Bashar al-Assad’s Strategy to Regain Power in the Levant Goes Through Lebanon
Syria’s potential return to the Arab League will likely strengthen Assad’s hand in Beirut.
On Feb 26, Syria’s President Bashar al Assad welcomed representatives and diplomats from Arab League countries who visited to show “solidarity” following the February 6 earthquake that killed thousands. Syria’s full return to the Arab League is practically a fait accompli. Yet as a result, questions about the future of Lebanese-Syrian relations loom, especially given Assad’s rehabilitation in eyes of the Arab rulers. Those who once saw him as part of the problem, as he brutally suppressed all forms of opposition and strengthened his reliance on Iran, now see him as part of the solution to the region’s security.
The primary question being asked is how will Assad use this new boost in legitimacy to strengthen his hand in neighboring Lebanon. It may sound like an absurd proposition given the circumstances—Assad is still attempting to fully recover from over a decade of civil war that has destroyed his country’s infrastructure and displaced millions of Syrians, both internally and externally. However, the notion is not totally without logic, as Assad has ways of manipulating events in Lebanon to his favor in a way that may be part of a long-term strategy to become the dominant figure in the Levant.
For starters, he has Lebanese allies vying to fill the presidential vacancy that was left after Michel Aoun completed his six-year mandate in October 2022. One such ally is Suliman Frangieh, leader of the Marada Movement and a Maronite Christian politician who hails from the northern Lebanese town of Zgharta and close friend of Bashar al-Assad. Frangieh’s relationship with the Assad family goes back to his childhood. In 1975, Lebanon found itself locked in a bloody civil war, caused by both confessional divisions and Palestinian militants present in the country. As the fighting raged on, the president at the time, Suleiman Frangieh (the current Suliman’s grandfather) called upon Syria’s Hafez al-Assad to intervene on the side of the government and Lebanese political right against Lebanese leftists and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Syria responded as part of a large Arab peacekeeping force—the bulk of it being Syrian and remained in the country as an occupying power until the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
Although public sentiment turned against Assad and the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, the relationship between the Frangieh and the Assad families never wavered. Despite the fact that Marada only has one member in Lebanon’s parliament, it has provided the younger Frangieh the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of his grandfather—possibly all the way to the presidential palace. His alliance with Assad also includes friends from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has contributed significant military assistance to the Assad regime in fighting armed opponents back in Syria. Frangieh is also Hezbollah’s undeclared preferred presidential candidate, as it has recently had a falling out with its old Christian ally the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and its leader, Gebran Bassil. A member of FPM, Jimmy Jabbour, revealed that Hezbollah has chosen to end the memorandum of understanding with his party as it seeks to gain support for Frangieh. Nothing has been officially declared, but the trajectory of the alliance is unlikely to reverse unless Hezbollah drops Frangieh.
For Assad, Lebanon is “Syria’s main flank,” as he phrased it in an interview he gave last November. The Syrian leader also referred to Hezbollah as his strategic ally and vowed to continue supporting the organization. It is unequivocally clear that Assad is considering every possible avenue if it will help cement his authority. Having Hezbollah and Frangieh in his corner while simultaneously returning to the good graces of the Arab World will give him the leverage he needs to secure his regime for many years to come.
However, Assad is still ruling over a destroyed country that needs funds for reconstruction. His regime is still under the Caesar Act Sanctions by the United States and it doesn’t appear those will be lifted any time soon. As Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, a Syria expert, has pointed out to me in an interview:
Many pressure groups are working with the White House and Congress to restrict the liberalization of the sanctions regime on Syria enacted after the earthquake. Much of the Syrian opposition, along with pro-Israeli groups in Washington, is fearful that sanctions may be permanently lifted. They do not want to see any softening of the boycott on Assad. But the Arab governments see this as an opportunity to move ahead with an opening to Damascus on their own. Much will depend on how Assad responds to them and whether he is willing to meet them halfway.
If Assad is prepared to play ball with Gulf states, make some token political concession or two that could allow for the removal of sanctions altogether, and have a presidential friend in Beirut, he might find himself once again having a powerful hand in Lebanon’s affairs.
Adnan Nasser is an independent foreign policy analyst and journalist with a focus on Middle East affairs. Follow him on Twitter @Adnansoutlook29.