Across the Bay

Friday, April 15, 2005

US Ideas on Syria

Michael Young asks around in Washington about US positions on the fate of the Assad regime, and the role of Hizbullah in post-Syrian era Lebanon:

The mood in the Bush administration is that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is not viable, perhaps even in the medium term, and that talk of gradual "reform" along the lines of what Assad and his acolytes have been trying to peddle abroad in the past four years is ridiculous in the current context. Worse for Assad, there seems little American fear that once he leaves or is made to leave office, Syria would be dominated by Islamists.

The Syrian regime has tried to heighten that fear, but has also helped undermine the effort by making conciliatory gestures toward the Muslim Brotherhood of late, including returning property confiscated from its members in the area of Hama in the early 1980s, at the height of the anti-Baathist insurgency. That has smacked of weakness, both with the Brotherhood and in the United States, as did the release two weeks ago of 312 Kurdish prisoners. Everywhere, it seems, Assad is throwing off ballast, but he may soon get rid of too much, including vital pillars of his power.

Michael derives some satisfaction from the contempt the Syrians are now facing in Washington, as well as complete lack of interest in cutting a deal with Syria over Lebanon, or even allow for the "special relation" to return to the suzerain-vassal dynamic established by the Syrians:

It is some satisfaction that the Syrians are facing the same contempt in Washington that they have so liberally dispensed when dealing with Lebanon. No doubt they would deny having anything to do with the delay in Lebanese parliamentary elections (much as a Syrian prankster at the United Nations denied they controlled security in Beirut when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was murdered). However, no one in the Bush administration buys such assertions; even State Department doves are watching the Syrians like hawks. As one official put it, the U.S. is "not in the souq" with Syria on Lebanon.

At the National Security Council (NSC), meanwhile, a top official insists that while relations between Lebanon and Syria may be "special" by virtue of the countries' being neighbors, "it shouldn't be a colonial relationship. There will be friction with Syria if it doesn't respect this." Asked whether the Syrian regime is on life support, he avoided a direct answer, but accepted that the U.S., like most Arab regimes, thought "Syria was not maneuvering very well." He also said, with a hint of derision, that "pressure on Syria has not been very great; it can be greater," implying that Assad had perhaps caved in by so quickly withdrawing from Lebanon.

By the way, that attitude on Lebanese political independence seems to be firmly shared by France.

It also seems that Assad needs to pull one hell of an act to convince anyone on the issue of reform (see Ammar's latest post on what's going on in Syria. He's not holding his breath either). In other words, if he thinks that more of the same of what he's been doing for the last 5 years will suffice, he's sorely mistaken:

Assad is on his own, and his austere brief is to change everything, to do so quickly and to demand absolutely nothing in return. 

The US is insisting that elections be held on time, and the attempts by Syria's sycophants to delay it won't be tolerated:

If there is any salvation for those politicians congregating in the debris of the Ain al-Tineh grouping (barring, for the moment, Hizbullah), it is not in hitching their fortunes to a sinking Syria; it is in participating in the creation of a consensual new Lebanese order. For starts this means that a new prime minister-designate with some backbone be named, and that the upcoming government not be turned into a goldmine for pre-election patronage.

It seems, as Jonathan Edelstein pointed out, that a compromise candidate to lead the caretaker government has been elected, and that's Najib Miqati.

As Jonathan noted, at this stage, it's fine, and Miqati seems to be someone everyone can live with to do his limited job:

All things considered, this probably isn't a bad outcome. Given Mikati's previous insistence on freedom of action in forming a cabinet, it seems likely that he'll act quickly to form a neutral, technocratic government, possibly drawn primarily from outside Parliament. This would be acceptable to the opposition and the moderate loyalists, and will increase the chances of a timely electoral law and a smooth, professionally administered vote. In contrast to the one-party government that Mrad would have tried to install, this seems to the best way to get out of the current crisis and move on to elections.

Considering the immense popular frustration (including hints at taking it to the streets again, should the elections be botched), and the apparent flexibility of the opposition on this issue, I think that Miqati will likely act as Jonathan said.

Walid Choucair noted the other day:

Damascus' rigid policy has so far remained in place and was evident in its support of the naming of outgoing Lebanese Defense Minister Abdel-Rahim Mrad as Lebanon's new prime minister. Syrian officials contacted their Lebanese allies, asking them to name him in parliamentary consultations.

According to some of Damascus' closest allies, the fact that Syria chose Mrad instead of Tripoli MP Najib Mikati, another close ally, is due to Mikati's willingness to abide by some of the opposition's demands.

Those allies said Damascus was not embarrassed by its preference for Mrad but rather it chose the outgoing defense minister because its policy is to opt for confrontation when under pressure. Damascus does not want to fulfill the opposition's demands under pressure, especially those related to the dismissal of security chiefs, who Mikati has said he will give an administrative vacation if he succeeds in forming the new Cabinet.

