Across the Bay

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Speared Beast

In his op-ed today, Michael Young discusses how the Syrians are shutting the "Arab door" -- the face saving "Arab alternative" -- possibly alienating three key players: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.

Egypt has been trying to get Syria to withdraw on its own terms for a while. Mubarak tried again by sending Amr Moussa, who was turned down, and then again by sending his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Mubarak is not hiding his frustration either, stating that "something must be done." But the Syrians won't budge.

Saudi Arabia, as Michael noted, has been eerily silent in the face of the growing pressure on Syria save for a few token statements. Other than that, Saud al-Faysal met with Chirac for 45 mins. at Hariri's funeral, and may be on board any international initiative. We'll come back to the Saudis in a minute.

Finally, Jordan was perhaps the most vocal. Young noted Abdullah's statements in El Pais on how the bomb was too sophisticated to have been set by a terrorist group, implicitly pointing the finger at state involvement, namely Syria and its puppet government in Lebanon. Moreover, following talks with Jacques Chirac (as happened with Saud al-Faysal), Abdullah said "Syria should respect a UNSCR 1559 and withdraw its forces." Abdullah added that "the future of Lebanon should be in the hands of the Lebanese" effectively echoing the European and American position.

Why are these (Sunni) states, particularly Jordan, taking such a stance? Michael explains:

Ultimately, is King Abdullah's skepticism so difficult to understand? Having publicly expressed last December his fear of a "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran to Lebanon, passing through Iraq, the monarch has little incentive to confront that reality with an anemic, minority-ruled pariah as neighbor. Indeed, Syrian weakness poses a long-term threat to two other Sunni-majority Arab states besides Jordan, namely Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Each, in its own way, has deep problems with Damascus.

This brings us back to Lee's "Sunni theory" in his Weekly Standard piece:

"Opposition from the Sunnis shakes the foundations of the Assad regime since it is capable of generating sympathy throughout the Arab world."
What [the Alawite Asads] most fear at this point is being isolated in a region where they have little natural-sectarian-constituency.

So there may be a little more to that Syrian-Iranian alliance. Martin Kramer comments:

The political ramifications of the Alawi-Shiite link are hard to pin down. It may have played a role in facilitating the Syrian-Iranian relationship. Today, the only major faction in Lebanon that unequivocally defends the Syrian regime is the Shiite (Islamist) Hizbullah. And it's only this link that makes it possible to speak, as some do, of a contiguous "Shiite crescent" from Iran to the Mediterranean. Even so, Alawi power-brokers don't take their cues from beturbanned ayatollahs, and their Shiite loyalties rest rather lightly on their shoulders. They're also careful not to overplay the Shiite card, lest they offend Syria's Sunni majority.

The "Shiite crescent" idea, real or fictitious, is alarming to the Saudis and the Jordanians. Given the loss of Sunni dominance in Iraq, the Jordanians and the Saudis might be on board to have a counter-balance in Syria, where the majority of the populace is Sunni, with significant Kurdish, Alawite, and Armenian and other Christian minorities. So just as Iraq's communities share power, with the clear Shiite majority getting its fair share, the same can happen in Syria with the Sunni majority. The Jordanians, like the Saudis and even the Egyptians, also don't want Islamists to come to power, so they might be favorable to an Iraq-like arrangement, a consociational system, to curb any such development, but still give Sunnis a fair share of power. But now I'm getting way ahead of myself!

As Lee said, this may be why the Syrians have been flaming the "Sunni rage" in Iraq: to keep it away from home, lest the Syrian Sunnis put two and two together. Well, it seems that Jordan and Saudi Arabia might be a little quicker in calculus. Furthermore, with the Iraqi Sunnis gradually joining the political process in Iraq, and holding back-channel talks even with the US, it seems that keeping the "Sunni rage" aflame for too long will prove difficult. Rich Anderson has more:

Nothing could please Saudi Arabia more than the prospect of being able to take a few jabs at Syria, and the prospect appears even more likely now. Stratfor now reports via Time magazine that the U.S. is now holding back-channel talks with Iraqi insurgents
It does not even matter at this point whether the story is true or not. As Syria has effectively encouraged the insurgency in Iraq, such a prospect must strike Syria's soft spot in a way that nothing else can.

