The 1990s were a simpler time for Lebanese presidential elections. The headache of the past two-and-a-half years of vacuum, with its byzantine shuffling and reshuffling of alliances; deal-making and deal-breaking; ‘understandings’ and misunderstandings; and utter obscurity and uncertainty would never have been possible in the ‘90s. When a vacancy arose at the head of the republic back then, it was filled in an instant with a single phone call from one source: Damascus. If the Lebanese constitution presented obstacles to Brother Syria’s edicts – which it usually did; as in the extension of President Elias Hrawi’s term in 1995 and the nomination of army commander Emile Lahoud in 1998 despite a prohibition against military candidates – then the constitution was corrected. All very simple. As the late Ghazi Kanaan, Syria’s top official in Lebanon, was fond of telling the Lebanese: you focus on business, and leave politics to us.
By the time of the appointment (one could hardly call it an election) of Lahoud’s successor in 2008, this Pax Syriana had been somewhat disheveled by the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon three years previously, though few had any illusions that Syria’s influence in Beirut was seriously depleted. It’s true Michel Sleiman’s presidency was the result of a multilateral, rather than unilateral, decision reached by negotiations in Doha incorporating the views of several Gulf and other Arab capitals, but Damascus was still understood to be the indispensable primus inter pares; the axle without which the wheels would fall off.
How very different it’s all been this time with Michel Aoun, whose imminent election was made a foregone conclusion in yesterday’s speech by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who confirmed his parliamentary bloc would attend the upcoming electoral session on the 31st and vote for the Free Patriotic Movement leader (which was the last necessary step following Future Movement head Saad Hariri’s surprise endorsement of Aoun on Thursday). This time, the word ‘Damascus’ was virtually unmentioned throughout the entire process. No groveling visits were made by politicians to the Syrian capital to tend upon Assad’s desires. No newspapers spoke of any decisive Syrian vetoes or demands that determined Aoun’s fate. To the contrary, in fact, if a report in (the generally pro-Damascus) Assafir is correct, all of Syria’s closest allies in Lebanon – the Baath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Marada, Talal Arslan, Ahmad Karami and others – are actually backing the losing candidate, Sleiman Frangieh. That would make Aoun’s election the first since Bashir Gemayel’s in 1982 to pass against the opposition of Damascus’ proxies.
It represents, in other words, a milestone in the decline of Syrian influence over Lebanon. This might be something to celebrate, were the nails not being hammered into the coffin by the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. A soft coup by Tehran at Syria’s expense in Lebanon has actually been a long time coming. As early as December 2008, NOW contributor Michael Young was writing, “Syria is incapable of fully imposing its writ on [Hezbollah] in the same way it could before 2005. Iran is now a major player on the scene, and there are many ways for the Iranians and Hezbollah to show that Syrian power in Lebanon is not what it used to be.”
Once you start looking for them, you notice further signs of this all around you. Consider, for instance, the way the Lebanese judiciary has recently been able (a cynic would say has been permitted) to file incredibly damaging indictments and arrest warrants against Syrian regime officials, up to and including National Security Bureau Director Ali Mamlouk, in connection with the Michel Samaha and Tripoli mosque bombing plots. It wasn’t very long ago at all that this would have been unthinkable. Yet contrast it with the judiciary’s catatonic response to the fatal shooting of student demonstrator Hashem Salman outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy in 2013 – which a Reuters correspondent at the scene reported was carried out by Hezbollah members – and it’s plain to see where the red lines fall today. (It’s striking to think there was once a time when the Syrian army could invade Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut and slaughter Hezbollah fighters in their barracks. Now it’s Hezbollah who invades Syria, operating under Iranian command with ill-disguised contempt for the Syrian army’s mettle.)
Of course, none of this is to be construed as President Aoun posing any kind of threat to Assad, nor as the latter being necessarily upset with the former’s election. Aoun has been a vocal defender of the Syrian regime, which in 2012 he called the most democratic in the region, since paying a state visit to Damascus in 2008. More importantly, Iran gaining the upper hand over Syria need not imply the two differ in their essential vision for Lebanon, which remains in the grip of the ‘Resistance Axis’ either way. The Ghazi Kanaan formula may now be as dead as its author, but the Lebanese remain as deprived of their own politics as ever.