I wonder, contra Choucair, whether the election of Miqati, the way it happened, already signals a weakening of Syria's coercive powers (although Mrad did "consult" with Rustum Ghazaleh who's still in Anjar). For instance, Berri's bloc abstained from nominating anyone, and didn't back Mrad outright (lack of fiat from Damascus, or internal political repositioning?). Berri also made his backing conditional on the adoption of the electoral law he favors, i.e., the larger district (mouhafaza) with proportional representation, and not the small district (qada') favored by the Patriarch Sfeir and the opposition. Walid Jumblatt laid out his preferences: the small district. If not, then the mouhafaza based on the Taef, but after redrawing them. If neither one works, then back to the 2000 election law. (cf. this post by Jonathan Edelstein.)

It might also be that Berri played a smarter hand than Hizbullah on this one. Hizbullah apparently backed Mrad. Does Hizbullah really think it can still fool people into believing that it's a neutral "nationalist" party, and not Syria's Praetorian Guard? They have cast their lot heavily with Syria at every chance. It's not lost on the rest of the Lebanese. Furthermore, a lot of their rhetoric on the Lebanese system has echoed much of their earlier position on the Islamic state. Take for instance this quote from a truly repulsive, and barely concealed propaganda piece by Hizbullah groupie, Helena Cobban:

“Z.H.,” who asked to be described simply as “a source close to Hizbullah,” talked to me about the party’s strategy for working within Lebanon’s problematically democratic political system. At the parliamentary level, the Hizbullah-led bloc now has 12 deputies out of 128, including, as Z.H. eagerly noted, “two Sunnis and one Christian.” Although Hizbullah has held a parliamentary bloc of around this size since 1992, it has thus far refused to seek any ministerial slots. Z.H. explained why:

    We feel that a party that’s in the government should influence its whole program . . . But in Lebanon, you can’t pursue your own party’s program in government because governments are always formed through coalitions. Elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program. And then, it’s easier to hold the party accountable.

Cobban may find this cute, but anyone familiar with Hizbullah's earlier rhetoric cannot help but recognize the familiar overtones. One ruling party, with one "program," that influences thing, and a disdain for coalition politics. That's a barely modified version of their talk about an Islamic state in the 80's. It may very well be a bargaining tactic, but I've yet to be convinced that Hizbullah has been "reformed." Their Islamist agenda never disappeared, despite all the nonsense Cobban wrote. Their line (as well as Fadlallah's) has been: "circumstances are not right" for the establishment of an Islamic state. You have to "convince" the Lebanese public to play along (cf. the quote in Cobban's piece: "If we want to get to full democracy here we need to have everyone persuaded of its benefits, and not afraid that they would be overthrown. ... So we’ll hang onto this confessional balance we have for now. But I don’t know what will happen in 20 years." I.e., substitute "democracy" for "Islamic state." Groupies like Cobban swallow the line whole, naturally.) That, more than anything, is why they're eager to do away with the current system, and they see this as their chance to make headway in that direction. I don't think it will work.

Back to Michael's piece. "And what of Hizbullah?" asks Michael:

The NSC official insists he is "worried" with the party, but also argues it "has its own interests, separate from Iran and Syria." He thinks there must be a "realistic timeframe" for Hizbullah's disarmament, and suggests the way to do this is to reinforce the Lebanese Army, which could fill the gap left by the party. "The new [Lebanese] government should tell us what the army needs."

As for Syria's using its links with Hizbullah to destabilize Lebanon, but also engaging in other efforts to provoke chaos once its soldiers pull out of the country, the senior NSC policymaker put it this way: "We have told Syria you are responsible for violence in Lebanon. If Syria wants to escalate the violence, it will be another Syrian mistake." This phrase was echoed in the lapidary opening question posed by a senior Pentagon official known as a hard-liner on the Middle East to two Lebanese visitors: "What mistake will Assad make next?"

Michael seems to share my position on the weakening of Syrian coercive influence:

The simplistic assumption is that the longer elections are delayed, the more the opposition will fray and the better the pro-Syrians will be able to protect themselves and stage a comeback. The only problem is that it will be much more difficult for Assad to sustain collaboration once Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents are gone. Gradually, the political class, which will include present Syrian allies, may see fewer and fewer advantage in deferring to Damascus.

I wonder if Berri's move falls in that category. And, as Michael notes, this shouldn't surprise anyone:

After all what does Syria offer its local friends except subservience? After 29 years, the Syrian regime, which we must reportedly thank for having robbed Lebanon blind, assassinated its leaders, bombed it cities and killed many thousands of its civilians, leaves a legacy no one cares to resurrect. Even the politicians who seconded Syria in its endeavors must realize that they finally have an opportunity to break free. If the world's superpower advises this and is willing to make things happen, shouldn't those who until recently took orders from Assad bother to take a chance?

As I have made it a habit to say, "let's see!"