Joint seminar: The solution to Syria and Lebanon’s crises is political change

17 July 2020
From left to right: Hayat Elyamani (as moderator), (top) Mohammed Hosam Hafez, Mohammed Sarmini, (bottom) Chafic Choucair, and Nasser Yassin. [Al Jazeera]

A joint seminar hosted on Monday, 13 July 2020, by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Jusoor for Studies, along with Al Jazeera Mubasher, to explore the course and fate of the Syrian and Lebanese crises concluded that the nature of political and economic relations between the two states and the overlap of their regimes’ interests signify that whatever happens in one affects the other. Panellists predicted that the implications of the Caesar Act, a legislation whose aim is to pressure the Syrian regime to change its political behaviour and force it to make political concessions, will impact Lebanon more quickly than Syria.

They indicated that the Syrian regime can endure the act for a relatively longer period despite its destructive effects on the Syrian state and society.

Panellists also maintained that the popular protests Lebanon has witnessed for the past nine months are a part of the Arab Spring and that in the case of its complete or partially success, it will reflect positively on the political and economic stability in the country. They called on protesters to advance their means and work towards an inclusive national front.

Panellists ended their presentations by emphasising that political change is the closest and safest means for dealing with the crises, dangers and challenges that Syria and Lebanon face.

The web seminar was held under the title, “Syria and Lebanon’s course and fate in light of the region’s developments,” with the participation of Nasser Yassin, Professor of Policy and Planning at the American University of Beirut; Mohammed Hosam Hafez, Syrian lawyer and academic; Mohammed Sarmini, Director of Jusoor for Studies; Chafic Choucair, researcher at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies; and Hayat Elyamani, Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter, as moderator. It was broadcast live on Al Jazeera Mubasher and Al Jazeera Centre for Studies’ social media platforms.

The nature of current and future relations between the two countries

Mohammed Hosam Hafez commenced the seminar with a presentation in which he explained the nature and features of Lebanese-Syrian relations and the political, economic and social overlap in them. He maintained that there are commonalities between the two countries, and that whatever takes place in one will affect the other. In this regard, he said, “To Syria, Lebanon was always an extension of it. Events in the two countries overlapped further since the Syrian revolution in 2011, especially after Hezbollah’s intervention in favour and support of the Assad regime and participation alongside it in war. Thus, Hezbollah has military presence in many locations in Syria, causing the Syrian people to view it as an occupying force.” He then added, “it was after the militarisation of the Syrian revolution that Syrian refugees and capital began pouring into Lebanon, which affected it politically and economically in different ways and varying degrees.” “Simultaneously,” he said, “the Syrian regime took advantage of the Lebanese market, particularly banks and currency exchange companies, to bypass economic sanctions.”

Hafez also indicated that with the execution of the Caesar Act, which was legislated by the US Congress in aims of economically pressuring the Syrian regime and the states, parties, institutions and companies that support it to change their political behaviour, the economic effects were felt in both countries at the same time. These include the collapse of the currency, citizens’ weak purchasing power, and the increase and spread of poverty. He argued that Lebanon will not endure this economic crisis as long as the Syrian regime may. Finally, he concluded his presentation by affirming, “the solution in Syria and Lebanon has to be a political solution, not a military or security one; and normal relations between the two countries must be founded on respect for adjacency and mutual interests.”

Lebanon’s spring tied to Damascus’s spring

On his part, Nasser Yassin addressed the factors that caused relations between Syria and Lebanon to be characterised by crisis and confusion for the past hundred years and mentioned that the interaction of successive ruling regimes in the two countries was military and security – not political, diplomatic, economic and cultural – interaction. He added that Syrian intervention in Lebanon during the civil war and Syria’s support of certain parties over others exacerbated disputes and divisions.

Yassin also suggested that the economic crisis that Lebanon and Syria suffer from is a mutual crisis because of their deep economic ties. In fact, it can be argued that it is one economy shared by two countries, which is why both of their currencies collapsed and their citizens’ purchasing powers declined at the same time.

He attributed the economic crisis in Lebanon to a number of factors including: political inability to resolve what the country suffers from; the irresponsiveness of the political class to the demands of the public; the decline of the freedom of opinion that the country was known for, thus gradually reverting to the climate that was imposed by Syrian presence in the country; and the control of influential politicians over the state’s reigns for their personal gain.

