In any other part of the world, a new prime minister’s visit to a neighboring country would be a fairly routine event. But Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s trip to Syria over the weekend has been treated here as a kind of Lebanese national drama, the subject of almost endless commentary in newspapers and television shows.
It is not that anything really happened. Mr. Hariri and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria exchanged some thoroughly forgettable diplomatic banter and posed for photographs.
Instead, the trip epitomized a national story with anguished, almost operatic dimensions: a young leader forced to shake hands with the man who he believes killed his father. And it served as a reminder of this region’s deep attachment to political symbolism.
For many Lebanese, the visit was a measure of Syria’s renewed influence over Lebanon after years of bitterness and struggle since the Syrian military’s withdrawal in 2005. That withdrawal came after Mr. Hariri’s father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was killed in a car bombing that many here believe to have been ordered by Syria.
The withdrawal was a blow to Syrian prestige, and afterward Saad Hariri seemed to have the entire Western world at his back as he built a movement for greater Lebanese independence and pushed for an international tribunal to try his father’s killers.
But since then, the United States and the West have chosen to engage with Syria, not isolate it. And Saudi Arabia, which has long backed Mr. Hariri and competed with Syria for influence here, reconciled with the Syrians earlier this year, leaving them a freer hand to guide politics in Lebanon as they once did. [continued…]