Across the Bay

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Not Outside the Family


    "[The] ever so destructive dictum of Arab cultural nationalism: never wash your laundry in public, and especially not where a westerner can see you."

    -- Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence, p. 321.


There are three items on Syria and Lebanon that I want to broach. One is Josh's latest post. Second is a comment to my post on Makiya's editorial by an anonymous reader. Third is Michael Young's op-ed in the DS today.

There is much to tackle in Michael's piece, and I will come back to it when I address Josh's post in length. But I would like to comment on this section of the op-ed:

    In Damascus, the UN's special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, was apparently made to understand (during a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa) that insistence on implementation of Resolution 1559 was having a "negative impact" on Lebanon. If true, that was an underhanded threat to turn Lebanese stability into a hostage to Syrian interests. Roed-Larsen surely got the message; he reportedly emerged from the meeting with Sharaa looking unhappy, and was initially denied an audience with President Bashar Assad, the man he tried so hard to promote as a peacemaker weeks ago on an earlier Syrian visit.

    It was but a small victory for Assad, as Roed-Larsen's backhand, if Syria persists in playing hardball, is likely to be a negative report on implementation of Resolution 1559 in April. Syria earned celebrity status last week as one of the very few states U.S. President George W. Bush listed in his latest gallery of rogues. In Paris on Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French President Jacques Chirac demanded that Syria implement Resolution 1559 and allow transparent Lebanese elections. So, if the Syrians believe that heightening domestic friction among its Lebanese allies and opponents is the best way of confronting this growing international impatience with, if not hostility toward, Damascus, then Assad is being as shortsighted as a former ophthalmologist dares.

That is all true, but it clearly had an effect in Lebanon. The message of the Syrians is that they don't want to give the perception that they have caved to outside pressure. They want this to be resolved within the Taef framework. That is, keeping it in the family. If not, they'll use violence in Lebanon, which they showcased with the attempt on MP Hamade's life. The Lebanese are afraid of that. That in itself is significant because it dispells a lot of the myth that the Lebanese need the Syrians or else they will kill each other. In fact, the Lebanese are much wiser than that, and the only ones who will be responsible for violence are Syria and its cronies.

So how did the Lebanese opposition respond? Walid Jumblat and Nasib Lahoud have expressed willingness to work within the Taef framework (as opposed to 1559) as long as the result is the same: full withdrawal of the Syrian troops and security apparatus. This is important because what the Syrians want is to use the Taef ploy to maintain the status quo. Perhaps do some cosmetic reshuffling of the army or some symbolic move like shutting down the Anjar security office, but leaving the edifice intact. The opposition won't fall for that. They are trying to kill two birds with one stone: 1- debunk all the Stalinist accusations that they are agents of foreign powers and Israel, and 2- show the Syrians that their interests lie in dialoguing with them, not the pro-Syrian cronies. The opposition doesn't want to embarrass Syria, but will not allow the status quo to continue. There must be a new diplomatic relation based on new terms.

Walid Jumblat made a statement after meeting Terje-Roed Larsen that what brought things to this state was the decision by the Syrians to extend Emile Lahoud's term. I.e., don't blame us, your stupid political move is what brought the international community down on you. For his part, Larsen stressed that the Lebanese and Syrians should not challenge the international community on 1559. But, he said, if the Syrians and the Lebanese want to solve this within the Taef framework, then fine. Assad reportedly was pleased with that statement and is now going to meet with Larsen.

But Assad shouldn't delude himself. Jumblat stressed to Larsen that the Syrians should understand that by going back to the Taef we mean a full, and literal implementation (i.e. not "in the spirit of the agreement" which gives the Syrians wiggling room), i.e., a full withdrawal and dismantling of the security apparatuses. Jumblat said that's the only alternative to the internationalization of the problem. His proposal is that the Syrians redeploy before the elections, and that they should follow a schedule set by a national government born of the elections. It seems that Christian opposition (Qornet Shehwan) member Nasib Lahoud agrees. Larsen also stressed the need to send the army to the south and disarming Hizbullah. Lahoud ducked a question on the issue.

So what does this mean? It's mainly positive, but it's a bit of a gamble. For one, Jumblat clearly parted from the line of the Maronite Patriarch who came out strong in favor of 1559. However, the fact that Nasib Lahoud agrees with Jumblat on this might signal that the Patriarch will go along, as Lahoud is part of the Qornet Shehwan gathering which coordinates closely with the Patriarch. The trick of course will be to basically transfer all the terms of UNSCR 1559 to the Taef framework. That's what Jumblat seems to be aiming for. If this settles the tensions, and takes away a card from the Syrians, preventing them from fabricating a violent episode in Lebanon, then Jumblat will take it. The Christian opposition will have no choice but to play along, and why not if the result is the same? Besides, it's not like UNSCR 1559 is going away.

You can see that Jumblat is trying to ensure that the same terms of 1559 are kept. That's why he's insisting on free elections. Part of his proposal is that the Syrian government abides by the schedule of a freely elected national government (which is a wink at the Christian opposition as well). This has been a point stressed by Larsen, the French and the US. The Syrians should not interfere. It behooves the Syrians not to, as the Lebanon issue has become the common ground between the French and the US. It's their way to show agreement and cooperation. The US is framing it in the context of the democratization of the ME. This excerpt from Condi's speech at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris summarizes it best:

    Our efforts in Lebanon also show that the transatlantic partnership means what it says in supporting freedom. The United States and France, together, sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559. We have done this to accelerate international efforts to restore full sovereignty to the Lebanese people, and to make possible the complete return of what was once vibrant political life in that country.

