Across the Bay

Monday, October 24, 2005

Clipping Bashar's Wings

A number of items on Syria and Lebanon:

First, an excellent piece by Michael Young in Slate. It recaps and elaborates on his WSJ op-ed (see below). The following statement I found interesting: "It becomes obvious that the Syrian strategy was one of imposing omertà, or the law of silence, by implicating as many people as possible." One of the things that struck me about the report, which I mentioned in my post yesterday, is how it's an indictment of the entire structure, down to Farouq ash-Sharaa and Walid al-Muallim, and it will be impossible to pin on some low-level security or intelligence official. Nevertheless, it's something that baffled the Angry Hair in his useless "analysis" of the Report, which was more about Israel (needless to say) than Syria!

The following concluding paragraphs address what I wrote about in yesterday's post:

The ["track changes"] incident provoked confusion, with Mehlis telling a press conference he had removed names from the final version because the men were identified by a single source and he wanted to maintain the presumption of innocence. That was nonsense: In other parts of the report, suspects who are also identified by single sources are named. Moreover, Shawkat reappears elsewhere in the document on the basis of a single source, who says he forced the apparent scapegoat of the assassination to tape a bogus statement claiming responsibility. It may well be that Mehlis and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed to release the report with the track changes visible as a warning to Syria that suspicion has reached the highest levels of the regime, so, Assad had better cooperate.

The thing is, Assad has no such leeway. His brother and brother-in-law are arguably more powerful than he is, and neither will voluntarily become a fall guy. On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council meets to decide how to respond to the Mehlis findings. It is unclear if the Security Council will agree to sanctions, but it seems almost certain it will demand that Syria allow its officials to be interviewed outside the country. That would put Assad in a bind, by compelling him to cooperate with an inquiry his officials have already condemned. Or he could refuse and suffer the consequences. Assad knows that his regime can either stand, and eventually collapse, united; or it can collapse much sooner if a family rift develops over addressing the Mehlis inquiry.

I've heard suspicions about the "track changes" that might support Michael's thesis of an Annan message to Bashar, which then developed into a call for Bashar to cooperate. That then leads to the two options (as I noted yesterday), and how both are bad for Assad. Michael's "dog eat dog" (to milk the Reservoir Dogs theme!) scenario at the end was also explored in my post.

Lee Smith dissents, and writes this in response to my post:

I think Bashar probably could give up Maher and Assef and survive--it's arguably a better deal than the one Bolton ostensibly floated. By the way, I'd give Imad Mustafa a break since I think his silliness was largely a response to Bolton's overture, which was essentially a pretty funny riff on the regime's lovely Arabist adventures--with the punch line that the US will toss you an aid package. How's that for legitimacy? Anyway, Bashar of course probably won't take the deal suggested in Mehlis and he'll probably explain that to Maher and Assef both calmly with some sort of attack on Lebanon very soon. See, fellas, like Dad said, we stay together by settling our regime issues and establishing legitimacy outside the country and we get away with it because we conduct our regional violence against all comers under the guise of Arabism and resistance. So, let's stay together on this one. Maybe what's going on outisde Ain al-Helweh today is a part of his mash note to Maher and Assef.

Of course he'll also keep negotiating with the US in Lebanon. I think the Mehlis report, especially the tracked changes was a part of the US negotiating tactics and it shows a very strong hand. Syria may not seem to have a strong hand but then again a little bit of violence goes a long way at this point with this White House. It's still unclear to me what they can do about Syria. No one as far as I know has done a good job explaining this. Military actions? Like what? More cross-border stuff? Sabotage? Sanctions? Even the most dire sanctions may put pressure on the Syrian people but it is unclear how that is going to affect the regime. I think we should keep in mind first that not only don't we know how much tolerance a populace has for leaders that put the country, and its economy, in an ugly place--look at Iraq and the USSR--and, second, that this is a nation that has chosen stability with dictators for many years now--I don't know how ordinary Syrians express their dissatisfaction with the regime. So, why can't the regime outlast Bush? and more? I'd really love to read someone explain how exactly sanctions are going to bring down this regime, step by step. I think everyone is whistling in the dark on this one.