Bottom line, the US, the EU and the key Sunni Arab states might be coming together on not only the need for a "comprehensive" Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, but also on the possibility of regime change in Syria. As Michael put it:

It is probable that the Bush administration has taken out an option on regime change in Syria. However, unlike Iraq, this will not involve dispatching American soldiers. Instead, it may be fairly close to what the Syrians advised Washington to do against the former regime of Saddam Hussein in 2002, namely operate through the United Nations, build up an international consensus, and use diplomacy and other peaceful means rather than force. This strategy could open the door to potentially crushing economic sanctions, but also military pressure along the Iraqi border or in Lebanon, which Syria has few means of fighting against. 

But the Syrians can still do a lot of damage, as Young points out. You can read the comments by Jumblat (see right below) on how Asad is willing to "destroy Lebanon" if pushed out. That was no fabricated story either. Take a look at what Syrian deputy foreign minister Walid Muallem told a news conference:

"The continuation inside and outside Lebanon of provocations and incitement against Syria and Lebanon risks leading to negative developments that will harm the interests of all concerned"
Lebanon was particularly at risk "because in times of crisis it has always paid the price in terms of the lives, safety and prosperity of its citizens."

As for now, they'll try to negotiate more time, and as Rich explains, the theatrical play of the upcoming parliamentary vote of confidence on the pro-Syrian Karami government, followed by some sort of redeployment and government reshuffling, might buy it for them.

Clearly, that won't impress anyone, domestically or internationally, as the US-EU demands have been becoming clearer by the day: full withdrawal of troops and intellegience apparatuses before the May elections in order to ensure (probably with the help of international monitors) free and honest elections.

But that still leaves a few things unsaid. Clearly, by pushing away the Arabs, Bashar knows that he can't trust them, nor does he want their option, because he's clearly not looking to leave Lebanon. What he's doing is calling the US-EU bluff. What are you prepared to do? Sanctions? If they come from the US alone they would be meaningless, as Fareed Zakaria notes. Only if they are multilteral will they have an impact, but it's not sure if that will be enough to dislodge the Asad regime. Perhaps a combination of that and playing the Sunni card might do something, but it's still unclear. It's not sure that Chirac is really hot on sanctions either: "France was never very favorable to the sanctions system," Chirac said. " But it's up to the Security Council to decide…Therefore, if the application of 1559 does not begin, the Security Council would deliberate on sanctions in light of report submitted by the U.N. secretary."

Zakaria never really offers any other option. I'm sure Bashar has thought of the limitations as well. But one important thing Zakaria did say is that Washington "should focus single-mindedly on one issue that can gain international support: getting Syria out of Lebanon." That would entail sustained pressure and complete disregard for Syrian maneuverings, coupled with all sorts of jabs, economically, socio-politically (the Sunni and minorities card), etc. But also, it might have to mean that the US must put the Hizbullah thing aside for now, and focus exclusively on Syria. The call to label Hizbullah a terrorist group will prove a sour point with France and serve to push Hizbullah more into Syria's hand and away from the opposition, which continues to reach out to Hizbullah. The US needs to understand that once the Syrians withdraw, an agreement will soon follow in Lebanon on the issue of Hizbullah's military wing and its operations against Israel (which are limited as it is in the Shebaa Farms). Everyone in Lebanon, from Jumblat to Aoun, has made it clear that the military operations are over. The raison d'être is gone, and will be even more so if Syria pulls out. Hizbullah knows that as well, and that's why it's in a pickle. I'll have more on that when my post on Hizbullah goes up shortly. But the point is that it knows that one day it was bound to face this moment of truth. So the US demands will be meaningless at that stage (and this has nothing to do with whether Hizbullah is or isn't a terrorist outfit), as Hizbullah will have to disarm and stop all operations against Israel, and give way to the deployment of the Lebanese Army (as for their activities inside the Palestinian territories, the Abbas government is countering that on its own, and the whole thing will lose its luster with the above-mentioned scenario, and the possibility of a return to the 1949 armistice, as Jumblat has suggested. Or, as Nick Blanford, looking further down the road, put it in an email: "Who knows maybe Hizbullah's 'militancy' in the future will consist of former resistance fighters picketing the Israeli embassy in downtown Beirut.")

But it's going to be a very delicate time for all involved. The most important thing however is not to allow Bashar to get away with it, and stick around some more, speared as he may be. In other words, for God's sake, please don't listen to people like Martin Indyk!