Across the Bay

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Syria, Lebanon, and Hizbullah

Some important developments on several key issues:

1- Syrian-Lebanese relations:

The US, the EU, and the UN are pressuring Syria to open an embassy in Lebanon, something which it has refused to do since the inception of both countries. This is an important step towards a normal relationship between two independent and sovereign countries.

An-Nahar quoted a US State Department official who put it well: "[opening an embassy will be] an important symbolic procedure [to end the feeling that Lebanon is some sort of Syrian protectorate]."

The Daily Star also quote a State Department spokesperson who reportedly said: "We have always urged Syria to recognize Lebanon as a spearate and independent state and to establish an embassy there."

In another important development in the normalization of Syrian-Lebanese relations, there seems to be movement to regulate labor laws so that Syrian workers would be documented and pay taxes, etc.

2- The Shebaa Farms and Hizbullah

Roed-Larsen has been consistently firm on the Shebaa Farms, stressing that they belong to Syria. He said this after meeting with Sharaa in Syria (Sharaa, who was present, did not comment when Larsen made his statement!) and he said it again in Lebanon:

During a wide-ranging press conference yesterday Larsen also insisted the Shebaa farms are Syrian, not Lebanese.

Larsen said: "The UN Security Council took a unanimous decision on the matter. Let me stress on the word unanimous, and allow me to remind you that the Security Council is the highest international authority, and its decisions and resolutions are binding to UN state members. These decisions should be respected."

He added: "The UN considers the Security Council's Resolution 425 implemented, as Israel has completely withdrawn from the Lebanese territories."

So what does this mean, if we assume that Hizbullah won't disarm until Israel withdraws from Shebaa? The DS story notes that Kofi Annan said that "the disputed land was an issue to be discussed between the related countries - Lebanon, Israel and Syria." So this leaves a way for Syria to be in on negotiations with Israel. But that requires the Syrians to officially recognize, in writing, that the Farms are Lebanese. After that is settled, the question then is whether Hizbullah will refrain from military operations while negotiations are going on (assuming they will be going on!).

The author of the DS story, Leila Hatoum, makes a troublesome claim: "Hizbullah have refused to disarm even after the Shebaa Farms are liberated, saying there is a necessity to maintain a deterrent to Israeli threats." This was not attributed to any Hizbullah official, but Hizbullah itself has not come out and said that they will disarm once Israel withdraws from Shebaa. That theory is based on what Jumblat said after meeting with Nasrallah.

However, the quotes from Hizbullah's MP Mohammad Raad are very interesting:

Hizbullah MP Mohammed Raad proposed the idea of transforming Hizbullah's military wing into reserves for the Lebanese Army.

In an interview with a local television channel on Tuesday Raad said: "Hizbullah's arms will be discussed between all Lebanese parties to find the best solution for it.

Nick Blanford, who follows Hizbullah closely (and has talked with Raad, among others), told me of this possibility several weeks ago, after Hariri's assassination. In fact, Qornet Shehwan member Nassib Lahoud proposed to hold the resistance as a "strategic reserve" until peace is concluded with Israel. Nick figured that this will be adopted as a face-saving compromise. Nick also thought that the Shebaa Farms campaign would cease (not that there's much of a campaign anyway) and the Lebanese army would deploy to the border. Then, Nick wrote, "perhaps the Islamic Resistance would become some sort of frontier protection force under the joint command of the army and Hizbullah." Perhaps, if that does take place and the army is in control (and Hizbullah is coopted and neutralized), it will provide an incentive for the Israelis to consider withdrawing from Shebaa (similarly to what they're doing in the West Bank).

Based on Raad's statements, it seems that all of the points Nick made are being seriously considered as a face-saving compromise. In the end, Hizbullah has little choice when the majority of the Lebanese are no longer comfortable with it retaining its arms indefinitely and acting out on its own. Hizbullah understands that, I'm sure, and their ultimate goal is survival. Right now they feel threatened, and they must realize that the Lebanese are their only real safety net. Hence Raad's comments:

In an interview with a local television channel on Tuesday Raad said: "Hizbullah's arms will be discussed between all Lebanese parties to find the best solution for it.

