The great sense of elation at the “historic maritime border agreement” with Tel Aviv appears to have been short-lived, as Damascus delivers its first blow.
On Oct. 14, a euphoric Michel Aoun announced the successful conclusion of a maritime border agreement with Israel after yearslong negotiations. For the president, this was a rare achievement during his term in office, which is scheduled to come to an end Monday. But Aoun seemed to want to put another accomplishment under his belt before leaving Baabda Palace.
During the same [Oct. 14] speech, in which he announced the conclusion of the deal with Israel, the president announced that the next step was to negotiate the maritime border with Syria.
A few days later, he appointed Deputy Parliament Speaker Elias Bou Saab to head a delegation — consisting of caretaker Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib, caretaker Public Works Minister Ali Hamieh and General Security’s director-general Abbas Ibrahim — entrusted with conducting talks with Damascus.
This delegation was supposed to head to the Syrian capital today.
The Syrian regime, however, had a different view. On Monday, Damascus canceled the trip.
“A missive was sent to the Bustros Palace, [the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters], indicating that it was not the ‘right time,’’ a Lebanese diplomat who requested anonymity, told L'Orient-Le Jour.
Notably, last week, Aoun had a phone call with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allegedly stressing the need to place the issue of the maritime border on the table.
The dispute over this matter surfaced last year when Damascus signed a contract with the Russian company Kapital for the exploration and exploitation of the Syrian bloc number 1, which overlaps with a part of Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone.
“President Assad welcomed the idea, but he was content with generalities, without going into details,” an informed source told L’Orient-Le Jour. “Aoun, for his part, stressed the importance of rectifying the course of relations between the two countries at all levels.”
Why then did Damascus deliver this blow to the Lebanese president?
On Tuesday, during an official farewell visit to Baabda, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Abdel Karim Ali, spoke of a “misunderstanding around the visit, which was not canceled but postponed to a date to be set later, due to prior commitments on the side of Damascus.”
“The main problem is that no member of the Lebanese delegation contacted the Syrian authorities to organize this visit and that Lebanon chose to set a date without coordination,” a Lebanese official close to the Syrian regime told L’Orient-Le Jour.
“Everything was done in haste, a few days before the end of [Aoun’s] six-year term,” he added.
But the real reasons for this postponement are quite different, complex and intertwined.
No gifts without something in return
The Assad regime is angry with the Lebanese state for several reasons.
Let us start with the fact that Beirut has not taken any steps to normalize relations with a regime that has maintained itself despite 11 years of conflict and that has been ostracized by the international community. In fact, the Lebanese prime minister, since his appointment last year, has not contacted Syrian officials, including his Syrian counterpart.
Lebanon’s new ambassador to Syria has still not been appointed, even though the mandate of diplomat Saad Zakhya expired a year ago.
Aoun has yet to make an official visit to Syria.
The icing on the cake was when Free Patriotic Movement leader Gebran Bassil, who was planning to visit Damascus in 2018, asked that this trip not be public, which provoked the Syrians’ wrath, resulting in the visit being canceled altogether.
There is also — and above all — the question of timing. Syria will not give any gifts, especially not without anything in return, to a president whose term is coming to an end.
Before considering resolving the border dispute with Lebanon, Syria wants Lebanese unanimity on the resumption of negotiations and not a unilateral decision by an outgoing president.
“All these considerations could be linked to a Syrian attempt to return to the Lebanese [political] scene, and it is preferable for Damascus that this coordination be done with a new president who is on good terms with the Assad regime,” a Lebanese political source opposed to Syria told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Aoun’s strong alliance with Hezbollah is therefore not enough for him to accomplish another “feat.”
It is true that Hezbollah may slightly influence the Syrian regime’s decisions, but the Syrian regime has its own calculations in Lebanon.
What’s more, the position of the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vis-à-vis the resumption of border negotiations with the Syrian regime remains unclear, although he has long worked for an official normalization of relations with Damascus.
“Hezbollah apparently does not want to help Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil in this matter for internal reasons,” a political source close to the party told L’Orient-Le Jour.
He continued, “This is especially true since the FPM leader has so far refused to support the candidacy of Sleiman Frangieh, Hezbollah’s favorite candidate for the presidency. This is not to mention his refusal to facilitate the process of forming the government of Najib Mikati.”
Russia’s role should not be overlooked either.
Two years ago, Moscow said it was ready to mediate between Lebanon and Syria in the border demarcation negotiations. But lately, Beirut has grown closer to the Americans — praised for their mediation efforts between Lebanon and Israel — at the expense of the Russians.
A few days ago, Lebanon voted in favor of a resolution at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s annexation of four separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
Lebanon also provoked Russia in March by supporting a resolution isolating Moscow and condemning its aggression in Ukraine.
Damascus will do nothing to raise the ire of its Russian patron.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.