“Umm…the Dog Ate my Agenda”

Editor’s Note: Yes, we know that the font’s messed up.  Blame wordpress for not allowing a simple copy and paste from a word document. Not Rob.

Last year, Syria and Lebanon finally agreed to establish diplomatic ties.  The decision was hailed as a political breakthrough, with significant credit given to French President Nicolas Sarkozy for his efforts to coax Syria.  But many expressed doubts as to the ease with which the decision would actually be implemented.  Since the two countries had gained their independence from France in the 1940’s, there have been no embassies and no recognition by Syria of Lebanon’s sovereignty.  Syrian governments always considered Lebanon as something of a historical mistake, and saw it as part of geographic and historic Greater Syria. For this reason, while the Syrian decree to open diplomatic channels of communication was lauded, it was not without scepticism as to how genuine the move truly was.

The locality of the Syrian embassy will be the trendy neighbourhood of Hamra in Beirut, close to the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut. The building which will house the Syrian embassy in Beirut raised the Syrian flag on 26 December, 2008.  But there is still no Syrian ambassador working there.  There has been a great deal of speculation as to who Syria will appoint in the past few months, and two names that were floated were those of Makram Obeid, current Syrian ambassador to Spain,  and Collette Khoury, Bashar el Assad’s literary advisor and a francophone poet and novelist.  In early January 2009, news stories started circulating quoting diplomatic sources as saying that the choice had fallen on Collette Khoury, and that the official announcement would be made by Bashar to French president Nicolas Sarkozy during a state visit by the latter.  Since those stories however, there has been no announcement confirming Collette Khoury’s appointment, or anyone else’s appointment for that matter.  The office where the Syrian embassy will be located is presently being run by three Syrian diplomats and is not yet fully operational.  This perceived dilly-dallying on the appointment of an ambassador by Syria hardly serves to counterract the impression that it is still not truly committed to dealing with Lebanon through diplomatic channels and to recognizing its smaller neighbour as a fully independent and sovereign state.

As to Lebanon’s choice for its ambassador to Syria, that fell on Michel Khoury. Yesterday, Monday, 17 March 2009, a Lebanese delegation attended the official inauguration of its first ever embassy in Damascus.  Ambassador Khoury will only take office in April and until then, Rami Murtada will head the embassy as chargé d’affaires.

One would think that the opening of an embassy by a direct neighbour, and in a context as meaningful as this one, would merit some kind of Syrian attention.  After all, surely the Syrian government was aware that this would make international headlines, just as the initial announcement did in 2008?  Interestingly, not so.  There was a conspicuous absence of an official delegation by the host nation.   The reason? “Ooops, we forgot… or something….”  Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem  stated at a joint news conference with Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, that the absence was not intentional.  It’s just that, well,  the Syrian government thought the inauguration was taking place on Sunday, not Monday.  This begs the question:  did the Syrian delegation show up on Sunday all suited up, only to realize they were a day early?

Diplomacy is often jokingly referred to as the world’s second-oldest profession.  The principles, formalities and rules governing it are so detailed and have become so entrenched in state practice that they were written down in an international treaty known as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.   Article 4 (1) of the Vienna Convention obliges state to send their ambassadors’ accreditations to the host country’s government, and to obtain the host country’s approval:

Article 4

1. The sending State must make certain that the agrément of the receiving State has been given for the person it proposes to accredit as head of the mission to that State.

Not only that, but the Vienna Convention also requires that the sending state notify the host country of the appointment of members of a diplomatic mission, of their arrival and their departure, of the arrival and departure of the diplomats’ family members, and even of  the arrival and departure of their private servants:

Article 10

1. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State, or such other ministry as may be agreed, shall be notified of:

(a) The appointment of members of the mission, their arrival and their final departure or the termination of their functions with the mission;
(b) The arrival and final departure of a person belonging to the family of a member of the mission and, where appropriate, the fact that a person becomes or ceases to be a member of the family of a member of the mission;
(c) The arrival and final departure of private servants in the employ of persons referred to in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph and, where appropriate, the fact that they are leaving the employ of such persons;
(d) The engagement and discharge of persons resident in the receiving State as members of the mission or private servants entitled to privileges and immunities.

If the host country has to be informed of private servants’ arrivals and departures, should it not, a fortiori, also be informed of when an embassy opens? Granted, the Convention doesn’t specify how far in advance the host country has to be notified. But given the geographic proximity of the two countries, the political importance of the event, the regional and international press coverage, not to mention all the legal formalities a sending country has to follow, it is a little difficult to believe a Syrian government official when they  pretend not to know when an embassy on their own territory was scheduled to be inaugurated.

The Daily Star quotes Mouallem as saying that he had not been informed of the opening, but had “heard the news in media”.  Am I the only person who finds it a bit odd that a Foreign Minister heard of an embassy opening in his own country, through the news?  To be honest, I’m not so fussed about a  Syrian delegation not attending the opening. It’s the pretension, founded or not, that the Syrian government didn’t know when the opening was set to take place.  Surely, there must have been some kind of communication as to this politically important event between Beirut and Damascus?  Wouldn’t the Syrian Foreign Ministry have received an invitation to attend?  Or at least some kind of notice along the lines of: “By the way,  we’re thinking of opening an embassy on Monday…” ? Should we conclude that this was just another snub by older brother Syria towards its little neighbour?  Or are there simply excusable administrative errors in diarizing events in the Foreign Ministry’s calendar?

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Why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was Created (Part I) Rafiq el Hariri: Why the Big Fuss?

