MICHAEL YOUNG/Message in a battle /What Jamil al-Sayyed told us about Syria’s aims

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Message in a battle
What Jamil al-Sayyed told us about Syria’s aims
MICHAEL YOUNG/Now Lebanon
Published: 21/11/2014

Former head of Lebanon
Jamil al-Sayyed, the former head of the General Security directorate, is not often in the news these days. So on those rare occasions when he is, it must be a trifle galling for him to be given the role of messenger.

And yet Sayyed’s statement in early November upon his return from Damascus after meeting with President Bashar al-Assad was an interesting one, and confirmed what many observers had been hearing for some time. Sayyed reported that the Syrian president sought more military cooperation between Syria and Lebanon, and quoted him as saying: “Coordination between the Lebanese and Syrian armies [in confronting terrorism] would alleviate the security burden for the two countries and would contribute to strengthening Lebanon’s security.”

The fact is that neither Syria nor Hezbollah was pleased with the government’s laissez-faire attitude in Arsal until last summer. They have for some time been pressuring the army to tighten security along the border in order to cut off the supply lines of the anti-Assad groups in Syria’s Qalamoun district.

There are several ironies here. Not very long ago it was Hezbollah that refused the idea of monitoring the border between Lebanon and Syria, a demand of March 14. After the conflict in Syria started, however, the roles were reversed. March 14 said nothing about the passage of weapons and supplies from Arsal into Syria, while Hezbollah sought to tighten border surveillance.

Sayyed’s remarks cast the situation in Arsal in a new light. When the Lebanese Army was attacked last June, it was because the anti-Assad armed groups in Qalamoun felt that the army was about to close the door on them, blocking their resupply routes to Lebanon. This poses a threat, particularly during the winter months, when they will have to move to lower areas, making them vulnerable to attacks by Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

That is not to say that those who abducted and killed Lebanese soldiers are anything but criminals; or that Lebanon is not justified in securing its borders. However, there is some question as to how many of the rebels fighting in Qalamoun really belong to the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. A majority, according to Syrian assessments, are simply young men from Qalamoun who were forced to flee their towns and villages last year. That doesn’t mean that many of them do not sympathize with Jabhat al-Nusra, which reportedly has a larger presence than the Islamic State, or that they are not fighting with the group. All it means is that in the confusion of Qalamoun, it is likely that a vast majority of the combatants are far more concerned with defeating the Assad regime than they are with imposing an Islamic state in Lebanon, or opening a new Lebanese front that would drain their resources as they await an opportunity to focus on Damascus.

An understanding of these dynamics is necessary to determine what should be done next. If the Syrians are still sending messages that they seek coordination with the Lebanese Army, this suggests that the army and the political leadership have not responded adequately to Syrian demands up to now. That’s hardly surprising given how divided the country is and how events in Arsal might negatively affect sectarian relations.

Then there is the question of how long Assad can remain in power. His forces have been taking heavy casualties in recent months and have lost ground in southern Syria, the shortest path to the capital. The regime’s narrative that it is winning the battle and that Western and Arab attacks against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra are bolstering its position hasn’t been borne out. The regime has made some gains, especially around Damascus, but elsewhere it has failed to break the deadlock. Given its heavy reliance on the Alawite minority, a grinding stalemate is to the advantage of its numerically superior enemies.

That is why the Syrian regime and Hezbollah want the Lebanese Army to become more active. If the border remains open, it will make their efforts to defeat the armed groups in Qalamoun even more difficult than they are today. Hezbollah is caught in a quagmire and is taking significant casualties. It was to avert heavy losses that the party initially allowed the rebels to evacuate towns it was attacking in Qalamoun, above Al-Qusayr. But this only ensured that it would fight a grueling guerilla war later on.

The army would make a terrible mistake in coordinating with Assad’s regime, as this would only draw it further into the Syrian mess. Its best option is to contain and manage tensions along the border. But the armed groups should understand that their abduction and murder of Lebanese soldiers and policemen will only push the army into Assad’s arms, while alienating many Lebanese. Extremists in Qalamoun may thrive on this, but the vast majority of anti-Assad rebels have no stake in allowing it.

Perhaps there was something symbolic in the fact that Sayyed relayed the Syrian outlook. There was a time when Syrian opinions were the law in Lebanon. Those days appear to be over and Sayyed’s political fate embodies this. Often the force of a message can be determined by the standing of the messenger.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling