“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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Aoun’s Historic Visit to Damascus

Lebanese Christian leader Michele Aoun has just completed a historic trip to Damascus.  Aoun had already been  aligned with Hezbollah and Syria for at least … two years (?)  so the signifigance is that he actually visited Syria itself.    I don’t want to steal Blackstar’s thunder  so  here’s some  broad points I noticed in the media today: 

Not surprisingly, Daily Star Beirut heavily criticizes Aoun as does pro-Saudi  Asharq_Al-Awsat.   On the other hand, generally pro-Syria (or at least anti-USFP)  Al-Quds Al-Arabi  is thrilled and calls it a huge  diplomatic_victory for Syria  who supposedly  now has with it “half the Lebanese Christians, especially the Maronites (Aoun, Frangieh and the independents), half the Sunnis and Druz , and all the Shia.” 

But if  Al-Quds editor Abdel Bari Atwan is happy, others question his analysis.  In the comments section,  one person called it “completely untrue” that half the Sunnis are now with Syria.  Another left this comment in English:

 would like to inform Mr. Abdul Bary Atwan that after Aoun’s trip to Demascus, he lost alot of his supporters who know what Syria realy wants from this visit, It wants to show lebanon that it will continue to interfere in its internal affair, and God knows what it is preparing for the lebanese. So Mr. Atwan after this visit Syria is losing most of its chrisian supporters, as much as it is losing the syrian christians who refused the syrian order to celebrate Oun’s visit

The Seven Villages

Most of us following Middle East news or Lebanon news know a few things about Hezbollah: it emerged in the early 1980’s during the heyday of the Lebanese civil war; its external allies are Iran and Syria; it is likely the strongest and best-trained armed group in Lebanon right now, on par or surpassing the Lebanese army itself; and because of this, it claims to be Lebanon’s stalwart and necessary defender against Israeli aggressions. Many of us are also aware that Hezbollah has established several conditions in order for it to voluntarily disarm its military wing.   Briefly, until 2000, the main condition for its military existence was the occupation of southern Lebanon by Israel.   Following Israel’s redeployment outside of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah emphasized the fact that it had to maintain its military character as the Shebaa Farms, a fertile parcel of land of about 22 km² (8 sq mi) remained occupied by Israel.  (For the sake of a more complete picture, I should also add that Hezbollah cites the regular violations of Lebanon’s airspace by Israeli fighter jets as  another reason for it to keep its arms). 

In the past few months, Hezbollah officials have begun citing if not an entirely new demand, then certainly a less frequently-branded one.  I’m talking about the territorial claim over “The Seven Villages”.  Heard about it? I hadn’t.  It seems that there are seven villages and twenty farms lying just within Israel’s northern border, and which Lebanon has historically claimed as Lebanese, albeit with much less fanfare than its other grievances against Israel.   Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based journalist and author of a book on the Hariri assassination that I haven’t quite finished_reading_yet , has a 17-page  study posted on the Now Lebanon website in which he explains the “Seven Villages” demand.

The study is quite an intriguing historical review of the events, negotiations, communications and most crucially, cartography, done by the British and French in the early 1920’s, along with a description of the Zionists’ involvement in these interactions. I highly recommend reading Blanford’s paper, but for those who are eager for the punch line of the story, Blanford concludes that the Seven Villages should have been included in the Lebanese state created by the French.  However, he predicts that raising this issue of re-drawing the borders of northern Israel/southern Lebanon might open the door for Israel to make demands of its own regarding territory it thinks should be part of Israel.   Although Blanford does not expressly say it, his implicit suggestion here seems to be that Lebanon should drop any claims it might have on the Seven Villages because this would complicate any peace talks with Israel.  He specifies that because Lebanon’s past behaviour suggests that it has tacitly accepted its present borders, Israel is unlikely to concede the concerned territories. 

I might be incorrect in interpreting Blanford’s last paragraphs as I have, however, I cannot help but think of two of the most elementary rules of any negotiation:  1)  if you don’t ask for something, you’re no likely to get it; and 2) always ask for more than what you think you will or can get.  In this vein, although I recognize that the idea of incorporating the Seven Villages into Lebanon is quite illusory,  I would never recommend that a party relinquish some of its demands before negotiations even begin simply because it might complicate the bargaining, or because the other party might retaliate with its own demands.  Why not keep the Seven Villages on the list of items to be negotiated with Israel, and use them as bargaining chips for obtaining something that might be more of a priority to Lebanon, like the Shebaa Farms?   For the time being though, it’s safest to say that the Seven Villages are just an added element to what Blanford aptly calls the “psychological warfare” between Hezbollah and Israel.