Amid the ruckus over Walid Jumblatt’s comments last Sunday on his differences with the March 14 coalition, relatively little attention has been paid to another consequence of the broad realignment taking place in Lebanese politics today: the targeting of Samir Geagea.
The ambient momentum to define a new relationship with Syria is building. Saad Hariri, whether he likes it or not (and we can be sure he does not), will have little choice as prime minister but to ascend to Damascus for a photo-op with Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, whose involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri is little doubted by the Hariri faithful. Walid Jumblatt’s acrobatics lately have been in large part efforts to reposition himself advantageously with respect to Damascus. And even Amin Gemayel, whose son was very likely murdered by Syria or its local agents, recently opened a conduit to Damascus through the former minister Wiam Wahhab, even as he was reconciling, or reconciling again, with Sleiman Franjieh, another close Syrian ally.
But not Geagea. Last week, Franjieh indicated that the time for a rapprochement with the Lebanese Forces had not yet come – a sign that Syria disapproves of such an initiative. Officials in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party are saying that containing Geagea is their next priority. Jumblatt, a perennial bellwether, has focused his recent criticism on the Lebanese Forces leader, showing perhaps that his efforts to patch things up with Syria require that he join in a mood hostile to Geagea.
What’s the reason for this? After all, Geagea, while he is getting stronger politically, is still rejected by very many Christians. The Maronite leadership is divided, and though Geagea is the most disciplined of the lot, for now it seems unrealistic that he will become a truly national figure, someone who can unify the community around him.
Several things make Geagea threatening to Syria. First of all, he is a natural organizer, a former militiaman, someone who has to be taken seriously when it comes to mobilizing his followers. Armed with a past of rejecting Syrian hegemony, having spent 11 years in prison on the orders of Damascus, he could emerge as a solid Christian cornerstone of an effort to deny Syria the political restoration it seeks in Lebanon.
More importantly, such a role would be doubly reinforced by the second thing making Geagea threatening to Syria: his close ties to Saad Hariri, therefore to the Sunni community. In some regards the Lebanese Forces have taken on an interesting function in the past years, namely that of a militant vanguard in the partnership between those Sunnis and Christians most opposed to a Syrian comeback. Syria’s Lebanon policy has always been about containing both the Sunnis and its Maronite adversaries. So the Assad regime is keen to break the Geagea-Hariri connection, and particularly to suffocate the Lebanese Forces, the weaker link in that connection but also its more cohesive component.
It’s not clear how the Syrians and their local acolytes might do so. To turn the judicial system against Geagea, as they did in the 1990s, is almost impossible today. However, the Syrians can isolate him, whether by ordering their partisans to concentrate their attacks on the Lebanese Forces leader, or by using the desire of Lebanese politicians to deal with Damascus as leverage to push Geagea into the corner and turn him into a burden for Hariri. But that strategy, too, is fraught with risks. If everybody gangs up on Geagea, Christians could rally to his side.
The Syrians might also conceivably try to dialogue with Geagea, so as to split him off from Hariri. But what would the Lebanese Forces leader gain by surrendering a valuable affiliation that bolsters him politically, in exchange for an invitation to Damascus that, in the end, would only disguise a yearning to make Lebanon subservient to Syria again?
We should watch what happens to Samir Geagea in the coming weeks and months. The Lebanese Forces, whatever they do, don’t quite fit into the prevailing mood emerging in Lebanon today – a mood of fake consensus amid deep disagreements and changes. Geagea and Saad Hariri will probably remain close, but going after the first is an indirect way of undermining the second. That is why Syria has Geagea in its sights.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.