    The next step in that process should be the fourth free democratic election in the region -- fair and competitive parliamentary elections this spring, without foreign interference.

    In Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and throughout all of the broader Middle East and North Africa, the nature of the political conversation is changing. Ordinary citizens are expressing thoughts and acting together in ways that they have not done before. These citizens want a future of tolerance, opportunity, and peace -- not of repression.

The French have also stressed the need for the elections to be free from interference. Take this statement by Michel Barnier:

    We often hear what divides us, our disagreements. But also, this afternoon you reminded us of everything that brings us together, everything that we do together on a daily basis: in Kosovo, for the stability of the Balkans; in Afghanistan, against terrorism and also for the renewal of that country; in Haiti, for progress and peace; the war against terrorism everywhere we have together; and recently, with Resolution 1559 for sovereignty and integrity of the Lebanon.

Condi's response drove it home, again framing it within the context of US efforts to spread democracy in the ME:

    We talked, also, about the elections in Iraq and the opportunity before us now to support the Iraqi people as they try to build a better future, and about the many democratic changes that are taking place across the world, the elections that have taken place in the Palestinian territories, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I think that we agree completely that Resolution 1559, on which the United States and France cooperated, which really does speak to the importance of non-interference by foreign forces in Lebanon's affairs. We agree that there should be elections, perhaps a fourth free election, in the Middle East, and that should be Lebanon. And that election should take place under circumstances that are free of that interference. And so, we look forward to the many opportunities before us.

I think Josh missed that point.

The gamble is that Jumblat is willing to alleviate international pressure on Syria as long as it essentially does what is asked of her in 1559. It's not a foolish gamble by any means, as Jumblat knows firsthand that if the Syrians threaten to use force and start up violence in Lebanon, they mean it. They certainly have the cronies to do it. So he's trying a quid pro quo. In the end, like I said earlier, UNSCR 1559 is not going away! In fact, Jumblat aside, the US and France are using it for their own purposes as well, so it's not like this whole thing hangs on Jumblat and the opposition. This is part of US and French relations with Syria. They will not be snubbed, which is precisely what the young Assad and his idiotic Foreign Minister have been doing.

So like Michael said, if Assad thinks that his threats will get him out of trouble, he's one shortsighted ophthalmologist. The best it can do is save him the embarrassment (before his own people, who seem to believe that his bad foreign policy is "nationalistic" in that he's standing up to the US!) of caving in to US and French demands. China and Russia are not going to do anything for him. The only people who can save his face, ironically, are the Lebanese opposition! Once again, it shows you that Lebanon is not only Syria's window to relevance, it's also far more savvy politically than the struggling young Syrian president and his dying rigid regime.

Pluralist democracies, like Lebanon, are in fact much more equipped to deal with change through compromise. The Syrian authoritarian regime needs stalemate to survive. That's why I agree with Farid el-Khazen's thesis (in The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon: 1967-1976) that the Lebanese system might have been able to adjust on its own to internal changes (the political consciousness of the Shiites, the proportional ratio in parliament, etc.). It wasn't that internal make-up that caused the system to break down in the war. It was external pressures (Arabism, Nasser, PLO) mixed together with the internal problems that broke it (Cole's stupid theory is utter nonsense). I think the anonymous reader was hinting at the same thing with his reference to regional circumstances. We're seeing those external threats today with the Syrians threatening to blow up the Lebanese interior (so much for the theory of Syria as a guarantor of stability!!!). The difference is the way the Lebanese interior is dealing with it. This should give skeptics a bit to think about: consociational democracies, despite all their problems, are a million times better than rigid authoritarian regimes with all their promise of "stability."

Addendum: The only caveat is the issue of Hizbullah. Both Lahoud and Jumblat are circumventing it. Larsen meanwhile is stressing it, which means the UN (and definitely the US) will still apply pressure on that point, especially in Larsen's report in the spring. But Jumblat is trying to show Hizbullah that the resistance card is futile (see my previous post "Jumblat and Hizbullah"). He's maintaining that the Shebaa Farms thing is solvable through negotiations, and he won't accept Lebanon to be the only front (hint to Syria) against Israel. So Jumblat is trying to settle it internally, and he's still at the same time reaching out to Hizbullah to drag them into the process. Nasrallah's reactions have been negative, and he took a public step when he went to the Berri-sponsored pro-Syria meeting. Also, his rhetoric has been overly maximalist. However, I still think that it's all for internal Shiite consumption. He was outmaneuvered (as Michael pointed out) by Berri, and he was put in a corner where he had to attend the meeting. He couldn't let Berri paint him as anti-resistance and somehow a puppet of outside forces like the opposition. The rhetoric is to maintain relevance in the Shiite community. But at the same time, Nasrallah must be worried about the Syrian withdrawal and the removal of the Shebaa card. So I think he hasn't made up his mind where he stands, which is probably why Jumblat is still extending a line to him. Who knows? Maybe Jumblat has other reasons.

Another side effect of the shift to the Taef might be the coming out of Hariri from his silence. He was on the fence, and maybe this will give him a good cover to join in with Jumblat. Again, we'll see.