"Hizbullah feels that it is a national matter that has to be agreed upon between the Lebanese themselves, and not the U.S. or the UN through its envoy Larsen."

Raad added that Hizbullah constitutes a line of protection for Lebanon, along with the Lebanese Army, and that UN Resolution 1559 constitutes a probable declaration of war on Hizbullah.

This is why Nasrallah has met with Jumblat, and continues to hold talks with others in the Maronite community, and the Patriarch Sfeir has confirmed that channels of dialogue are ongoing with Hizbullah. This will be the basis of the compromise, or at least, so we hope.

In the end, this will perhaps be the fatal blow to Syria's regional ambitions. There are no more cards. Now it's down to pure neogtiations, without the military pressure card that was Hizbullah and the Palestinian rejectionist factions. And you can tell that Asad is feeling the heat. In an interview on CNN Türk, Bashar lashed out with the usual cliché statements (the kind of formulaic garbage usually reserved for the venomous Buthaina Shaaban's unreadable op-eds in the DS and, even, the LA Times. Considering how formulaic all these statements are -- whether uttered by Shaaban, Imad Mustapha, Farouq Sharaa, or Bashar himself -- you get the feeling that they are blueprints to be used by any Syrian official!). But one of them took the cake. Bashar denied feeling uncomfortable for being labeled a dictator in some US circles. He said that he would feel uncomfortable only if this accusation came from the Syrian people!! Wait there's more! He went on to assert that he didn't come to power through a military coup and said: "those who accuse me of being a dictator are targeting the Syrian political system." He added: "were it not for the external interference, we would have gone a long way in the reform process." So now it's no longer the "old guard," it's "external interference." (Can you hear the crickets?)

Finally, and this is to keep us all happy, the Boston Review is promising an upcoming essay by Hizbullah groupie Helena Cobban "on Hizbullah and the prospects for a Muslim democracy." I don't know about you, but I can hardly wait!

Update: The following BBC News story (hat tip, Mechul) apparently supports Nick Blanford's position (see above):

[Hizbullah deputy leader] Sheikh [Naim] Qassim told the Financial Times that Hezbollah would discuss disarming "after Shebaa, but on condition that a credible alternative is found to protect Lebanon".

He said a Hezbollah reservist army might be "a formula for co-ordination with the Lebanese army".

While it seems that this may very well be the extent of the compromise Hizbullah is willing to make at this juncture (as apparent from Walid Jumblat's acquiescence), and that they're holding a dialoguing posture with the rest of the Lebanese (although with a preset red line!), it's still not clear to me what the "condition" they raise entails. It's not lost on anyone that their hanging on to the Shebaa Farms is a double-edged sword; a hornets nest of ambiguity: they are asking Israel to withdraw from territory that the UN holds as belonging to Syria (a position stressed by Larsen in his last visit to Syria and Lebanon). So, do they see this is an absurd condition, which means that they will get to keep their weapons indefinitely? Are they using it to maintain a regional role precisely because of the ambiguity of the ownership of the Farms?

It's still very unclear and tricky. It would be interesting to see if their bluff could be called. For instance, let's assume that they do end up taking on an "army reservist" role, and thus coordinate with the Lebanese Army. Then let's say a joint Hizbullah "reserves" and Lebanese Army patrol takes over the border control, with a declared cessation of Hizbullah military offensives in Shebaa. What happens if Israel sees this as satisfactory and decides, to call the bluff, to withdraw from Shebaa? Will we then get another set of conditions, maybe the "liberation" other "Lebanese" territory? Already, no one trusts them in the country (especially not Jumblat). What would happen then? Who knows. For now, this is the red-line they're drawing and the condition they're setting. Let's see if it's just a bluff, or stalling tactic, or if they really feel that this is a face-saving compromise.