The Cedar Revolution – Lebanon’s pro-democratic movement that ended decades of Syrian occupation following the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – has died. Yesterday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced full diplomatic relations with Lebanon, meaning that the two states will exchange ambassadors for the first time in sixty years (i.e., the first time ever). With this move, Syria has quietly closed the book on the shamefully mishandled investigation into Hariri’s death, which would have likely implicated the Assad regime and bolstered pro-democratic forces over an inevitably weakened Hezbollah.
Of course, the Cedar Revolution had been on life support for some time. After the Syrian-appointed President Emile Lahoud’s term ended last November, the Hezbollah-led opposition fomented a political crisis, preventing the election of a new president until they were formally granted veto power in the cabinet. In May, Hezbollah intensified its campaign by occupying Beirut’s downtown and shutting down businesses. As fears of another civil war loomed, Syria pushed for a “solution” – namely, conceding to all of Hezbollah’s demands. In turn, under the Doha Accord, Hezbollah was granted veto power in the cabinet, as well as veto power over a new, still-to-be-written constitution. Meanwhile, a reputably pro-Syrian president, Michel Suleiman, was elected. Most incredibly, Syria was rewarded for this stunt with a massive influx of western diplomatic support.
For critics of U.S. foreign policy, the ultimate failure of the Cedar Revolution represents the latest setback in the Bush administration’s freedom agenda, coming on the heels of similarly abortive democratization projects in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. Yet this gives the administration too much credit. After all, despite its lofty rhetoric, the administration never truly pursued an agenda for promoting freedom. Rather, it occasionally benefited from lucky exogenous shocks – the death of Yasir Arafat, outrage following Hariri’s assassination, and the Kifaya movement – but ultimately failed to craft policy for producing reform in the region. That the administration has so quickly accepted the Cedar Revolution’s gradual collapse only reinforces the extent to which a true freedom agenda has yet to be pursued in the Middle East.
Sadly, a real freedom agenda in Lebanon will now have to wait – possibly for decades. With Syria entrenched again in Beirut, Lebanese stability rests squarely in Damascus’ hands. As I’ve previously argued, this could be a good thing, particularly if the west holds Damascus accountable for future incidents – whether within Lebanon or along the Israeli border. Yet it seems far more likely that Syria will do what it has always done in Lebanon: bolster its allies to facilitate its own aims. This is good news for Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran. It is bad news for Middle East peace prospects.