured into the vision of the New Middle East devised by the Bush administration. On the one hand, this shows how dependent on the West he and his colleagues were, and on the other that they genuinely believed in the idea of a transformative American plan.
Many today still believe this myth of a grand American scheme to re-engineer the geo-political context in the Middle East beginning with the Iraq invasion and spreading to the rest of the region. But this idea has been completely debunked, especially knowing what we know now about the lack of preparation and planning for the post-invasion period. The Beirut Spring was a convenient manifestation that the West appropriated and advertised as evidence of the spread of democracy in the region, but it definitely was not part of any greater strategic vision.
The improvised nature of Western intervention in Lebanon has had drastic effects on the country. The cynical manipulation of international justice through the formation of the STL now leaves the country facing the prospect of renewed civil conflict. Western intervention also served to alienate a large number of the Lebanese who did not feel comfortable with trading Syrian hegemony for Western tutelage. The political parties allied to Syria and Iran moved even closer to those regional powers to stave off Western pressure, creating further divisions within the country. Lebanese leaders bear a fair share of the responsibility for allowing the situation to get out of their control, but Western intervention definitely propelled the situation further out of control.
The bitter consequences of this intervention seem to be all that remains of the Beirut Spring today.
Karl Sharro 2010