Aoun’s visit to Damascus and (failed) Christian reconciliation

by Sune Haugbolle.

Hello folks, here is an analysis of Aoun’s visit to Syria and the situation in the Christian community that I wrote yesterday. The language is not really so bloggy as the piece was written for another format, but I think the analysis can be useful. There’s a bit of “Lebanon 101” information in there which the Lebanon connoisseurs among you can just ignore.

Yesterday, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, strongly criticised the recent visit of Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, to Damascus.

Aoun proclaimed his visit a “historic reconciliation”, while President Michel Suleiman said that ties with Syria are “back to normal”. The reactions of the three most prominent Christian leaders point to the deep divisions in the Christian community, which will be pivotal in the parliamentary elections expected in May or June 2009.

Christian divisions

Most of Lebanon’s communities are heavily associated with one side or the other of the March 14/March 8 divide. The Shia community overwhelmingly backs the March 8 coalition; the Sunni and Druze communities heavily favour the March 14 alliance. The Christians, however, are split between both sides.

The current divisions among Christians date to the 1975-90 civil war, which witnessed numerous internecine battles and massacres; in some cases family rivalries are even older. During the post-war period of Syrian control, the main Christian fault line ran between charismatic but absent anti-Syrian leaders such as Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, and a broader political class that cooperated with the Syrians. Since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops, powerful Christian families and political parties have been split along somewhat different lines:

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Gemayel’s Phalange aligned with the Western-backed March 14 alliance, which also includes Sunni leader Sa’ad al-Hariri’s Future Movement and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.

Free Patriotic Movement head Aoun and northern Maronite scion Suleiman Franjieh aligned with the Syrian-backed March 8 coalition, which also includes the Shia parties Hizbollah and Amal.

Reconciliation efforts

Hizbollah’s demonstration of force in May 2008 alerted the government to the limits of Western backing, leading to the signing of the Doha Agreement, a national unity government, and the arrival of centrist Maronite Christian President Michel Suleiman. In the aftermath, encouraged by Suleiman, representatives of the two Christian camps have engaged in several attempts at reconciliation, which all parties claim to support but about which none can agree:

During a September 21 rally to commemorate members of the Lebanese Forces killed during the civil war, Geagea offered a general apology for wartime “mistakes”, but also demanded that his rivals abandon their partnership with Hizbollah.

Aoun and Franjieh responded by arguing for a reconciliation process focusing on the legacy of the civil war, rather than complicating the matter with current issues; such a focus is of particular relevance given Geagea’s alleged role in the 1978 slaying of Franjieh’s father, mother and sister.

The exchange illustrated that the divide between Lebanon’s Christian groups is entangled with current political conflicts as well as violence in the past, making a successful reconciliation process unlikely in the foreseeable future. By going to Damascus, Aoun signalled to Geagea and the March 14 coalition that his alliance with Hizbollah and Syria is not open to negotiation. As a result, Christian competition is likely to intensify in the run-up to elections next year.

Reactions

By associating himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Aoun hopes to ride the wave of Syria’s rapprochement with the West and current position of strength in the region. The Syrian media and March 8 media in Lebanon hailed his visit as a historic turning point in Lebanese-Syrian relations. These commentators argue that:

stronger diplomatic ties between the two neighbours are justified by their deep economic, social and cultural linkages;

Syria is an important ally against potential Israeli aggression;

the visit is a natural continuation of the normalisation process initiated by Suleiman’s state visit to Damascus in July; and

the visit is helpful for Muslim-Christian relations in the region.

Media associated with the March 14 alliance paint Aoun’s visit as a betrayal of the national interest. They argue that:

the Syrian regime should not be invited to reclaim the role of overseer of Lebanese politics that it commanded before 2005;

the visit is an unwarranted boost for Assad in his quest for international rapprochement;

Aoun has hijacked Suleiman’s agenda for his own political gains, and by doing so risks muddling the process; and

Aoun’s self-portrayal as the representative of all Christians in the Middle East is ludicrous given the intense disdain for him among March 14 supporters.

Strengths and risks

Aoun appears to be in a good position to repeat his electoral success of 2005. The very public Syrian endorsement of Aoun could:

tighten the bond with his Shia partners in the March 8 coalition, Amal and Hizbollah, whose support could be decisive in the large number of mixed Shia-Christian districts; and

convince Christians of his ability to lead and make important strategic decisions.

At the same time, the visit carries risks. There are indications that Aoun might well be misjudging the strength of Christian antipathy toward Damascus:

Some of Aoun’s allies in 2005, including the influential Greek Orthodox leader Michel Murr, appear cooler towards him in the wake of his alignment with Hizbollah and reconciliation with Syria.

While Aoun will undoubtedly win a far greater proportion of the Shia vote than in 2005, when Hizbollah tacitly backed the March 14 coalition, some polls show significantly diminished support for Aoun in his heavily Christian home district of Kesrouan.

Aoun’s Gaullist approach to leadership has begun to produce dissent within his party.

In conclusion, Aoun’s embrace of Syria has further polarised Lebanon’s Christians. While a smart strategic move at a time of rebounding Syrian influence in the region, Aoun’s visit will likely cost him support in his own community in advance of critical parliamentary elections. The key question will be whether his outreach to the Shia pays off at the polls.

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