Across the Bay

Friday, February 18, 2005

Another Way of Saying Regime Change

Lee Smith has an excellent piece in the Weekly Standard about Syria. The piece deals with the issue of pro-democracy activism in Syria, but also deals with the Hariri assassination. Lee has already clarified his view on the message Syria wanted to send with this hit in his piece in Slate. He reiterated his views here and offered a suggestion on what can be done to shake up the Syrian regime:

    Syrian president Bashar al-Assad seems to understand this, which is why he is fighting back. The White House, angry that Syria has continued to support Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups and has done nothing to stem the flow of cash and fighters into Iraq, has used Syria's occupation of Lebanon to flog Damascus. Along with sanctions, tough talk, and threats of military operations, Washington joined with France to support a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon.

    Last week, Damascus tested the White House's resolve by assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, with a massive car-bomb attack in Beirut on the onetime Syrian ally who had become Lebanon's highest-ranking opposition figure. The next move belongs to Washington, which has already recalled the U.S. ambassador to Syria. If the administration fails to respond forcefully, this will signal to the entire region that it is dangerous to side with an ally who cannot be counted on for protection. Syria has calculated that the Bush White House has neither the troops nor the political credibility to do anything about it.

    Perhaps the best way to understand Syria's foreign policy--especially in Iraq and Lebanon right now--is as an expression of the regime's keening anxiety over its own lack of domestic credibility. The most serious taboo in Syrian political discourse is the subject of minorities. Like Iraq's former Sunni-dominated regime, Syria's ruling cadre is made up of a minority, the Alawites, adherents of a somewhat gnostic variation of Shia Islam. In Syria, the Sunnis are a majority, but to date, many are so taken with the "heroic resistance" to the occupation in Iraq that they have not even noticed how free elections might serve their interests. The idea that Syria's Sunnis might soon put two and two together terrifies the Alawite regime at least as much as the threat of a missile strike.

Lee quotes Josh Landis on the meaning of playing the Sunni card:

    "The prospect of Sunnis coming to power in Syria is a can of worms that no one wants to open," says Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor in Damascus for a year on a Fulbright. "On one hand, you have the fact that minorities are traditionally oppressed in the region; on the other, there's the fact that minorities have held power in Syria for over 40 years. The Alawites have managed that feat by denaturing the essence of Arab nationalism and using it as cover."

    That is, through ideological posturing, political juggling, and even marriage (Bashar's wife is a Sunni), the Alawites, who constitute a little more than 10 percent of the population, have camouflaged themselves to look like Syria's majority. It has not only helped them consolidate power and establish their regional credentials, it is a self-preservation tactic.

    In a document (posted on Landis's website, Syria Comment,) written not long before the end of France's Syrian mandate in 1943, one Alawite notable petitioned the French authorities to align Alawite areas with Lebanon, not Syria:

        The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels. . . .

        The spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation.

    The author of this letter was Sulayman al-Assad, whose observations can't be far from the mind of his grandson, Syria's current president.

    It's worth noting, then, that the Bush administration and the Alawite regime fundamentally agree on what's wrong with the Arab Middle East: not Muslim fundamentalism per se, but Sunni Arab radicalism, whether Islamist or Arab nationalist in coloring. The Iraqi Baathists directing the insurgency from Damascus are a big headache for the White House, but they're potentially disastrous for Assad.

    To Washington, his failure to crack down on the Iraqis signals the intractability of an immature politician who doesn't understand that the regional rules have changed. That's true, but we should also recognize that what the Syrian president sees in Saddam's former colleagues is not a band of like-minded brothers, but a Sunni Arab political elite enraged by their loss of power in Iraq and potentially energized by the possibility of coming to power in Syria--even through free elections. If Iraq has appeared to be on the verge of civil war, Assad understands that the same fate may befall Syria. By letting the Sunnis fight next door, he is preempting a civil war in Syria that he cannot possibly win.

    In a sense, the Iraq insurgency is an ideological debate by other means. Washington thinks the Middle East is ready for democracy and pluralism, while Syria, as Landis says, "believes that the region is too divided and sectarian." Assad has gambled that the United States will have no choice but to learn Middle East reality and put away dangerous ideas like democracy, but he may have overplayed his hand in Lebanon. Local sources there have reported that Sunnis are nervous and angry, assuming the assassination of Hariri, the country's most powerful Sunni, was meant as a message for them specifically.

    "In Lebanon the regime tolerates more from Christians and Druze than other Muslims," says Hassan Mneimneh, a native Beiruti and director of the Washington-based Iraq Memory Foundation. "And the Sunnis are at the bottom of the totem pole. Opposition from the Sunnis shakes the foundations of the Assad regime since it is capable of generating sympathy throughout the Arab world."

    Washington should be reading these signals. The tricky part is how to rebuke Syria without adding luster to the Alawites' Arab nationalist appeal. What they most fear at this point is being isolated in a region where they have little natural-sectarian-constituency.

    The Bush administration is right--democracy is changing the rules of the region, and eventually Syria will have to address its minority issues democratically. But that is not going to happen under the current regime in Damascus. To many ordinary Syrians, the Hariri assassination has been almost as devastating as it was to the Lebanese. If they once thought Bashar al-Assad's mafia was capable of reform, they now recognize they have been deluding themselves.

