Across the Bay

Saturday, October 29, 2005

What Will Bashar Do?

A few items on Syria. An interview with Michael Young by Bernard Gwertzman of CFR as well as this op-ed by Young in IHT:

Bogus cooperation will not go far, nor will efforts to try the possible suspects in Syrian courts, unless this follows an internationally endorsed Syrian investigation. It is unlikely that a political deal - where Syria might be offered breathing room in exchange for ending its support for the Iraqi insurgency, leaving Lebanon alone and cutting its ties to Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah - could avert a handover of officials who might have participated in Hariri's assassination. At best, Assad can play for time and avoid giving Mehlis anything to strengthen his case.
Assad will enforce unity inside, but may also accept confrontation outside.
The real question, however, is whether political forces inside Syria will sit idly by as the regime takes the country into a period of prolonged uncertainty. There may be no alternatives today to Bashar Assad, but as his regime prepares for a siege, political spaces may be filled by those who do not wish to suffer for the Assads.

The confrontation has indeed been flexed, with the Palestinians in Lebanon, and perhaps with the IJ operation in Hadera, which has prompted the Quartet to call on Syria to expel IJ. As for cooperation, after a surprise lightning visit by Mubarak to Damascus, where the Egyptian president told his Syrian counterpart that he has no choice but to cooperate, Bashar announced the launching of a Syrian investigation to work with the UN probe. The typical Syrian aspect of this move was to also beat the Security Council vote on a resolution demanding cooperation that is said to have gathered the nine required votes to pass. On the other hand, it undermines Syria's rejection of the Mehlis Report.

It is doubtful, as Michael wrote, that the UN will simply accept a Syrian-led effort that will produce nothing new. Proper interviews with Asef, Maher, and Bashar himself have to be conducted in a proper environment abroad. I share Michael's skepticism that this will go smoothly.

IHT also published another op-ed by Andrew Tabler. Reading Andrew's piece, you can see some of Josh Landis' proposals on "carrots" repeated (Andrew is actually the source of the Iraqi-pipeline "carrot"). Andrew's piece contains some inherent paradoxes. For one, Andrew doubts whether anyone in Syria can reverse the 30-year old policy. But then he says that Assad should be given a chance to prove he's in charge. In charge to do what? Aren't the demands precisely the abandonment of Syria's 30-year old foreign policy? I mean, if not, then what exactly is the change in behavior that's being requested!? I'll tell you, based on that incredibly stupid letter by the hapless Imad Mustapha that Josh published, what Bashar's fantasy is: covert intelligence cooperation in Iraq. Period. Well, that's not gonna happen.

Secondly, if the country is run by committee (what I've called the family's inner circle, and certainly Bashar is part of it, so he's not the odd man out), then what does consolidating power even mean?! He already did that and there is absolutely no progress, and by doing that he made Asef in charge of several key positions. So if the suggestion is consolidating more power in the hands of Bashar alone (a proposal that could be dubious on its own, since it even narrows the base more!), doesn't that mean dumping Maher and Asef? isn't that what we've talked about (Michael Young, Lee Smith and I) and how it's quite unlikely (as Josh himself said), if he tries there's bound to be violence? So in the end Andrew's proposal takes us nowhere new. It's the same dilemma. Andrew's proposal has already been made through the edited version of the Mehlis Report. When that report named Asef and Maher, everyone knew the deal, as Lee Smith made clear. Everyone doubts that Bashar will comply with that demand. The question then becomes whether he'll do the old thing of sitting tight, burning up his neighbors, and hoping this whole thing goes away (as Josh said in so many words in recent posts). It's a big gamble. It remains to be seen what the Mubarak visit and Bashar's decision of cooperation actually mean. The move on the Syria-Iraqi border doesn't mean anything to me. In fact, it's perhaps an indication of Bashar's intransigence on the limits of what he's willing to do, and the games he still thinks he can play (offer hints of something, just enough to get into a process, then stall indefinitely on everything else).

