Coming in from the cold

Red carpets have been rolled out in Damascus over the past few days for an unusual visitor — General Michel Aoun, observes Dyab Abu Jahjah


Aoun has been Syria’s arch enemy in Lebanon for 17 years and when Syria pulled its army back out of the country in 2005, following the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, Aoun was considered to be the real victor since he was the only Lebanese political leader who never collaborated with the Syrians.

Since then Aoun has made some very interesting strategic choices. He deserted the pro-American 14 March coalition because of its domination by the pro-Saudi Movement of the Future, led by Saad Al-Hariri, and signed a memorandum of understanding with Hizbullah.

After that, Aoun’s Free National Current (FNC), representing 70 per cent of Lebanese Christians after the elections of 2005, and Hizbullah became close allies and together they form the core of the Lebanese opposition front.

According to Jean Aziz, a journalist and analyst and one of the strategists of the FNC, Lebanese Christians have been isolating themselves for 130 years and its about time that they make a strategic choice to reintegrate with their compatriots while preserving their identity and religious beliefs. This can only be realised if they open up towards other major forces in the region.

Lebanese Christians who support Aoun are well aware that tying themselves to the American project of a new Middle East will lead them to extinction in a region that will fight this project to the bitter end. Past experiences also proved that dreams of a Christian entity in Lebanon that is supported by the West and allied with Israel were dangerous illusions that only led to catastrophe.

The alternative is clear, not only must Lebanese Christians open up to the rest of the Lebanese and try to build a common future with them, they also have to open up to other Arab countries in order to tap into their Christian communities for more dynamism and vitality on strategic, cultural and economic levels. The situation of the Iraqi Christians and the effect of the American occupation on them shows how important this is.

This is what Aoun is trying to do in Damascus. He is normalising relations with a country he fought against based on the argument that once Syria withdrew from Lebanon no reasons were left for any antagonism with it, and that normal relations are a must between neighbouring countries. But beneath this realpolitik façade, he is above all looking to link up with the two million Syrian Christians.

Does this mean that Aoun is moving beyond his narrow Lebanese focus and embracing the Arab cause? If we study the programme of the NFC we can still detect a sense of Lebanese nationalism and an attachment to what they often describe as the “finality of the Lebanese entity”, by which they mean that the Lebanese entity is final as the home of all its current citizens, hence rejecting Pan-Arabism and other projects going beyond that “entity”.

For instance, Aziz declared that he is going to Syria with Aoun to check if it has abandoned what he described as “its Arabist approach, considering the Lebanese and the Syrians as one people, which they are not”.

Nonetheless, how can we describe the opening, the new sense of responsibility and the definition of “us” that the FNC is prescribing when it comes to what it calls “Mashrekan Christians” if not as an Arab national reflex within a sectarian framework? Can Aziz and other theoreticians of the FNC convince us that they feel more affinity with Lebanese Muslims than with Syrian Christians?

It is also no surprise that Aoun’s visit to Damascus has encountered heavy criticism from the Saudi-American sponsored 14 March coalition. The Christian component of that coalition is clearly annoyed with the pan-Arab Christian dimension that Aoun is mobilising in his favour. Some of them even used the argument of the Egyptian Copts that Aoun is not reaching out to them in order to question that dimension of Aoun’s visit.

Aoun’s allies answered that he would be glad to visit Egypt and strengthen links with the Copts as well. Something that will not be for tomorrow since the positioning of the Egyptian government towards Aoun and his new friends does not allow such an event to take place in the same manner as it does in Damascus.

The question remains as to how spontaneous anything happening in Syria is. As to Aoun himself he always had a flare for staging carnivals. It is therefore legitimate to wonder how deep his real commitment is to a historical new deal for all sides.