Across the Bay

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Word to the Wise

I wanted to post this a couple of weeks ago but never got around to doing it.

Ghassan Tueini of the leading Lebanese daily An-Nahar often annoys me beyond words. However, he wrote a remarkably forthright op-ed (Arabic) in which he basically tried to spoon-feed the Syrians and their Lebanese cronies the changes in US ME policy. As reader/blogger Richard Anderson pointed out in a comment to my previous post, it's bewildering how the Syrians don't seem to get it. I've been talking to people around here in Beirut and it's always the same reaction: can they really be this blind (or, as Walid Jumblatt put it, "stupid")?

Part of the dynamic in this instance is the Lebanese being accustomed to a wily and iron-fisted Hafez Assad, who had an aura of extreme intelligence and political calculation. This is all but shattered now with the cub Bashar, as the Syrians are cleary being challened in Lebanon, which was considered their backyard, as never before. If nothing else materializes, the shattering of this myth is the most significant outcome of the current developments. The other element is the history of previous US administrations eventually cutting a deal with Syria, leaving its grip over Lebanon intact. This was always rationalized along specific points. It is precisely these points in political history and the reading of the current policy shift that Tueini is addressing, in what can really be read as an open letter of advice to the Syrians, free of charge! What follows are some translated excerpts for you to get an idea:

"Clinton's current "mission" [to the ME] is an assertion that the American position on the ME, and on foreign policy in general, is not partisan, but bipartisan. Therefore, those who thought that ... it would be beneficial to wait for the results of the [US] presidential elections ... have invested in vain.

On this basis, you hear in Europe the echoes of US comments that former President Bill Clinton will not visit Syria (and consequently, and only consequently!!!) Lebanon so that Damascus and its Foreign Minister [who thinks in terms of Cold War logic] won't think that they can play the card of a US political party in the opposition against the ruling president.
And they say to anyone who asks that part (perhaps the most significant part) of the mistake of the Syrian-Lebanese policy lies in that we didn't believe what the mixed delegates from Congress were saying when they asserted that there was no partisanship in the US foreign policy, rather, there is one near-unanimous position that has been ratified by acts in Congress which bind the White House ... most significant of which is the Syrian Accountability Act.

I slightly disagree with Tueini here, as I think there was significant tension in the administration itself as to how to deal with Syria, which sent mixed messages to the Syrians prolonging their hope that the US would eventually cut a deal. But as we'll see from Tueini's piece, the US has basically cut off any and every wiggling room the Syrians traditionally relied on. For instance, there was the issue of providing intelligence in exchange for being left alone. That line was shut down and deemed insufficient. Then there was the Iraq border issue. The US gave it time, but it seems (see my previous post: "Syrian Mugshots in Iraq")) that the US is this close to losing all patience and it's considering options of a hit (see Josh Landis' Syria Comment for more) to see what ensues in terms of internal reaction. Then there was the issue of redeployment in Lebanon. That was not enough. Then there was the issue of Hizbullah, but the Syrians haven't budged on this because it's their last card. This is also tied with the issue of Lebanese chaos in the aftermath of a Syrian withdrawal, a point that Tueini also addressed as we shall see below. Then the Syrians tried the Golan card and now they're practically begging to resume talks with the Israelis, and Bush said they'd have to wait till after the Palestinians are taken care of. Also, no deal in terms of an exchange: Lebanon for the Golan. On these last two points Tueini wrote:

"If anyone asks Europe -- and not just France -- they would be surprised just from reading the papers and hearing the radio commentaries or the "Salon" commentaries that Europe is convinced that the US this time around is not the US of the era of Cold War compromises, and that it is therefore serious about separating and distinguishing between "ME issues," so no offers on the central theme, i.e. Palestine, would push the US ... to pay up on another issue like Lebanon, Iraq or the Gulf region.
Based on this view, Washington is set to handle the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations separately from any other issue. That is the meaning of its rejection of an "international conference" i.e., "Madrid 2" which its closest British ally Tony Blair is marketing. This is also the explanation for it not pushing Israel to accept the overtures of Damascus for a resumption of direct talks, be they unconditional or based on where they last left it.

This is a very interesting reading. For one, it runs counter to the propaganda bought (and further propagated) by the MESAns that Sharon runs US policy and that Sharon doesn't want peace which is why he's not participating in the international peace conference or opening up to Syria. The alternative put forth by Tueini is that the US is seeking to disentangle the Palestinian issue from the broader Arab context (or should I say quagmire, as is now fashionable). Frankly, the Palestinians should thank the US for doing them this favor, as they sought independence from Arab interference for decades. The Israelis solve their problems with the Palestinians on their own, and in the proper local context, not in a broader Arab context. Those, we deal with each on their own. No cards, no games. This is why Tueini wrote:

"Palestine is on the path of electons, and it seems that no Arab or non-Arab state will be able to create something that would give it a Palestinian 'card' for it to use to improve its standing as a "regional player" or "regional power" ... This is what Turkey understood and it came to tell us precisely that. As for Iran, it's busy with its nuclear negotiations with the US and Europe and won't do anything that would weaken its strategy. Suffice it to fortify its position in Iraq ..."

