Across the Bay

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Over and Out?

Michael Young seems to think that it is indeed so for Syria:

The End

Now the Saudis have asked the Syrians to leave Lebanon, and soon. It's the end, whatever Bashar Assad does. All the props sustaining Syrian power in Lebanon have crumbled, except the resort to brute force; and even there you can kill Rafik Hariri and say it wasn't you. You can say that the bungled assassination attempt against Marwan Hamadeh, a Hariri ally, last October wasn't you either. You can even say that you had nothing to do with the deployment of armed thugs in Beirut belonging to an Islamist group created by the Syrian regime to fight the Muslim Brotherhood (a deployment for the purpose of preventing a meeting between U.S. envoy David Satterfield and Lebanon's Sunni mufti). But can you really say that about any possible new victims?

It's over. From Damascus there is news of gloom and uncertainty, desperation and anticipation of the worst, even talk of a coup, though no one quite seems to know who would organize it.

Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, has also severely criticized, or rather mocked, the Syrian attempt at trying to salvage something under the "Arab umbrella," judging it as another short-sighted miscalculation. Instead of asking for an Arab way, of two Arab states that are helpless against the US and are under pressure from the US to cooperate, and who surely won't put their necks out for a bumbling Syrian regime, why not ask for a Lebanese way? He reminds the Syrian regime that the opposition has in fact offered it an honorable way out, but the Syrians have reciprocated with nothing but contempt and short-sightedness, as the Arab way won't make the international pressure go away! "It will postpone it till April," wrote Kilo, but then what?!

Kilo doesn't say it, but this contempt is characteristic of Bashar, as Michael noted in his WSJ piece (see below), as evident from the disgraceful La Repubblica interview. Josh Landis commented today that the Syrians still won't accept normal diplomatic relations with Lebanon, which would be exemplified by respective embassies in Beirut and Damascus. Jumblat recently made a similar remark, that this regime is not interested really in having normal relations with Lebanon. Nevertheless, being a realist, he still reached out to it to have an honorable exit and establish decent relations, not based on hegemony, intimidation, and interference. But as they say in Lebanon, "there's no one there, don't holler." In fact, as Kilo himself said: "they see that if they fix themselves, they will die."

As for those news from Damascus, it's perhaps best exemplified by this sad post by Ammar Abdulhamid, which echoes Kilo's frustration:

The City’s air is rife with all sorts of untoward rumors, everything is now possible: there is talk of arrests, purges, coup d’états, assassinations, sanctions, invasions, anything and everything, except, of course, freedom. Everything is possible except freedom. Freedom is never mentioned. Freedom never comes to mind. Freedom remains a distant dream.

The world is changing around us, but we, Damascenes, Syrians, Sunnis, ‘Alawis, Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, or however we define ourselves these days, including perhaps heretics, can’t feel any hope in that. Nothing has touched us so far. Nothing seems to loom in the air, except for rumors and hearsays, none of which particularly inspired or inspiring. The face of an ugly and malevolent god still stares down upon any possibility of hope within us.

A reported wave of arrests has already swept a variety of "low-key" dissidents, that is, those whose arrest is not likely to generate much notice abroad, or even here, no matter how terrible this may sound. But then, everything sounds terrible these days. Despairingly terrible. There is hope all around us, but somehow there always needs to be some pit of despair somewhere meant to serve as a continuous reminder of how things were or could again be. But those whose fate is to live in such a pit have themselves to blame as well. If history teaches anything it’s that such punishment is always earned somehow. We earned it with our long and studious silence.

I love Ammar and wish he didn't have to go through what he's going through. I hope he and his family remain safe and unharmed. My thoughts are with him, just as much as they are with my own family and people. We suffer under the same tyranny, only they are so much more directly under its heavy hand. Let's hope that, in another short-sighted move, their heavy hand doesn't bear down violently on Lebanon or on those poor Syrian dissidents. I hope he manages to get out of there soon.

Nick Blanford has more on Syria's Arab door and other matters in Lebanon. See also this report in the NYT on the Saudi position.