Anyway, I think that's the regime's position and the problem is that they are going to keep negotiating with the US and they're going to do it in Iraq, Israel but mostly through Lebanon since there is no security here at all. So maybe the question isn't really how to get sanctions to work or how to change the regime or what action the US and France can take against Syria directly, but how to get the regime to change its venue and face off against each other. It has to go from Lebanon and Iraq and back to Syria itself. I know it sounds crummy and it broke my heart to hear a young Alawite woman upset yesterday about the country losing its security but they've had it at the expense of their regional neighbors for 30 years now, so it's time for them to take responsibility. The Mehlis Report is a part of this, especially as Maher and Shawkat are named, but unless the US and others keep driving a wedge in this regime they're going to stay whole and rather than fight there they'll 'negotiate' elsewhere.

By the way, a question for other readers: does anyone know anything about Syria's new private TV station, Sham, which is ostensibly very Islamist in its discourse? I know very little about it, but if it is very Islamist, as I've heard, this would suggest that since the regime licensed the station they are confident that they have a pretty good grip on their Islamist problem.

There are two seemingly contradictory points in Lee's comment. On the one hand, Lee essentially thinks that instead of infighting, the regime will tough it out and take its own battle, as it has always done, to its neighbors, and play chicken with the international community. In other words, it's the politics of brinksmanship that Michael talked about in his WSJ op-ed.

To be sure, Lee's point about taking this battle back inside Syria, and further exploit the rifts within the regime is crucial. But I don't understand how he squares it all with the earlier suggestion that Bashar can give up Maher and Asef without them figuring out and doing something about it, which brings us back to the issue of implosion and infighting. Lee's other proposal of exporting their problem is more likely, and that's what everyone expects them to do. That will only precipitate a more concerted action against them, and eliminate once and for all the fallacy that the Assad regime is a guarantor of stability (to the contrary, it's a source of chaos). That effort would likely include the Arab power players who are trying to avoid chaos as much as possible, and if Bashar continues to foment it, they will lift what little (if any) symbolic cover they still offer him, and by that I mainly mean Egypt (for more, see further down).

There's another difference between Lee's and Michael's premises. Lee frames this in terms of a US message to Syria. I don't think I agree. I think this is more of a UN thing that the US may have went along with in order to let the investigation take its course, and basically let Bashar stew and force him to make an unfavorable decision either way (as Michael points out). But they're not waiting this one out, à la Qaddafi, and they've made that clear. There will not be a years-long sanctions regime, I don't think. I think everyone is aware that that will not do the job, as Lee rightly points out (although there will most likely be targeted sanctions against the fingered regime members). I think this is now much broader, and Syria (and Josh Landis) is misreading it.

Lee is right to point out that there are no clear-cut mechanisms that have been made known. What they're likely to do, is continue the investigation beyond December, impose sanctions on Syrian regime figures, and pressure Bashar to let senior figures be interviewed abroad, and let him stew, keep eliminating all his regional options, and turn this internal battle inwards.

With regards to Lebanon, the section of the Report quoted by Michael is incredibly important, and it seeks "sustained effort on the part of the international community to establish an assistance and cooperation platform together with the Lebanese authorities in the field of security and justice." These are the two places that Bashar will seek to exploit in Lebanon. If he does so with violence, I don't think it will get him results, and neither do the Lebanese interviewed by Michael Totten. It will terrorize the Lebanese but won't make the Int'l Com. balk, and suddenly give Bashar a pass. It will make him look even more guilty, and eliminate the "Annan option" of giving him one last chance. If it escalates too far, who knows, it might even lead to UN-sanctioned military strikes.

