Across the Bay

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Mother Russia, Save Me!

I'm sorry, but this now borders on the pathetic. The Syrian regime is reaping the harvest of its stupid political mistakes. Finding itself totally isolated, the Assad regime sends its resident opthalmologist to try to find a sympathetic ear ... in Russia.

The young Assad's regime in its short-sightedness has managed to alienate the EU, and of course, the US. It in fact did what most people thought impossible: it managed to bring Fance and the US to agree on an issue ... the complete withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon! So now, struggling to find a way out of the hole it dug for itself, the Syrian regime is reaching out to Russia:

    "Russia is a great power, and it carries great
    responsibilities for world affairs" ... "Thus Russia
    has to help stabilize the situation in the Middle East,"
    Assad said.

The Syrians are facing real challenges that could make them a regional nobody. The Turks already got Alexandretta. Iraq, with its 150,000 US troops, is a nightmare for them. Lebanon, while it might not be out of their orbit anytime in the near future, has launched a serious challenge -- backed by the US, the EU, and a UN resolution -- to Syrian control. This leaves the Golan. However, given Syria's extreme weakness, and its loss of important political cards, Assad is now staring at the possibility of never seeing the Golan under Syrian control again. Add to that a country in economic shambles, which, though sheer political brilliance, has managed to anger the only side willing to help it economically: the EU (namely France). Chirac has consistently lent a lifeline to Assad only to be rewarded with slaps in the face on economical deals and in Lebanon. So now Assad gets the shaft.

With a decrepit economy and a joke of a military, Assad finds a partner in Putin:

    Putin further underscored the importance Moscow
    attaches to Damascus by saying Russia planned to
    "use the Syrian route" to influence the Middle East
    peace process.

More than that, the Syrians are trying to get the Russians to help with the debt, the economy, and the military (considering that under Hafez Assad, and the "good old days" of the Cold War -- where people like FM Farouq al-Sharaa seem to be stuck mentally -- the Russians were the main source for all three).

They're not likely to get anything militarily, the US is apparently making sure of that:

    [A]n Israeli official said U.S. pressure has prompted
    Russia to reconsider plans to sell the missiles to
    Syria.
    ...
    Whether Russia intended to sell the missiles is
    unclear but analysts agree now the deal is unlikely
    to go through.

But like I said, this is apparently a mutually convenient opportunity:

    Kommersant said Moscow was ready to write off $10
    billion of that debt while retaining its Syrian military
    port that now serves as Russia's only foreign naval
    outpost in the world.

    Analysts say Moscow is most concerned about
    keeping its communication lines in the region open
    and Syria presents the best viable option.

    Some analysts said Russia fears Syria is slowly
    warming up to the United States, and that its main
    Middle Eastern contact will be lost down the line.

The return to the old Comrades for help is completing a full-circle! But how much the Russians can do remains to be seen, and I'm not sure it amounts to much. Putin has just come off a defeat in Ukraine, and I'm not sure he wants to have another confrontation with the Bush administration on Syria. Sure the Russians have interests in Syria, but it all has to weighed properly. They might help with the debt, and get something back for it, but I'm not sure if they'll be able to ride it for regional relevance.

Speaking of which, the regional relevance of the Syrians is quickly shrinking, which is why Assad is begging to start negotiations with Israel. However, he also wants Lebanon. He's unlikely to get his wish, if the current international position holds. What the Syrians want is to buy time. There's no better way to do that than with "negotiations" and "peace talks." As Michael Young put it (see my "Word to the Wise" post below), they should not be allowed to maneuver this way. Their withdrawal from Lebanon should be the condition for the resumption of talks (and not a final agreement) with the Israelis on the Golan. The old Cold War days are over, no matter how many trips to Russia they have planned.

Farouq al-Sharaa still doesn't want to accept this change. But he's getting a taste of it. He recently went on CNN and for the first time gave a timetable (not really!) for a withdrawal of the troops (nothing about the intelligence and security apparatus of course) from Lebanon. The Lebanese opposition, which until recently was begging the Syrians for precisely that timetable, gave him a mouthful! It's no longer enough. The Taef is all of a sudden no longer the standard: UN resolution 1559 is now the starting point! Witness opposition member MP Nassib Lahoud's statement:

    Metn MP Nassib Lahoud also commented on Sharaa's
    statement, saying that Syria's real problem was with
    the UN.

    "The UN has issued its decision (1559) so let Sharaa
    act as he sees fit," Lahoud said.

Or note Jumblat's remarks that "it changes nothing." Behold the brilliance of the young lion cub! He practically undid everything his father carefully constructed in Lebanon! Needless to say, the change in US policy and its war in Iraq are directly responsible.

While I maintain that maybe the change will not be all too drastic in Lebanon in the near future, the Syrian edifice there is being seriously challenged. The puppet government in Lebanon is trying to break the opposition but it's being forced to concede lots of ground. Recently, Jumblat threatened to take the government to reckoning at the UN if they try to tailor the election law to their advantage. Furthermore, the international community keeps reminding the Lebanese and the Syrians that it will be monitoring the elections closely, and that 1559 is not going away.

So, to save face, the Syrians need the Golan. But like I said, this hinges on two things: 1- abandoning Lebanon to a large degree (they won't be able to fully abandon it anytime in the near future. Too much is at stake, financially and in terms of regional relevance.) 2- Israeli interest.

The worst case scenario would be a serious blow in Lebanon and Israeli intransigence on the Golan. The clock is ticking and the cards keep slipping away. At that point, Mother Russia can do nada, and young Mr. Assad, and his ridiculous FM, will have to bend all the way backwards to their uncle, Sam that is.

Update: Please make sure to read Rich Anderson's comment in the comments section. Rich considers the Palestinian and Iranian issues which I've left out. I would also add that Hizbullah is also no longer a secure card. It's been paralyzed. Its recent strike in the south was met with severe criticism from the Lebanese opposition. It realizes that its heyday as a "resistance" movement is gone. It needs to readjust to the changes in order to maintain relevance on the Lebanese scene, but also on the Shiite scene. It has a growing opposition to Syria to worry about. It has parliamentary seats to worry about. It has the internal Iranian scene (and the outside pressures on Iran) to worry about. It has the changing Syrian role to worry about, etc.

As for his question at the end, I'd say the US has already said it. Remember President Bush's statement that Syria must wait for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement first? "Now Assad needs to wait" I believe were the exact words! Not quite "the beatings will continue until morale improves" but close enough!! For the first time in a while, time is not on their side.