Meanwhile, the Syrians are in denial (Arabic. For a similar English report, see here from the DS). Bashar reportedly said that he will "study only the possibility of a partial withdrawal before the Arab summit, scheduled on March 23 in Algeria." Also, it was reported that he told the Saudis that it was not just up to him, in what I interpreted to be another attempt at playing the totally bogus, and by now discredited notion of an "Old Guard" tying him down. He and his immediate family are in total control. Unless of course, he is not the most powerful member of his family, and is afraid of a coup from someone within his household, or something like that. But I don't buy it, and I don't think Josh Landis does either. Anyway, the Saudis weren't impressed and reportedly told him "that's your problem" and that if he didn't withdraw, it would seriously damage Syrian-Saudi relations. An-Nahar also reports, quoting a Saudi official, that a demand by Bashar that the Arab League issues a decree calling for its withdrawal, which would give it an Arab cover, was rejected. The Saudi position came after consultations with the Egyptians, which would lead one to believe that the Egyptians shared their position. So, Kilo was right, and Bashar miscalculated, again. That didn't stop the brilliant Syrian PR campaign from painting a rosy picture of the talks with the Saudis, as reported in An-Nahar!! Typical, "ostrich head in the sand" mentality that the Syrian intellectuals have been frustrated with.

More importantly, An-Nahar reports that the Syrian Foreign Ministry denied Bashar's statement quoted in the interview with Time magazine that Syria would withdraw in a few months, saying that it is utterly false, and "the Taef accord is the basis for this matter." This is consistent with Bashar's reported statement to the Saudis, which echoes Syria's holding on to its reading of the Taef accord as a carte blanche for an indefinite stay. Josh's reaction to that was "It would seem that negotiations are fluid and the situation is changing quickly." Well, I'd say that the situation did indeed change quickly on Bashar, but that the Syrian position doesn't seem fluid at all! It seems typically intransigent, static and anachronistic, if not clueless and caught in the headlights! As Michael put it in that WSJ piece, Asad is "showing his static understanding of regional dynamics."

So, now he's going back to the Russians, but they have anticipated the visit of Walid Muallem by issuing a statement that Syria should withdraw in accordance with UNR 1559 (see below)! Which leaves what, Iran!? Kilo had ridiculed the ill-conceived reliance on both, and once again, he's going to be proven right. In fact, this leaves what Michael noted: violence. But do they really believe that will get them far?

Let's cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Addendum: That meeting between Satterfield and the Sunni Mufti that the Syrians insanely tried to prevent through armed thugs? Well, here's its result:

The Higher Islamic Religious Council called Thursday for the implementation of the Taif Accord and stressed the need for unity in difficult times. Following the extraordinary session in Dar al-Fatwa, led by Grand Mufti Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the council released a statement saying that former Premier Rafik "Hariri's death is an irreparable mistake and a big loss to Lebanon and the Arab and Islamic nation."

The council called on the government to step up investigations into the assassination to ease tension among the people. The statement also said that the Taif Accord met the aspirations of all Lebanese factions and, hence, should be implemented.

It said: "The Taif Accord is the new national agreement, supported by both Arab and international communities and by the United Nations and, thus, should be implemented."

The council further said: "The relations between Lebanon and Syria should be based on the principles of that Accord." The statement urged the country to "arm themselves with wisdom and patience and to preserve national unity in order to respect the principles Hariri was always calling for."

On the other side of the aisle, the Maronite Patriarch stated that "he did not differentiate between the Taif Accord and UN Security Council Resolution 1559." I.e., we have no problem going with the Taef framework as long as its stipulation regarding Syria are understood to be the same as 1559: full and immediate withdrawal.

Given that both these clerical figures have met with Satterfield (the Patriarch will be headed to DC on the 16th), it's clear that this is also acceptable to the US, and Satterfield has indeed made statements that point in that direction (see Michael's latest op-ed in the DS, linked below). Jumblat is also on that same page, and he too has met with Satterfield. The point is to focus on Syria, leaving the disarmament of Hizbullah out, paving the way for continued dialogue with the party.