Across the Bay

Monday, February 21, 2005

Saving Face, or What Exactly?

So it seems that Josh's father-in-law may have been right. He predicted that the Egyptians will try to orchestrate a face saving Syrian pull-out under the wing of the Arab League. Sure enough, the Arab League's secretary general Amr Moussa met with Bashar Asad today and said that the the Syrian President, had assured him that Syria was prepared to fulfil its obligations in the Taef accords. "The Taef and withdrawal (from Lebanon) are part of Syrian policy. Steps in these matters will be taken shortly," Moussa added.

Well, I'm afraid that I don't buy it. It may appear that this is the face saving measure, whereby the Syrians will convince themselves and their people that they're not retreating under Western pressure but rather, they're simply fulfilling their long held policy and promise based on the Taef accords. The thing is that the opposition had offered the Syrians that option before they murdered Hariri. They turned it down and went ahead with the assassination. It can be argued that they had anticipated a different reaction, and now are more inclined to take that offer to escape further trouble. But nothing in Bashar's or Moussa's words inspires confidence. They are not trying to save face, they are trying to get away with it by doing something very cosmetic and essentially safeguarding the status quo intact. All this talk about withdrawing troops "shortly," and how Bashar stressed the implementation of the Taef accord (and not 1559 of course) sounds all too familiar. The opposition had stressed a full and immediate withdrawal of not just the troops, but the entire security apparatus and the cessation of Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. Furthermore, the opposition wants free elections that will enable them to vote out the current pro-Syrian government which stands in the way of an honest Lebanese-Syrian dialogue on major issues like talks with Israel, and such. In fact, the opposition is more flexible on the troops issue, as it is secondary in comparison with the security apparatus, the Syrian interference, and the pro-Syrian government. As Jumblat put it (Arabic): "if there is no way around dialogue, we would want a direct dialogue with the Syrian government [and not the Lebanese government] on the issue of the implementation of the Taef accord and the gradual and honorable withdrawal of the Syrian troops, and the dismantling of of the intelligence apparatus and the government of terrorist rule, which is the Lebanese government. We don't harbor any animosity toward Syria, but we refuse this tutelage and this terrorist line." (Emphasis mine.) I.e., We will offer you an honorable way to withdraw your troops within the Taef framework, but we will not negotiate on the dismantling of the intelligence network and the political tutelage or the puppet government.

I'm afraid that Bashar's intention is only the first part, and Naharnet's report seems to share my skepticism. He has no intention to do the other half (Naharnet noted that Syria's official news agency SANA said talks between Assad and Moussa dealt with the "ongoing developments on the Arab arena" but made no mention of a withdrawal from Lebanon.) Bashar has made a clear choice with the assassination of Hariri, and it will take a lot more than Amr Moussa or the Lebanese opposition to convince him otherwise. Which brings us to the other parties in this drama.

Regardless of what musings the Arabs have in mind to try to safeguard the "Arab honor" of an Arab state, the US and the EU have plans of their own. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told reporters that the EU was "on exactly the same page as the United States" calling for Syrian troop withdrawal and ending its political influence over neighboring Lebanon. Straw further added that there was a "high level of suspicion of the potential involvement of Syria in the assassination." Moreover, as this Naharnet story reports, it seems that "Bush and Chirac would move toward economic and diplomatic blockade if Syria remained procrastinating on the withdrawal in line with U.N. resolution 1559 and there is no positive development in the investigation of Hariri's death." (Emphasis mine.)

The Syrians want to make sure that they secure the upcoming elections to their advantage. The US and the EU are well aware of that and the EU foreign ministers issued a statement that the EU will "remain vigilant" to ensure the elections will be conducted freely "without any foreign interference of influence."

What does all this mean? That nothing has changed in the Syrian stance as of yet. It's the same old games, with the intention of having their cake and eating it too. They will pay no attention to any Arab initiative. If they wanted to, they would have taken it before. They made a choice as well as a statement with Hariri's murder. This is not about saving face, this is about the last card they have to play. This was the assessment of an anonymous commentator whose analysis was posted at "Eurabian Times:"

    In hindsight, the Syrian regime didn’t really have a choice. The risks it took are not as big as they seem considering it’s fighting for its survival and its future looks grim.

This is based on the author's assessment that

    [i]t is evident ... that the dependency of the Syrian regime on Lebanon goes well beyond a colonial abuse; its very existence depends on the annexation of Lebanon.

The author then asks the question: "how can Syria overcome [the current challenges from inside and outside]?" His answer:

    I believe the answer is, by the same tried and true methods Syria has been practicing all along – by setting Lebanon on fire.

This is similar to my own assessment that if the Syrians perceive that they are pushed to a corner, they will burn their way out if they are made to leave. This is well beyond a bargaining chip for the Golan. This is about survival.

Therefore, excuse me if I'm not over-enthused by Bashar's and Mr. Moussa's words. As Sami Baroudi put it: "[T]he Syrians don't feel this is the right time to make a 180 degree turn in their policy." That would amount to capitulation (not that that's too far off, regardless!). The Syrians are still fantasizing about deals, as their unbearable, venom-dripping Minister Buthaina Shaaban said, in a statement that's almost hilarious in its audacity: "[T]hey (the U.S.) have to change course and work with Syria as a partner." The Syrians still believe that they can bomb and assassinate their way to the dealing table! The world needs to prove them dead wrong.

PS: I will return to the analysis in the Eurabian Times in my upcoming post on the position of Hizbullah.

Update: Walid Jumblat again clarified what the Lebanese want from Syria:

    "The Syrians must leave. We harbor no heart-feelings, we are not the enemy of the Syrian people. We want Syria's reigning intelligence regime taken out of our country."
    "There is no sovereignty left in Lebanon because every single branch of authority is now affiliated with the Mukhabarat of Anjar."

So while Jumblat wants the troops out, he wants to clear that the mukhabarat and Syrian tutelage also leaves with them.