Across the Bay

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

What Next?

A couple of items on Lebanon to follow up on my last post. This first item by Robin Wright summarizes the joint statement I posted below, and reported an additional interesting statement from Condi Rice:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said that Washington and Paris are looking at what can be done to stabilize Lebanon in the event of Syria's withdrawal, hinting at possible support for a United Nations or international presence to assist in a transition or fill a security void.

We knew about the possibility of sending election monitors, and I had once floated around the idea of sending in troops to see the withdrawal through, but I wasn't sure about what kind of reactions that would draw. Apparently it's actually being considered. It's also important because it means that the US and France are adament about not handing the task of Lebanese "stability" and "security" to Syria! Thus, any attempts by Syria to incite violence will not lead to an extension of its stay! It might lead to the opposite! It might hasten it in favor of UN troops along with the Lebanese army which was supported by David Satterfield after Omar Karami threatened that it might splinter along sectarian lines.

This means that the US and France are really really serious about getting Syria out and they're tightening the noose and circumventing the known Syrian tricks. The call for the withdrawal of the intelligence services is of course also crucial in this regard. As Wright noted: "It reflected U.S. and French concern that a pullout of the 14,000 remaining Syrian troops -- down from a high of 42,000 -- will not eliminate Syria's effective dominance of Lebanon's political and economic system as long as Syrian agents are operating in the country."

So this is not cosmetic rhetoric. Wright notes another important point:

The two nations, divided over Iraq policy, said in the statement that they are united in their insistence that the Lebanese people "must have the opportunity to make their own political choices, without threats of violence or intimidation."

"They must have the opportunity to chart their own course through free and fair parliamentary elections this spring, bolstered by an international observer presence prior to and during the elections."

I had said that this is the place where the US and France will work on their rapprochement. This is a way for both to work within the framework of the UN, while simultaneously advancing the Bush policy of democratization (which Lebanon is clearly a part of now) and giving a leading role for Jacques Chirac to be able to get credit for his own ME policy. All this without any military action! But should troops be needed, they will be UN troops who will assure Syria withdraws smoothly without any "incidents."

Meanwhile, President Bush has invited Maronite Patriarch Sfeir to the White House. Sfeir had also been invited by Chirac to Paris. His visit to the White House is set for March 16.

In a follow up on the skirmishes in Tripoli, it seems that it was a combination of angry supporters and some unidentified "provocateurs" (I suspect the mukhabarat), as pointed to in a statement by Karami. But the army was dispatched and parts of the city were cordoned in order to restore calm. The shootings claimed the life of one victim, a young man, Fadi Ahmad. There have been calls for counter-demonstrations by Karami supporters, but this is quite the local parochial thing, as it's Karami's base. Meanwhile in the south for instance, in Saida, Hariri's town, (and the rest of the country) there was jubilation at the resignation. So while it's still tense up in Tripoli, I wouldn't be surprised if it calms down soon, and Karami and the Sunni leadership in the north has been calling for calm. Although, Syrian and pro-Syrian exploitation should always be kept in mind. Farid el-Khazen's comment quoted in a piece in the WaPo: "You are targeting a government, but the government has no ability to make any decisions, especially now. The decision-making power is in Syria, so the Syrians are trying to turn this into a case of conflict between Lebanese. It is what they have always done."

So now the challenge is to form a new government, and the opposition have scheduled a conference at Walid Jumblat's residence in Mukhtara to discuss their strategy.

Jumblat has made statements after the resignation of Karami's cabinet callin for calm and discipline. He urged the crowds not to show hostility towards the common Syrian. The slogan of the opposition, he said, was and remains "the formation of a neutral government to pave the way for honest and free elections." In another gesture to Hizbullah, he said: "We should not forget that we have an essential partner in this country and that is Hizbullah. We must dialogue with it." Jumblat then stressed that no partisan flags should be carried in the protests, only the Lebanese flag.

Ghassan Tueni is also calling for a rational and calm approach that sets as its goal the safeguarding of the constitution and democracy as the strategic goal. That should be the purpose of the opposition. He warned against teh temptation of cutting deals. The Hariri Bloc has continued to refuse any such deal (one was extended to, and turned down by, Bahia, Hariri's sister, and Fouad Seniora, Hariri's friend, to lead the next cabinet), insisting that the purpose is not to replace Karami's government. The purpose is to fully apply the Taef accord "safeguarding Lebanon's freedom, its democratic system, and its sovereignty and independence." The Bloc said they will continue working with the opposition toward that end.

Tueni also jabbed at the Syrian fingerprints in the Taef accord that create deadlocks which then necessitate the "arbitration" of the Syrians. But he didn't take anything away from the democratic victory, even if it's still a half-victory, of the popular majority "which once it inspires a parliamentary minority, can enable it to topple the executive authority." Tueni's other concern is keeping away the prospect of a military government, a concern shared by Jumblat and Aoun, although as of yet nothing indicates that the Syrians and Lahoud will go down that route. But it all depends on how the formation of the transitional government goes. The main aim of the opposition is the formation of a government of national unity that will be able to negotiate the withdrawal of the Syrians. The opposition is so far refusing to dialogue with anyone except for Berri and Hizbullah, the two main representatives of the Shi'ites. They are also adamant about removing all the Lebanese intelligence officers from office, and investigating them for the murder of Hariri. The formation of a neutral and sovereign government necessitates the removal of these apparatuses.

Nayla Razzouk also wrote a piece on the aftermath of Karami's resignation. Lebanon Wire also had a round-up of various ME reactions to the Lebanese demonstrations and the resignation of the government. An interesting headline comes from the Jordanian English-language daily, Jordan Times: "The people's will has prevailed without a shot being fired in anger. For it to stay so will depend on statemanship in Syria, a continued insistence on the part of protesters to keep demonstrations non-violent and political maturity in Lebanon."

Al-Dustour walked the line of the "Arab option" advising the Syrians "to cut off the road to anyone who wishes to escalate the situation and remove any pretext they may have for an international intervention that would remind us of the aggression on Iraq." Given Rice's remark on UN troops, the advice may be more apt than one thinks.

Speaking of the "Arab option" or the "Arab umbrella," Bashar is set to Saudi Arabia to discuss the crisis in Lebanon. This comes after FM Sharaa visited with the Saudis, and reportedly promised a timetable for withdrawal. Meanwhile, Bashar's uncle, Rifaat, has urged his nephew to pull the Syrin army out of Lebanon, as its presence has clearly lost Arab and Lebanese support. But this, as well as the statements made by Amr Moussa, deal either with the troops exclusively (not the intelligence apparatuses), or, as in Moussa's case, with redeployment. These are all secondary matters. The opposition isn't fighting about the redeployment and withdrawal of the troops, as made clear above. Furthermore, the US and France aren't talking about redeployment or the withdrawal of just the troops. Bashar seems to be forgetting that this is an international matter now.

So with all this on the table, let's see what happens next.