Obviously then, the only "Arab state" Tueini is referring to is Syria. He goes on to say:

"Why this attention to the Palestinian and Lebanese elections? The answer you hear is the following: more than Iraq and Afghanistan, the Palestinian and Lebanese societies have an old democratic 'yeast' (as is the case in Syria, but the topic of its elections seems to be postponed, or rather, far away, and must be preceded by 'change' promised by President Bashar, but the 'reformist march' seems to be stumbling for mysterious reasons, and no one particular explanation seems to be gaining consensus!!!)

Lebanon then, like Palestine, will be a 'lab' to establish democratic regimes, fed by a heritage of an internal culture of democracy which the revolutions and the wars could not sacrifice on the altars of expired 'ideologies.'

Tueini then addresses the myth of the Lebanese being ready to pounce on each other if not for Syrian tutelage. So he tells the Syrians:

"The imposed regimes in Lebanon attempts to divert attention with electoral calculations which aim to show democracy as a matter of fraudulent numbers and geo-demographic mathematics.

The government -- not just the opposition -- needs to say out loud and with conviction that an attempt to manufacture an explosion in Lebanon will lead to an implosion in Syria and its "Iraqization"... So don't play with fire.

The Americans have in fact warned sternly against any such playing with fire on the part of the Syrians or their cronies. So no more attempts on the lives of political opponents will be tolerated. Which brings us back to what is perhaps the greatest stupid error made by young Mr. Assad: he internationalized the Lebanese file, and now all eyes are on Syria.

Lest we lose touch, it's unlikely that the upcoming elections will achieve too much. The Syrians aren't going to pack up and leave the golden goose behind for free. However, they have been seriously challenged like never before. Many of the myths and building blocks they've carefully built over 30 years have collapsed. Among those myths is the ability of the Syrians to thwart any cross-sectarian opposition to the Syrian order. That, is perhaps the most significant point in all of this.

Beside that, the other crucial element is the change in US policy. That's what Tueini was at pains to emphasize, and what the Syrians (especially Farouq al-Sharaa) don't seem to fathom, or aren't willing to admit to themselves. I mean, if a French-US alliance against you doesn't make you understand that the rules have changed, then I don't know what will. This is why Walid Jumblat is making the moves he's making. It's now or never, and the attempt on his co-religionist MP Marwan Hamade was the straw that broke the camel's back. Jumblat read correctly the US and European stance, and, more importantly, realized that the way forward is in fact to reestablish the only functioning system in Lebanon: consociational democracy. I.e., Lebanon is a balance of communities with no one community having any real sense of majority. Therefore, the democratic political space is one of deals between communities. That's why anyone who talks about a "Muslim majority" or "Christian minority" in Lebanon doesn't know the first thing about the Lebanese system. There is no such thing. All the communities are "minorities"! Not one community cracks the 40% mark! Moreoever, each community is internally divided. So, that's why you have a classic Druze-Christian-Sunni alliance going on right now with Jumblat, the Christians, and (the weakest link) former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Shiites are divided as to how to proceed, and Hizbullah has kept all its options open holding talks with the Aounist opposition and other players. I.e. it realizes that the jig is up with its "resistance" card (and hence, its Syrian patronage), and that it needs to play the Lebanese game if it hopes to maintain domestic relevance.

But that last point concerning Israel is crucial: can Syria afford to lose its footage in Lebanon, and lose the Golan (having just recently conceded Alexandretta to Turkey)? Or, as Michael Young recently put it:

"They won't readily surrender a country that, because it is a front line in the conflict with Israel, bestows regional relevance on Syria and is a buffer to its southeast. Lebanon also provides the Syrian elite with myriad financial benefits, offers Syria a wedge into Palestinian affairs and gives work to hundreds of thousands of Syrian laborers who send remittances home."

So what can be done? Michael suggests the following:

"[T]he United States and the United Nations should consider pushing for a resumption of Syrian-Israeli negotiations over the Golan Heights, which were occupied by Israel in 1967, and link that resumption (not the outcome of negotiations) to Syrian implementation of Resolution 1559. In that way, Syria would be offered an incentive, but also a stark choice: Does it want Lebanon or the Golan?

The 28-year-old Syrian presence in Lebanon has lasted long enough. That's why Syria mustn't be allowed to circumvent Resolution 1559. However, it can be offered something to make fulfilling the resolution easier to swallow. Then Damascus might be better able to face its problems to the east, in Iraq.

Let's wait and see.