Across the Bay

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Landis on Syria's "Dead End"

Josh Landis has a couple (new, working link!) of new interesting posts on Syria's current dilemma that are very much worth reading.

In the latest post, Josh discusses the European position:

Everything turns on European sanctions. Unlike the US, Europe is Syria’s major trading partner. Sixty per cent of Syrian trade is with European states. France has already called for sanctions. Will Germany and Britain follow suit? If Germany and Britain agree to join an economic embargo of Syria, the entire EU will be pulled behind them, whether they like it or not. Spain and Greece, the states which have traditionally been most outspoken in Syria’s defense, will be mute. Surely the European powers will look for ways to stop the sanctions train before it leaves the station.

The problem for the European states is that once they attach their wagons to America’s economic sanctions engine, they are hostages to George Bush’s Syria policy. Once imposed, sanctions are likely to continue for decades. In all likelihood, they will not end until there is regime change in Damascus. Even if the European powers enter into a sanctions regime with the US for the sole purpose of forcing Syria from Lebanon, they will not be able to escape sanctions until the entire list of American demands are met. America’s list of demands is endless. It wants Syria to end support for the Palestinian resistance and Hizballah. It demands Syria pull out of Lebanon; it wants Syria to give up its WMD; and it wants Syria to arrest a long list of Iraqis accused of financing and organizing the resistance in Iraq. Syria will never meet all these demands. Not so long as is a Baathist state.

Should Europe try to end sanctions on Syria before all of America’s demands are met, Washington will accuse them of recognizing Syria’s right to WMD or its right to support Palestinian fighters. Sanctions on Cuba have lasted 40 years, those on Iran have been in place since the revolution, sanctions on Iraq lasted until the overthrow of Saddam, and US sanctions on Syria as a terrorist state have been in place since the late 1970s. Sanctions are a very blunt weapon that once begun can rarely be ended. Moreover, they hurt the defenseless masses more than the well provisioned leadership. At least initially, they stoke the passions of nationalism and popular will to resist, rather than the opposite. The logical end to sanctions will be regime change. This Europe wants to resist. The Europeans were opposed to President Bush’s plan to reform the greater Middle East when it was declared and most still do.

The European diplomats in Damascus disagreed with Bush’s policy of driving Syria to the wall. Many privately blame the US for creating the political tension that has led to Hariri’s assassination. They wanted Washington to cut a deal with Bashar al-Asad months ago, to trade the Golan for a Lebanese withdrawal. They never bought into the notion of “Democracy in the Middle East.” Perhaps “old Europe” appreciates the difficulties of democratic transformation in “old societies” better than young America? Or, perhaps, as Washington claims, Europe is merely stubborn and contrary, having failed to appreciate the new temper of the times? Washington refused to negotiate with Syria for ideological reasons. “It would not negotiate with dictators and terrorist states.” Europe, at least initially, hoped to make something out of Bashar.

The Hariri assassination has placed the Europeans in a very awkward position. If they don’t agree to economic sanctions, the US will accuse them of sanctioning murder. Bashar’s blunders have cut the legs from underneath Europe. A few days ago, when the Canadian PM claimed that the Lebanese situation was a delicate one and that Syrian troops played an important role in maintaining security, he set off an uproar. Opposition members and supporters alike forced him to retract his statement. When Solana – the EU foreign minister – initially said that Europe’s relationship with Syria would not change until the author of Hariri’s murder had been found, his words were drowned out by Tsunami of American and French accusations. Europe will have to give way to America on the Syria-Lebanon question. Chirac has stated that Lebanon is France’s Iraq. All Europe will soon be confusing Beirut with Baghdad.

In the post before that, Josh graciously gives me a plug, but misquotes me somewhat. I left a comment on both posts on his site that I'm reproducing here:

I didn't quite say that Bashar will burn Lebanon, only that he might if pushed too far. In essence, this is what lies behind all the fear in certain anachronistic and fossilized quarters (Martin Indyk and some euros) that you give too much credit to by making them seem like some wise men who know about "old societies!" Well, "old Lebanon" wants its democracy and freedom back, no matter what "old Europe" or good ol' Martin Indyk says!

Besides, there seems to be a fundamental contradiction in your position on Europe when you present Chirac as not being in the mood to cut deals, and as being repeatedly embarrassed by Bashar who turned out to be the furthest thing from a reformer and just another thug. Add to that the statement about Lebanon being France's Iraq. Not the the greatest message if you're Bashar. So I think that the reluctance theory doesn't fit well with this presentation of Chirac. Which is why the Lebanese pro-Syrian government has called Chirac the most extreme of the lot! Can you believe that?! Well, it's a lot at stake for Chirac on this one. He can't be embarrassed by a bumbling novice like Bashar. It will kill any credibility Europe wishes to have in its dealings with the ME, as if that's not dead already.