Note: This post is the first part in a series explaining why the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which opened its doors on March 1, 2009, was created. Today’s post explains why Rafiq el Hariri was such an important personality on the national, regional and international scenes. Check back in the next few days for a discussion of the Western powers’ reasons and interest in prosecuting those responsible for Hariri’s assassination.  

        Lebanon’s Most Important Financial Asset

In his heyday, Rafiq el Hariri was one of the richest people in the world. A self-made billionaire, he had spent most of his adult life building a corporate empire in Saudi Arabia, and at the end of the civil war in Lebanon, moved back to his home country where he became the de facto re-builder of run-down Beirut. The tiny enclave of architecturally re-furbished (yet strangely character-bereft) buildings that make up today’s downtown Beirut is the product of Hariri’s efforts to revamp one of the most dilapidated part of the city through the company Solidere, of which he was the largest shareholder.

Solidere succeeded in turning the area into a huge tourist attraction and a crucial economic asset for the country, yet at the same time, attracted widespread criticism. First, because it did so by expropriating the original landowners and compensating them with shares worth much less than the expropriated property’s value. As if this were not enough, the share plummeted in value a few years later in 2001 (from about $17US per share to $3US per share). Although the price climbed back up eventually, Solidere’s questionable corporate practices in the process of reconstruction (as an example, Hariri’s fortune went from being valued at $4.3 billion US in 2005 to $16.7 billion US in 2006 by Forbes, with no explanation by his family as to how it could have quadrupled in one year), its perceived and actual superiority over the government on the reconstruction issue, suspicions of influencing the judiciary in court actions brought against it by its opponents, as well its disregard for individual and property rights, and freedom of press attracted the scorn of many. Read the great article “The Reconstruction of Downtown Beirut in the Context of Political Geography” by Professor Heiko Schimd which discusses the politics of the reconstruction with great detail and background. In light of this, it’s easy to condemn Solidere and Hariri. On the other hand, despite these accusations, it’s worth wondering whether without them, what little renovations were carried out in the city would ever have been carried out. Hariri was also noted for his philanthropic activities and channelled significant sums of money towards financing the education of tens of thousands of Lebanese students. In all, it’s not easy to make a black or white qualification of him. The good and bad sides of his legacy should merely be considered as a hole.

Fr   From Mr. Lebanon to Mr. Anti-Syria

Hariri coupled his financial capital to equally weighty political capital, and became one of the major, if not the major, player in Lebanese politics. He was Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, and then again from 2000-2004. He developed strategic ties and friendships with big international players, such as former French President Jacques Chirac (who made his affiliation clear when he attended Hariri’s funeral, but snubbed the pro-Syrian politicians including then President Emile Lahoud), and more or less became Lebanon’s face both inside and outside Lebanon. Both periods of his premiership took place under the Syrian mandate, that is when Syria more or less had turned Lebanon into a fiefdom and had a say in, well, everything.

I open an important contextual parenthesis here: Without getting into the nitty gritty of Lebanese constitutional law and at the risk of oversimplifying, it’s important to mention that the Taef Agreement which put an end to the civil war changed the balance of power by transferring many of the President’s powers and his executive authority (the President being always a member of the Maronite community) to the Prime Minister (always a Sunni) and the Council of Ministers (ie the cabinet). This reform was an attempt to more accurately reflect the demographic changes which had taken place in the country since the country’s sectarian power sharing system had been devised in the earlier parts of the 20th century (and going back as far as the 1860s). For a more detailed background discussion on this, see Hassan Krayem’s article The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement.

I close the parenthesis now and return to Hariri’s tenure as Prime Minister, or more correctly, President of the Council of Ministers. Despite being “in bed” with the Syrian government for a considerable period, Hariri eventually fell out of favour with Bashar el Asad. He had too much clout for the Syrians not be concerned, and they tried to balance him out by strengthening their main ally, President Lahoud. The Syrians circumvented the changes brought about by Taef by propping up Lahoud at the expense of the Council of Ministers. To get an idea of the tug of war between Lahoud and Hariri, see the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin’s “dossier” on Lahoud. When you read this dossier however, keep in mind that the MEIB is published by the US Committee for a Free Lebanon, a right-wing lobby group which includes Fouad Ajami and Daniel Pipes among its recommended experts. It nonetheless offers a detailed account of the power struggle between Lahoud and Hariri, and the former’s relationship with the Syrian government.

In the summer of 2004, as Lahoud’s term was drawing to an end, it became clear that Syria planned for Lahoud to stay on despite constitutionally being barred from doing so (Article 49 (2) of the Lebanese Constitution limits the President to one six-year term in office). Syria therefore began piling on pressure for a constitutional amendment to be passed which would allow Lahoud’s term to be extended by another three years. Hariri initially opposed the extension. But as the story goes, he was summoned to Damascus and had a very brief meeting with Bashar el Asad, who threatened to “break Lebanon” on Hariri’s head if he blocked the extension. Hariri allegedly had such a shock from that meeting that his nose started bleeding. Under pressure, he voted in favour of a bill setting out the amendment.

On September 3, 2004, Parliament approved the amendment, allowing for Lahoud to extend his term in office until November 2007. On September 9, 2004, Hariri told journalists he intended to resign in protest over the extension, which he officially did on October 1, 2004. Over the next weeks and months, Hariri formed an impressive cross-sectarian opposition coalition group which brazenly began denouncing Syria’s role in Lebanon. From the richest man in Lebanon, to the most powerful politician in Lebanon, Hariri transformed himself yet again, this time into the most visible and most important critic of the Syrian mandate. He thus came to embody all the frustrations which had been accumulating in Lebanon against the Syrian regime, and became both the symbol and the leader of anti-Syrian sentiment.