|Return of the King|
The Syrian president's triumphant return to Lebanon after five years comes at a crucially sensitive time for the country
In the maelstrom of rhetoric that swirls around the Middle East the warnings of Hezbollah should ring alarm bells. Concern that the investigation into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri will implicate a "Hezbollah commando unit" brought Hassan Nasrallah out to address a press conference where he ominously warned that the Shia movement "know how to defend themselves".
This month has also seen an intensive Israeli military rehearsal of a war with Lebanon in addition to the release of maps and previously classified aerial photographs of what Israel described as a network of Hezbollah weapons depots and command centres in south Lebanon.
Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah's commander in south Lebanon, responded in kind warning that the group has a list of military targets inside Israel that they could attack. The discovery of large-scale gas deposits in the sea near the two countries' shared border simply provided another accelerant to conflict.
Into this simmering cocktail enters the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, returning to Lebanon for the first time since the Hariri assassination in 2005.
Lebanon has been a key test of Assad's mettle; his withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005 was a humiliation that characterised the low point of Syria's intense global and regional isolation. Yet aided largely by an incoherent and often incompetent set of US policies towards the region and a clamping down on internal freedoms the Syrian president was able to weather the storm and his return to Beirut alongside Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is testimony to the revival of Damascene power.
There was a time when Lebanon was considered a pivot for US pressure to be exercised against a Syrian regime that Washington considered "low-hanging fruit". However, perceptions of US acquiescence in Israeli attacks on Lebanon during the 2006 war and the steady assassination campaign waged against Lebanese anti-Syrian politicians saw the so-called cedar revolution eventually collapse. The Hezbollah takeover of Beirut in 2008 and defection of Druze leader Walid Jumblatt from the March 14 alliance all prepared the ground for the symbolic return of Assad.
In 2007 Saad Hariri, Rafik's son, told Time magazine that "the Syrian regime killed my father … Bashar al-Assad gave the order to his goons and they executed the order. My father's murder was meant to cripple Lebanon and put fear into the Lebanese people".
Two years later, newly elected as prime minister and increasingly reliant on Saudi support following the end of the Bush administration, Saad Hariri travelled to Damascus to make peace with the man he believed was responsible for his father's murder.
Today, when Saad Hariri plays host to Assad, he will be looking for Syrian support to prevent another round of crippling violence enveloping Lebanon.
Yet while conflict with Israel and outbreaks of complex sectarian warfare could result from Hezbollah's response to accusations from the UN's Hariri tribunal, the UN finds itself at the frontline of an evolving conflict. Tensions between the UN peacekeepers and the residents of southern Lebanon are a reminder of the continued danger of unresolved conflicts.
Over the past couple of months, several Unifil patrols, tasked with improving security in the south and facilitating the deployment of the Lebanese army, have been attacked by angry locals amid reports of soldiers being disarmed and stoned in their vehicles. Such was the concern over the disintegration of relations that France brought the issue up at the UN security council.
The inadequate nature of the "no war, no peace" that characterises the situation in Lebanon may drag the UN into a more violent confrontation in the near future. Indeed, while the UN has been able to plaster over the cracks in Lebanon in the past, their role as mediator may soon become untenable. Instead, as Washington gave Syria the green light to extend its hegemony over Lebanon in 1991, the Riyadh-Damascus axis has emerged from the hubris of collapsed expectations in Iraq to become the real mediator of Lebanese politics.