Across the Bay

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Well, I'm stuck in the middle with you
And I'm wondering what is I should do
It's so hard to wipe this smile from my face
Lose control and I'm all over the place
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

Talking to Anthony Shadid about what comes next for Syria, Lebanese MP and political scientist Farid el-Khazen said, "This is simply the beginning. There is little room for maneuver left for the Syrians now. They have to cooperate fully to save themselves from more isolation or they opt for rejection of the report, claiming it is all political. Syria doesn't have a middle-ground option."

Michael Young seems to agree:

With his back to the wall, what can Mr. Assad do? He can, of course, fully comply with the U.N. But that would be political suicide amid the fingers pointed at members of his inner core. Efforts to put Syrian suspects on trial at home, meanwhile, would be rejected out of hand by the international community. At best, the Syrians can pray that eventual wrangling over a mixed or international tribunal means Lebanon must try the case itself, under Syria's threatening eye. That will not protect Syria, however, from the retaliation of hostile states once the Mehlis report has been fully digested.

Or Mr. Assad can pursue brinksmanship -- in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict -- assuming this will strengthen his hand at a time when there is no ready alternative to his rule. He may be right, and his regime's collapse may take some time as nobody wishes to see Syria descend into chaos. However, such an impasse only heightens the chances that Syria will face increasingly harsher sanctions and perhaps even military retaliation from the U.S. over Iraq. Mr. Assad is being offered several ways to impale himself; his only leeway is choosing which is the most painless.

Even Josh Landis, who lately has been regurgitating the regime's line, concurs: "Bashar cannot possibly do what Washington is demanding of it -- give family members to an international court. My guess is that the regime will stick together on this. ... President Asad has not been directly implicated, but the rest of his family has been. Trying to separate him from them will require fratricide. He won't do it. He cannot do it."

Earlier he wrote, "If the bar for the investigation is raised too high, by demanding that top Syrian officials leave Syria to be interrogated, Syria will have to stonewall. Then the UN will have little choice but to impose sanctions."

Regardless of Josh's dishonest attempt at entirely making this an issue of the US vs. Syria (which is the way the Syrian regime is conceptualizing it), his last remark seems to be precisely what the Syrian regime is going to do: cooperate, within limits. In other words, although they are faced with only two choices, both bad, they are trying to carve out a third, impossible, and smart-ass alternative. This, in a nutshell, summarizes their entire foreign policy, which is something that Landis either refuses to see, or dishonestly keeps away from his readers. But that's another issue for another day.

Anthony Shadid's summary of the Syrian attitude explains the impossibility of the Syrian "third way": "offering enough gestures to fend off international pressure but making no concessions that might imperil a government that already feels besieged." Again, Syrian foreign policy in a nutshell. The tragico-comical thing is that the Syrians are still playing this game (it's the only one they know how to play) even at this stage (as in that pathetic letter by the stooge Imad Mustapha, that Josh so stupidly paraded on his blog in a brain-dead moment of frustration. Its essence is this: we will give you these half-assed gestures in Iraq [it's so perfectly telling that Josh left out the Lebanon part from the letter. Ask Flynt Leverett, he'll tell you why] in secret through intelligence channels -- ah, the good ol' days! -- and you publicly acknowledge our help and stop pressuring us in Lebanon.) It's the fantasy dream of the Assads and their cheerleaders, born out of a terribly inflated self-image.

So Josh's earlier assessment, that the Syrians will stonewall, and will not give up people like Asef Shawkat or Maher Assad, is correct. This brings us back to square one: there are only two options, with no third. Neither one looks good for Assad.

Another possibility that Assad would like to pursue, as pointed out by Michael, is to try to avoid an international or mixed trial and keep the process local in Syria (where he can follow through on his statement to Amanpour to treat any guilty parties as "traitors," just as long as they're small potatoes) and Lebanon, where Assad will try to use the threat of violence, as well as bank on breaking consensus in Lebanon by using pro-Syrian politicians fearful of embarrassing revelations.

The first option will clearly backfire, in light of the report of Terje Roed-Larsen on Syria's failure to fully implement UNR 1559, and especially now in light of the latest arrests of saboteurs, who confessed to being asked by a "non-Lebanese" security service to carry out terrorist operations in Lebanon. Quoting security sources, Al-Mustaqbal named Syrian intelligence official Jameh Jameh as the "non-Lebanese" in question (hat tip, Kais, who has been doing a great job blogging the Mehlis report and its aftermath). Furthermore, the French made it very clear that Syria will be held responsible for any terrorist attacks (explosions, assassinations, etc.) in Lebanon.

As for the other part, the embarrassing material has already come out in the interim report, most notably in the matter of "Mr. X" and his conversation with murder suspect Rustum Ghazaleh. Mr. X turned out to be Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

Saad Hariri is already capitalizing on that. In his televised address to the Lebanese people, Hariri spoke repeatedly about how the previous order attempted to "politically assassinate" his father, and when that failed, they assassinated him physically. Hariri, backed by the majority in Parliament, is adamant that the culprits be tried in an international tribunal. The only ones that were opposing this were the Lahoud people and the two Shiite parties, Hizbullah and Nabih Berri's Amal. It would be disastrous for the the Shiite parties to oppose it now, as it would take on sectarian dimensions -- what Assad wants. But Seniora is working on eliminating that option.