I was preparing a post on Lee's NYT Magazine profile of Ammar Abdulhamid (as well as on a piece by Abdulhamid in the DS), and on Egyptian activist Saadeddine Ibrahim's op-ed in the WaPo, but the Hariri assassination went down and that not only switched priorities, but it also changed how I wanted to approach all the above-mentioned items. I'll come back to that post soon, and incorporate more fully Lee's Weekly Standard piece.

But Lee's proposal is interesting and I'll need to think it through before I comment in depth. What's good about it that the US can effectively call for regime change as part of its push for democratization. It will likely find some sympathetic ears with Sunni Arabs who are edgy about Shiite ascendency in the new ME. But it's never as clean as we might assume. So I'll withold further comment until I've thought it through some more.

On a separate note, I'd like to address a recent analysis by George Friedman in Stratfor ("Syria and Iran are sensing the same force coming at them." Middle East: A New Coalition Forms?). Friedman points to the strategic alliance between Syria and Iran, and cautions that Hizbullah will be the card both these countries will use against the US. He also hinted at the possibility that Hizbullah was involved in Hariri's assassination (For more on this, as well as comments on Lee's piece, see this post by Rich Anderson).

Now I have no sympathy for Hizbullah, but I don't think they should be fingered in this hit. Hizbullah, much like Hariri until right before his murder, were sitting on the fence. But whereas Hariri was always leaning more towards the opposition, they were leaning towards the loyalist camp because they had a lot to lose in terms of prestige and operational wiggling room against Israel (which is tied to the first point).

A few days ago, Shiite speaker of parliament Nabih Berri, Hizbullah's main rival, called for a pro-Syrian gathering in Ain el-Tineh. He extended an invitation to Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah (current Prime Minister and Syrian client Omar Karame was also there) and Nasrallah did attend. However, I think that the Ain el-Tineh gathering was more of an internal Shiite thing. It was a move played by Berri, and Nasrallah was put on the spot and could not let Berri outplay him. Berri has a lot more to lose from a Syrian departure. He will in all likelihood lose seats to Hizbullah and other Shiites and to Communists, not to mention his financial losses and probably his job as speaker. So what he did is he basically coopted Hizbullah's message of resistance and its anti-Israel and anti-America rhetoric, in a way that if Hizbullah declined to show up they would be in the opposition camp, and that means they would be declared "agents of America" who betrayed the resistance and stabbed it and its sponsor (Syria) in the back. In other words, Nasrallah was outplayed.

That aside, Hizbullah was holding talks with everyone, from the Maronite Patriarch to exiled General Aoun to Hariri. Jumblat also never backed down in reaching out to them, even when he was criticizing them and telling them that the resistance game is over. Shebaa is over, etc. (see my posts on Jumblat and Hizbullah). In other words, forget all this, join us and play the internal Lebanese game and you'll do well. Nassib Lahoud of the Christian Qornet Shehwan opposition gathering extended a similar message, refusing to comment on the disarmament part of UNSCR 1559, which was scaring the hell out of Hizbullah. In contrast, Aoun was adament about the disarmament clause. But it was clearly understood that if Hizbullah joined the game, and especially if the Syrians pulled out, the only armed forces in the country and more specifically in the south would be the Lebanese Army. They were hesitant again I think because of the presitge and this being a very important card for them and their self-definition.

All above indicates that Hizbullah was under pressure trying to assess and adjust to a rapidly changing landscape, with its two sponsors (and indeed itself) under extreme heat from the US and the international community. At the same time, it knows that for it to have a future in Lebanon, it needs to play the Lebanese game. If a Sunni-Druze-Christian opposition emerged and managed with international help to get Syria out and sink its puppet government, then their pro-Syrian stance would hurt them. That's why they never cut lines of communication with all sectors of the opposition, including Hariri. All this makes it unlikely for me that they were involved with his assassination.

Syria is on the defensive with Iran, and they might get those missiles from Russia. That Iran is their only friend, having turned the entire world against them, is something that is probably making Hafez Assad turn in his grave. But then again, Bashar has been placing all his eggs in that basket for a while now. So now they'll sit and wait for the storm.

However, does Bashar really believe that he can go on like this?! This matter will hang over them for a long time as a friend said to me in an email. How can they restore "normal" relations with anyone after this, especially in light of the US policy in the region, its push for democratization (with the Sunni majority in Syria looking next door at Iraq) and its military presence next door?

The US and the EU need to do something serious (and Lee's proposal is something to consider) about Syria. But I'm not sure even buying time makes any difference anymore for Bashar. Frankly, I can't see how this is not to be regarded as the end of this regime.

Update: Lee might indeed have put his finger on something with his Sunni theory. Take a look at this story from Naharnet:

    Muslim Brotherhood Deplores Syria's Highhandedness in Lebanon

    Syria's Muslim Brotherhood organization has strongly deplored Hariri's assassination, lamenting the "sharp deterioration of relations to the level of hearing Lebanese masses shouting in unison 'Syria, get out.'"
    In a statement faxed to the London-based Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, the Brotherhood called for an investigation into the assassination under the superintendence of the Arab League."

    The statement said Lebanon's independence must be respected and its decision-making process must not be captivated.

    "Hariri's death might be the straw that will break the camel's back as far as Syrian-Lebanese relations are concerned," the statement said. "No one can absolve the Syrian leadership from guilt.

    The Brotherhood is a standard-bearer of Sunni Muslim fundamentalism, which explains its sympathetic stance toward the grief of Lebanon's Sunni community over Hariri's assassination.