Regardless of their differences, I think the US and France are determined to use Lebanon as common ground. It's not only convenient in terms of policy, but it's also a matter of personal prestige for Chirac. He will try to counter the US policy by taking hold of the Lebanon file himself. Hence, Lebanon is France's Iraq. So far, they've managed to compromise well, to the detriment of Bashar. Also, on the US demands, I think that the most important one for them is the insurgency in Iraq. The Palestinian issue can be taken care of by the Palestinians themselves just as they have been trying to curb Hizbullah's interference in the OT. As for the Hizbullah issue, the US will likely compromise with France on the "terrorist" label, because it sees that the opposition in Lebanon is demanding the cessation of operations against israel and a return to the armistice. Therefore, the Lebanese themselves will take care of Hizbullah's military wing. Right now, by pushing the issue, the US risks to alieante France, and to push Hizbullah further away from the opposition. I think they'll see that and focus more exclusively on the comprehensive Syrian pull-out and the free elections as that seems to be the common ground they have with Europe, as reflected in their statements.

As for the insurgency, other options will develop. For one, the US is already holding back-channel talks with them and they will continue to join the process in Iraq. That will be a set back for Syria because the Syrian Sunnis might put two and two together, as Lee Smith said. Add to that Jordanian and Saudi support for a stronger Sunni role in Syria (to counter the Shiite ascendency in Iraq) and Bashar will face a serious internal and regional problem, especially if he keeps alienating the Sunni neighbors, as he did with Mubarak. So the cards are quickly flying from Bashar's hands. Yet he remains dangerous, and that's why people are afraid of reprisals in Lebanon, as made clear by Walid Muallem's recent remarks on how "Lebanon always pays the price."

At this stage, any move by Bashar that doesn't essentially conform to US-EU demands is likely to piss people off more and more, most notably Chirac, but also the neighboring Sunni Arab states, let alone the Lebanese and the US.

On another note, you seem to confirm my suspicions that the entire "Old Guard" theory is utter bogus. They are out of the loop, not Bashar. But if they get pissy, and there is Sunni pressure from the neighbors, and the Syrian Sunnis wake up to the possibility of being able to remove the Asads, things might turn ugly for Bashar. I know usually the Syrians are either too afraid to speak up (although that seems to be cracking as you mention) or somehow side with the regime in some misguided notion that they're being nationalistic. The problem here is that perhaps they could have justified that in the past. But how can they rationalize what Bashar is doing as for the good of the Syrian nation, as opposed to his kleptocratic extended family? Will he then crack down on his own people? Will he want to manage two revolutions!?

A dead end indeed, but when cornered, desperate people do desperate things. That's our fear.

Addendum: The Lebanese French daily L'Orient-Le Jour ran the following story, which is relevant to the discussion above:

Le Parlement européen a demandé hier dans une résolution «le retrait des troupes syriennes du Liban» et laissé entendre qu’il en ferait une condition au moment d’approuver l’accord d’association entre l’Union européenne et la Syrie. Le Parlement affirme qu’il fera du respect des résolutions du Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies demandant le retrait des troupes syriennes du Liban «un élément crucial de l’appréciation au moment voulu de la signature de l’accord d’association UE-Syrie». Le Parlement dispose d’un droit de veto sur cet accord qui a été paraphé le 18 octobre 2004 par les ministres des Affaires étrangères des 25, mais non encore officiellement signé. De son côté, la députée européenne Véronique de Keyser a déclaré que l’assassinat de Hariri «relance la polémique autour de l’accord d’association entre l’Union européenne et la Syrie, et l’application stricte de la résolution 1559». Elle a également estimé que l’Union doit demander à la Syrie de se retirer du Liban et de s’abstenir de toute interférence dans les affaires libanaises.

For those of you who don't read French, it says that the European Parliament has demanded in a resolution yesterday the full withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, and added that it will make this a condition for approving the EU-Syria trade deals (part of the EuroMed initiative). Deputy Véronique de Keyser added that the EU should threaten to veto the provisional agreement (which has not yet been finalized) unless Syria complies with UNSCR 1559 and abstains from all interference in Lebanese affairs.

No deal making mood is right.