If the idea is behavior change, then don't be suckered. Let it all be public (no covert intelligence cooperation coupled with double talk) and clear, and followed up on. Syria's game is talk and hints, but no real action. It would be disastrous for all involved (including the Syrian people) if there is no accountability. The EU has a lot of leverage and it's clear that all that matters to Bashar is the US. It was made clear to him what's requested of him. His only remaining shot at presenting himself as a viable option to be worked with is for him to dump Asef and Maher, open up to the opposition, and open up the system, while still remaining in power, but by quickly enacting serious reforms and serious concrete steps towards democratization, while abandoning the fantasy of returning to the pre-February 14 status quo in Lebanon, let alone the Iraq and Palestinian fronts. But I seriously doubt he'll do that.

Lee Smith's op-ed in the DS also ponders this matter.

[T]he Syrian "deal" that the Bush administration allegedly floated two weeks ago - namely that Damascus give up the suspects in the Hariri assassination, abandon Palestinian and Lebanese rejectionist groups, lay off Lebanon, and end the passage of combatants into Iraq in exchange for leaving Syria alone - demanded that President Bashar Assad effectively renounce his father's legacy and at last recognize that he's not going to get anything (never mind the Golan Heights) by negotiating over other peoples' dead bodies.

The opening hinted at in the Mehlis report is arguably more palatable: that the president give up his brother Maher, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, and he will get yet another chance to prove what so many desperately want to believe - that the Westernized Internet-savvy young president is a reformer at heart who wants what's best for his people. He probably could make such a concession; after all, the region resounds with the names of men and women who have been done in by friends and family, and what echo do the names of the bad ones have in history? But it is improbable Assad will do so.

Lee's point, which dovetails well with Michael's call for the Syrians to move from passiveness, is that the regime should not be allowed to play out its internal battles in its neighbors' yards and at their expense:

Perhaps a more practical approach is for the international community to find how to shift Syria's preferred venue for settling its own issues, which is anywhere but inside Syria. Such a scenario, however, might well fulfill my Alawite friend's fears: ordinary Syrians will not feel safe in their own country, at least not until they've found a way to make their leaders responsible both to their own people and to Syria's neighbors.

Michael called this Assad's final card, that the world is afraid of chaos in Syria should he be deposed. Well, it's not an acceptable option that Bashar continues to burn his neighbors for fear that the Syrians will fight each other! That's hardly regional stability! Nor is it acceptable to succumb to Bashar, and get him back in control of Lebanon, keeping the rejectionist gun over Abbas' head, and the Jihadists flowing in to massacre Iraqis, all while hiding under the rhetoric of Arabism. Lee put it well:

Arabism is not what it once was because more often than not these days the enemy is so obviously other Arabs.

A quick reminder of the truth behind this statement is the reaction of the Iraqis to other Arabs, as well as the reactions of the Lebanese blogosphere, in all its sectarian diversity. This note about Algeria's attitude at the SC is the perfect example of what drives the Lebanese people crazy: "Algeria is also suspicious about demands that Syria stop meddling in Lebanon's internal affairs and stop supporting terrorism." Naturally! But now you understand why Hariri and Seniora are asked to confess their allegiance to Arabism, as it is obvious that that the "citadel of Arabism" next door not only murdered Hariri, but is still terrorizing the country.

So the Arabism nonsense may buy Bashar some time, but it certainly won't bail him out, as the other Arabs states won't cover him if he doesn't cooperate, and if he continues destabilizing his neighbors. Thankfully, an already passed UN resolution (1559) deals with Syrian intervention in Lebanon, and can be used separately to make sure Bashar doesn't get lofty ideas. That's why Seniora's calls to properly demarcate the border with Syria and to exchange embassies are very important and necessary and should be fully supported by the Int'l Community (as in this initiative by French MPs).

Let's wait and see. Knowing Bashar's record, and Syria's foreign policy, I'm not hopeful.