As for the Syrian economic crisis, he attributed its reasons to the implications of the war, the inability to create a political regime that fulfils the aspirations of the Syrian people, and the Assad regime’s reliance on security solutions and continuous imposition of domination and tyranny.

Yassin ended his presentation by establishing that because of these reasons combined, the two countries are experiencing an economic collapse they cannot avoid except through political solutions that fulfill the demands of the public and “Lebanon’s spring will not bloom unless Damascus’s spring blooms.”

Change in Syria will benefit Lebanon

In his intervention, Mohammed Sarmini did not stray from the abovementioned points but highlighted the impact of the Syrian revolution on conditions in Lebanon, especially after the influx of Syrians and the ensuing economic and security repercussions. He discussed the role of Hezbollah in the revolution, the stages of its intervention, and the impact of that on the continuity of the Assad regime. “Hezbollah considers what is happening in Syria a battle of existence, prompting it to intervene and shift the balance of power in favour of the regime,” he said.

Furthermore, Sarmini explained that the Lebanese were harmed a great deal by the Syrian regime long ago and more recently and that any change in the regime’s structure that loosens its despotic grip will benefit Lebanon’s politics, economy and security.

On the Caesar Act and its implications on Syria and Lebanon, he maintained that it is a means of pressuring the Syrian regime, its allies and the states that support it to rectify its conduct but will not necessarily lead to its overthrow. He cited the impact of similar economic sanctions the United States had imposed on other regimes such as those of Iran, North Korea and Russia – all of whom persisted and are still able to act and maneuver. However, he said that the pressure resulting from the act will force the Lebanese political class and the Syrian regime to make some changes, especially because they will not be able to endure for long with the weak support they receive from Iran and Russia.

Finally, he concluded his presentation with a forecast of the future of Syrian-Lebanese relations, indicating that they are determined by the amount of change that happens in the structures of the two countries’ regimes. “Change in Syria will impact Lebanon; opposition forces in the two countries are aware of that and are sure that once either of them has access to power, there will be positive relations that benefit the countries politically, economically and socially,” he explained.

The impact of Hezbollah’s participation in the war on relations between the two countries

Chafic Choucair discussed in his presentation the similarities and differences between the regimes in Syria and Lebanon and their impact on the nature of relations. “After independence, the Lebanese regime was based on what is known as the Lebanese formula in which Muslims are not included in Arab unity projects and Christians do not seek refuge in the West, therefore rendering Lebanon a bridge between East and West as a country of minorities,” he said. “However,” he continued, “the Syrian regime was characterised by its military nature as it had experienced numerous coups; and with the regime of Hafez al-Assad, the formula that was adopted was one founded on the rule of the minority that handles the issues of the majority. At times, the Lebanese felt reassured by it because it was a minority rule that they could rely on to support them. But at others, they rejected and feared it because it handled the issues of the majority.”

From here, Choucair moved on to talk about the change that happened in this formula whether in Syria or Lebanon, and explained that Bashar al-Assad’s regime opposed the Syrian revolution as though it was part of a minority confronting a revolution of the majority. He added that Hezbollah’s involvement in the war indicated the same approach, namely that it was supporting and protecting minorities in the region.

With regards to the economic implications of the Caesar Act on Lebanon due to the existence of Lebanese parties supporting the Assad regime, Choucair maintained that there are several reasons for the economic crisis in the country; and that the act may be an additional factor, but not the greatest. He added that the main reasons are corruption and the collapse of the currency vis-à-vis the US dollar, both of which preceded the act. However, according to him, Hezbollah believes the act targets its arms and perceives it as a reminder of the context in which the UN resolution 1559 came in 2004 calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, which did in fact take place in 2005 after the murder of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. In addition, he predicted that Hezbollah will change its position in the Lebanese state and shift from “dominating the Lebanese state” to become “a state within a state.” Despite reservations towards these expressions, Hezbollah had in fact been accused since 2005 of being a state within a state. But after its post-2012 military intervention in Syria, it was accused of “dominating the state.”

As it pertains to the future of relations between the two countries and the connection between the course of the solution in each of them, he believes that they will remain similar in some aspects because the solutions in the region are inspired by the Taif Agreement, as seen in Iraq and Yemen. Although there are a multitude of versions of the agreement, the upper hand in this agreement, according to Choucair, will not necessarily be for the Iranian axis or any other axis that opposes the agreement.

He concluded by warning of the implications of Hezbollah’s intervention in the war in Syria and the necessity of resolving it hastily before it results in historical grudges between the Lebanese sects and the Syrian people.