President Bashar al-Assad’s allies in Lebanon have continued to challenge Beirut’s muddled policy of disengagement with the Syrian state – so far without any repercussions.
Lebanon’s official policy toward the war next door is “dissociation.” However, earlier this month, the country’s preeminent armed political group, Hezbollah, coordinated with Damascus to organize the largest repatriation of refugees and fighters to Syria since the conflict’s start. Ministers from three pro-Assad groups also attended a trade fair in the Syrian capital last week, in an open display of contempt for the policy.
This is not the first time that Assad’s Lebanese allies have ignored their government’s official position toward Syria, but the latest developments signal that they may be actively trying to upend the disassociation policy, even if it has been largely symbolic.
“The dissociation policy is a myth – it’s not a reality – it’s nothing more than a political slogan,” Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, told Syria Deeply. “Right now we are in a situation where we have multiple governments within one government, with each minister choosing to have a foreign policy of their own. It’s complete chaos.”
The Flaws of Dissociation
When fighting broke out in Syria, Lebanese political parties were split between those who were pro-opposition and those who supported the government. Meanwhile, the majority of Arab states in the region severed ties with Damascus, publicly criticizing Assad.
By 2012, Lebanese political groups were as divided as the warring Syrian factions themselves. To protect his divided government from complete collapse and to maintain ties with the international community, then-prime minister Najib Mikati adopted the so-called dissociation policy.
The policy did not sever diplomatic or trade ties between the two countries, but prevented the Lebanese government from engaging with Assad’s government in an official capacity. It also meant that Lebanon would not officially support Assad or the Syrian opposition.
Political parties in Lebanon, however, failed to fall in line. Hezbollah made its support for the Syrian government abundantly clear and over the following six years the group emerged as one of the most powerful paramilitary forces fighting in Syria on behalf of Assad. On the other hand, Lebanon’s largest Sunni bloc, and Hezbollah’s primary rival, the Future Movement, openly sided with the Syrian opposition and supported international calls to overthrow the government in Damascus.
The rift in the government over ties with Syria deepened last week when ministers affiliated with Hezbollah, the Shiite Amal Movement and the Christian Marada Movement attended the Damascus International Fair, a trade exhibition the Syrian government touted as its “declaration of economic victory.”
The visit was one of the most publicized by a Lebanese ministerial delegation since the start of the conflict. It was also highly controversial since it was not sanctioned by the state. Instead, Lebanon’s prime minister said any minister who went to Syria was doing so in a personal, rather than official, capacity.
But the ministers publicly contradicted the official statement.
“We are here in our official ministerial capacities and we congratulate the Syrian leadership … for their victory over heretical terrorism,” industry minister and Hezbollah official Hussein Hajj Hassan said after a meeting with the Syrian prime minister on Thursday, according to Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency (NNA).
Minister of public works and transportation Youssef Fenianos followed suit in comments reported by the NNA. “Why should we hide behind our fingers?” the Marada Movement minister asked. “When we as ministers arrive at the Syrian border, will they say we are no longer ministers? Will they say we are just ordinary people visiting the [trade] fair?”
A Larger Trend
According to Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, the contradictory narratives illustrate a trend in Lebanese foreign policy.
“My impression is that in Lebanon, you rarely ever have a coherent foreign policy, because of the structure of the state: Different sects have different foreign policies,” Salloukh said. “So what we are seeing today is not something that is extraordinary in Lebanese politics. We have a weak state and strong non-state actors.”
Another example of this, he said, was the evacuation of thousands of Syrian refugees, militants and their families from Lebanon to Syria earlier this month.
Although Lebanon’s prime minister said his government would coordinate refugee transfers only with the UN, Hezbollah negotiated the largest formal repatriation of Syrian refugees and fighters since the start of the war, without the official involvement of the Lebanese government or international humanitarian agencies.
The first population transfer saw thousands of refugees, al-Qaida-linked militants and their families bused from a Lebanese border town to the rebel-held province of Idlib on August 2. Less than two weeks later, Hezbollah reached an agreement with a Free Syrian Army affiliate that saw thousands more refugees, fighters and their families transferred to the Syrian town of Assal al-Ward and rebel-held positions in the Eastern Qalamoun region.
What’s more, Hezbollah coordinated the transfer with state-run Lebanese security agencies such as Lebanese General Security, but without official state involvement.
A Deliberate Balancing Act?
Salloukh, who has written extensively on Lebanon’s relationship with Syria, said the Lebanese government was intentionally allowing non-state actors to manage relations with Damascus.
“To think you can ignore what is happening on the other side of the border is impossible. The government can’t do it so it will be up to non-state actors to get involved,” he said. “The government is intentionally leaving it to non-state actors to handle relations with Syria to balance between regional powers and their internal proteges.”
By allowing Hezbollah to handle relations with Syria, the Lebanese government can still claim a degree of distance from Syria and, in turn, maneuver between the competing demands of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which both support rival groups within the cabinet. The government, a recipient of significant American military aid, can also continue to pose as a natural Arab ally of Assad’s opponents in Washington, as evidenced by last month’s meeting between the Lebanese prime minister and US President Donald Trump.
This balancing act may be sustainable for the time being, but, looking forward, Lebanon will eventually have to confront the issue of future ties with Syria, especially if Assad’s allies in Lebanon keep pushing the country toward normalizing ties with Damascus.
However, according to Salloukh, future ties between Lebanon and Syria will not be shaped by the two countries themselves, but will instead be defined by a broader agreement between regional and international powers.
“For the future, we have to remember that Lebanon’s foreign policy is a consequence of the geopolitical balance of power. Lebanon is not a mover of geopolitics – it is a receiver.”