He might attempt proxy violence, as he did with the Jund ash-Sham people, who have long been suspected to be Syrian-controlled, if not Syrian-invented (they're the ones who threatened Mehlis and Seniora -- nice coincidence -- in leaflets that were treated with great skepticism by Feris Khishen, who also figured they're Syrian-controlled, or Syrian-invented. Syria tried to sell them as some sort of a Zarqawi/al-Qaeda offshoot that threatens them just as much. No one bought it at the time, no one buys it now. See English report here, hat tip, Athena. As'ad "the Hair" AbuKhalil pathetically spat out some half-baked nonsense about this being the "new" Lebanon and the result of Hariri-armed groups! For more, see the Lebanese Political Journal). He will also try to use Hizbullah and Amal. Yesterday I noted that Seniora scored a relative victory by getting the cabinet (which includes HA and Amal representatives) to support the Mehlis Report, and to call for him to finish his mandate, until Dec. 15th. Yet, outside the cabinet, Amal and HA later issued a joint statement somewhat echoing the Syrian line. "The report did not lead the Lebanese to the awaited truth," said the statement issued after a joint meeting of the leadership of Amal and Hizbullah. "In order to find the truth, more serious and judicious investigation is required that is based on facts and tangible evidence -- not politics." To be sure, it's a carefully worded statement, and a careful position (some would say smart-ass), in that it is consistent with the compromise made with Seniora of supporting Mehlis' remaining investigation, while at the same time scoring brownie points with Syria. But I think this may be less about Syria than it is a message to Seniora to be careful with the choices he makes, and how far he goes along with the US (the end-all for Hizbullah is its own interests, and that means keeping their weapons). It's blackmail, which is what Hizbullah does best. But it's also the move of a party feeling threatened, especially since the Security Council will also be receiving Roed-Larsen's report on the implementation of UNR 1559 (perhaps the choice of the Jund Ash-Sham venue was meant again to raise the Palestinian factor for Seniora, as was done earlier with the other pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, and their smuggling of weapons across the Syrian border). Perhaps this piece by Sarkis Naoum, in which he relays the answers of a "top Shiite" cleric, may give an insight into the (paranoid) way HA is viewing the developments with Syria.

One hopes that it stays on this level, and that they don't go farther with this line. But if the investigation continues to bring out the goods against Syria, their position will be less tenable, and they've left somewhat of an escape hatch for themselves. It's a tight rope, and no one has forgotten Nasrallah's tasteless photo op with murderer Rustom Ghazaleh, a prime suspect in Hariri's assassination (hat tip, Stacey), which has given their self-righteous absolutism, and self-bestowed monopoly on "nationalism" a good hit (as Hazem Saghieh wrote, this type of attitude is inherently incompatible with Lebanon).

So far, it's being carefully handled, and the option of a full-blown Sunni-Shiite strife is not a given for Bashar. Let's see if it remains that way, and I think it will, because I don't think Amal and HA really want to be the ones responsible for such a situation. They will not destroy themselves for Bashar's sake, especially when the future of his regime is in doubt. But this is why I've been calling for Aoun to back the center, and not play with fire with Hizbullah (even as he continues to dialogue with them). Seniora will also continue to get all the international and Arab backing. Furthermore, if the investigation keeps delivering the goods, and it will, this whole thing will basically be just another stinker on HA's record (like the Mr. X is for Berri), that would be quickly swallowed up. However, for the investigation to work, the UN should continue to pressure Bashar to cooperate, and push it in a way that takes the battle inside Syria, and not let it play out in Lebanon. Let the regime turn against itself.

If Bashar continues to show himself to be a source of chaos, what will the Arab players do? The Arab League is now trying to foster a "national reconciliation" conference involving all Iraqi groups, which will hopefully give the Sunnis more confidence in the political process. It's also acknowledged the Kurds (breaking away from the tradition of Arab nationalism), and got the cooperation of the Shiites. In other words, it's an "Iraqi Taef" of sorts (which, by the way, will remove the option of letting Syria have a say in Iraqi affairs, which actually exceeds its weight, as Josh Landis so irresponsibly proposed, as part of a "deal" -- that ubiquitous word -- between the US and Syria. Notice how Iraq, and in Lebanon's case, Lebanon, are always secondary if not absent in such stupid scenarios). As I've mentioned again yesterday, this is my proposal for Syria as well. Unfortunately, the Arab League, being the dysfunctional body that it is, always comes after war had already broken out! But if stability is what Mubarak and the rest want, then Syria's regime, whether Bashar cooperates or not (for even if he cooperates, that itself may lead to infighting, but especially if he opts for brinksmanship or the usual regional "cards" or his fantasies of "negotiation"), may soon seem (if it hasn't already) quite an annoying source of instability better done away with altogether, even from the Arab standpoint (for the time being, their advice to him is "cooperate"), and my proposal would be a good way to go.

Update: Another pro-Syrian Palestinian faction attacks a Lebanese Army patrol.

Update 2: Tariq Tarshishi writes on Hasan Nasrallah's position.