Proof is in the pudding as they say. Today, An-Nahar's headline story read: "the HA representatives [in the cabinet] were alone asking mild questions about the international tribunal, but the majority of the Ministers expressed their support for the call to establish such a tribunal, but delayed the issuing the demand to the right moment." In other words, HA has begrudgingly agreed not to sabotage Seniora's and Hariri's demands, and defer the issue, with the compromise being agreeing to Mehlis completing his mission until December 15. Hizbullah's stance can perhaps be discerned from Jumblat's statement: backing an international tribunal "if necessary," and under strict UN oversight (i.e., so as not to be used by the US). This comes after a late visit from Seniora to Hasan Nasrallah (Seniora also met with Berri). The An-Nahar piece also notes that the cabinet meeting was held without Lahoud's approval. He has no more standing whatsoever.

Hizbullah has also been cleared in the Mehlis report, so that is a great thing for internal Lebanese stability, and the avoidance of Sunni-Shiite sectarian tension. Going along with the international tribunal (or at least a mixed tribunal with Lebanese judges serving as well, but safe from Syrian intimidation) will be a wise additional move in that direction. Feris Khishen had written about this the other day, and concluded, "the tribunal needs reassured witnesses. Reassured witnesses need to be free from the terrorist pressures placed on Lebanon. The judges in turn need assurance, for if terrorism doesn't hit them, it may hit their families. Since things are that simple, whoever among the Lebanese will stand against the international tribunal will be an accomplice in the crime of obstructing justice by a proper trial. This is what everyone will avoid." It should be noted, however, that Seniora (and Jumblat) has said that he is opposed to sanctions on the Syrian people, but for targeted sanctions against those involved in the crime.

In his piece today, Khishen noted the clearing of Hizbullah by the Mehlis report in his rejection of the charges made by Syria that the report is "politicized" (a remarkably stupid charge). If the issue was to use UNR 1595 to get results on the remainder of UNR 1559 (Hizbullah's and the Palestinian camps' weapons), then one would've at least expected a reference to either Hizbullah or the Palestinian camps. However, the report cleared them both, and the only Palestinians to be fingered by the report belonged to factions controlled by Syria. As for Abu Adas, the Islamist that the report says was coerced by Bashar's in-law, Asef Shawkat (who is named on this issue even in the "edited" version of the report), Khishen sees this as the attempt by Syria to use the Islamist angle to try to continue its attempts at reaching an intelligence-based deal with the US like the one stupidly flaunted by Josh.

This may have an element of truth in it, especially if you heard the remarks of Syria's ambassador to the UK, Sami Khiyami, on BBC News. It was quite comical, and typical of Syrian officials. Khiyami accused the report of "starting out" professionally, but instead of further investigating the "fundamentalist organization" responsible, and inquire about "what government" had infiltrated it (Sami's "subtle" hint: Israel or perhaps the CIA!), it decided to instead revert to "witnesses and telephone calls" (sic! I kid you not!). Unfortunately for Sam, the report does investigate the fundamentalist organization (the Ahbash. The other one was likely invented by Syria) and does find that it was propped up and infiltrated by the another government: Syria!

In light of this dilemma, the ever-funny As-Siyassah published two hilarious tabloid-style articles on Assad yesterday and today. In yesterday's article (accessible in PDF), it claimed that Assad's mother has decided that Asef cannot be handed over, as he's the strong man of the regime. Therefore, Bashar is said to have offered the heads of two Arab states (presumably Egypt and Saudi Arabia) that he would step down and move to London, provided he's not prosecuted! Today, it claimed that Bashar has lost weight and is taking tranquilizers, and is no longer speaking to his brother and brother-in-law, out of suspicion, but is nevertheless unable to hand them in! In yesterday's article, it alleged that Asef has mobilized his loyalists in the military, while Maher has mobilized his in the Presidential Guard, as the top dogs of the regime now all don't trust each other.

All kidding aside, the possibility of infighting over this is not too far fetched. David Ignatius recently raised that possibility: "If Assad's grip weakens and he can't or won't clean house in Damascus, the season of coup and counter-coup will begin for real."

Ammar Abdulhamid, now safely away from the reaches of the embattled "General Dashing" (Asef Shawkat), notes the possibility of "implosion", and quotes a local saying, that now that the cow has fallen, or is about to fall, the butchers will multiply.

While that's a possibility, "going down together" is equally, if not more, plausible. At this stage, they're all in this together. The Mehlis report showed how the entire structure is involved one way or another, down to the clown Farouq ash-Sharaa and his deputy Walid al-Muallim. And they're all stuck. As Michael put it, "Mr. Assad is being offered several ways to impale himself; his only leeway is choosing which is the most painless."

Perhaps it's a good time for me to once again present my proposal, for when the time comes.

Update: Bashar makes a move in Lebanon? Jund ash-Sham engages in a firefight with locals in Ta'mir outside the Ain el-Helweh camp.

Update 2: Al-Mustaqbal claims that the questioning of the three arrested suspects -- alledgedly commissioned by Jameh Jameh -- have confessed that Jameh had asked them to throw sound bombs into the March 14th crowd in order to cause clashes between the demonstrators and the Army.