Syria crisis — 10 years on

Behind the scenes of Nabih Berri’s estrangement from the Syrian regime

Not wanting to be dragged into the war raging next door, the Parliament speaker navigated a careful path through the early years of the conflict

Behind the scenes of Nabih Berri’s estrangement from the Syrian regime

Former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon Ghazi Kanaan sits with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. (Credit: L'Orient-Le Jour archive photo)

It was Feb. 7, 2010. Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri went to Damascus for a “surprise visit,” the purpose of which was not clearly delineated. Perhaps, he wanted to take stock of the Lebanese and regional issues with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

During the visit, Berri admired Syria’s keenness “on an agreement between the Lebanese” in one of the shrewd formulations he is known for and which are always aimed at rounding off the corners in favor of his own interests.

This was the last time Berri set foot in Damascus. The Syrian regime has spent the past 10 years embroiled in a war to preserve its survival, without being able to count on the man who was Hafez Assad’s main ally on the Lebanese scene.

To this day, Berri is careful not to offer official support to the Syrian regime, speaking, when he must address the issue, only in broad terms of the necessity for a return to stability in the country.

For the Assad regime, this was almost tantamount to betrayal. Relations between Berri and the Syrian regime under Hafez al-Assad had been consolidated over decades to the point that the Lebanese speaker was seen as Damascus’ man in Lebanon.

During the 1980s, Berri was not reluctant to wage murderous wars on behalf of his Syrian godfather against the Palestinian Liberation Organization and then against Hezbollah.

Berri, subsequently, managed to impose himself as one of the most powerful players in the Lebanese political game thanks to the support of the Syrian regime, which occupied Lebanon for 29 years until the departure of its troops in 2005.

Admittedly, relations with Bashar al-Assad — who came to power in 2000, following the death of his father from a heart attack — were different.

The young Syrian president, in fact, favored ties with Hezbollah to the detriment of his relations with his father’s longstanding allies. But the real turning point in relations was in 2011.

Swimming with the tide

At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Berri was still showing minimum support to the regime. On March 31, 2011, he paid tribute to a Syrian president who “lays the foundations for a modern Syria, a beacon for freedom, shared living and democracy.”

Bashar al-Assad had delivered the words in a speech made the day before, his first since the start of the popular uprising, accusing insurgents of serving an external plot and promising reforms without specifying their nature. Things, however, were moving fast.

A few weeks after the outbreak of mass protests, Berri was convinced that the Syrian president would fall like the other Arab despots. He wanted to protect his back. Although he spoke within private circles, Berri’s remarks reached Assad’s ears. The Syrian president reciprocated with angry messages.

“Berri is above all a pragmatist who seeks to be on the side of the strongest. When he felt the tide was changing, he moved a little farther away from Damascus,” says a source well-informed of the Lebanese-Syrian relations.

The rupture in ties clearly materialized on Aug. 31, 2011, during the commemoration of the disappearance of Imam Moussa Sadr, when Berri delivered a speech in which he called on the Syrian president to take “corrective measures.”

This was the last straw for the Syrian regime, which deemed the speaker’s remarks interference in its domestic affairs. Relations between the two sides became strained, translating into the cessation of Amal delegation visits to Damascus.

The Syrian war, which would turn into a regional conflict amid Sunni-Shiite tensions, would further drive a wedge between the two former allies.

The Syrian regime was losing ground in the battle. Overwhelmed by events, the regime appeared set to fall without outside support.

Hezbollah, which had never really forged close ties with the Syrian regime, threw its weight behind Assad and committed all its forces to the battle in mid-2013, in coordination with its Iranian godfather.

Berri, however, refused to send his men to the front lines.

“I don’t want to have Syrian blood on my hands,” he said at the time, according to one of his close associates who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Syrian regime requested that Berri at least state he was willing to take a side in Syria, for the sake of appearances and to save face. Berri did not budge. He took a dim view of the growing alliance between Damascus and Iran, which he believed was cutting Syria off from the rest of the Arab world.

“On the contrary, Berri wanted to preserve good relations with the Arab countries and the United States,” says a close associate of his.

Berri has never been in favor of the theory of the alliance of minorities — between Shiites and Christians against the Sunni majority — upheld by the Assad regime, Iran and the Free Patriotic Movement.

Yet, some had tried to drag the Amal movement into the Syrian quagmire.

During violent confrontations in Arsal in August 2014, some parties affiliated with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime circulated photographs of military vehicles adorned with Amal flags, suggesting that the movement was participating in the fighting on the Lebanon-Syria border.

On the same day, Amal was swift to issue a statement denying any involvement in the war raging next door.

The issue of Hannibal Gadhafi

It appeared that the tables had turned, somehow. During the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah had become Damascus’ main ally — one could even say that the Shiite party became one of the godfathers of the regime — while Berri was no longer in Assad’s good graces.

While the Syrian issue created tension between the two Lebanese Shiite parties, everything was done to avoid a rupture in relations.

The reconciliation between the two parties took place in November 1990 in Damascus under Iranian and Syrian auspices, after years of fratricidal fighting.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati proudly said at the time: “The differences between Amal and Hezbollah are over forever.”

Ever since, there has been a tacit agreement not to divide the Shiite street again.

The Syrian war not only drove a wedge between the head of the Lebanese legislature and the Syrian regime but also weakened Berri’s position on the Lebanese scene. For the first time since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, a president was elected — i.e. Michel Aoun in 2016 — against Berri’s will.

As if to deal a blow to its former protégé, the Syrian regime supported the Aounist leader in his ascent to the presidency.

Berri, for his part, was anxious to maintain balance on the local scene and to keep good relations with Walid Jumblatt and Saad Hariri, both notorious opponents of normalized ties with Damascus — something that irritated the Syrian regime.

The conflict in Syria was turning in favor of the loyalist camp. Berri could not afford to continue to shun the regime.

In 2017, an Amal delegation finally paid a visit to Damascus when then ministers Ghazi Zeaiter and Ali Hassan Khalil responded to an official invitation to participate in a conference on the reconstruction of Syria.

“Berri had realized that the international community did not intend to take Assad down, but rather to keep a weakened Syria. With this visit, he wanted to restore contact with the regime,” says a well-informed source close to Amal.

Both ministers, however, received a lukewarm welcome among the Syrians.

“The regime was very angry with Nabih Berri. Attempts to alleviate this tension were not successful,” adds the aforementioned source.

Amal’s leader, however, kept pushing. In recent years, Berri has repeatedly called and campaigned for Syria’s return to the Arab League. His relations with Damascus have improved somewhat, but the resentment persists, and the page has not yet been turned.

There is one specific issue that prevents things returning to their previous course: the Hannibal Gadhafi case. According to corroborating sources, the Syrian regime has repeatedly called on Berri to pressure the Lebanese justice system to release the son of former Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi.

Hannibal Gadhafi, who is married to a Lebanese woman, was arrested in Lebanon at the end of 2015 and has remained in custody since.

Berri completely refused to respond to these requests to seek Hannibal Gadhafi’s release, according to one of his close associates. It was out of the question that he would advocate the release of a man with possible information on the case of Moussa Sadr, the founder of the Amal movement, who disappeared in Libya in 1978.


This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

It was Feb. 7, 2010. Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri went to Damascus for a “surprise visit,” the purpose of which was not clearly delineated. Perhaps, he wanted to take stock of the Lebanese and regional issues with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.During the visit, Berri admired Syria’s keenness “on an agreement between the Lebanese” in one of the shrewd formulations he...