Across the Bay

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Bashar Opts for Brinkmanship


Public "emotions" in Syria are, to a large extent, the product of the authorities and what these authorities do. It is a well-known case in military and dictatorial regimes, where the societal sentiment is subject to daily cooptation and regulation.
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The "patriotic" awareness that is being produced by the Syrian regime -- chauvinistic, hateful of Lebanon and the Lebanese -- may succeed in absorbing the contradictions of said regime, yet it will certainly not succeed in building a healthy Syrian patriotism.
Hazem Saghieh, Al-Hayat, 07/30/05.

How is Syria coping with the pressure? The way it always has, with violence. It is worthwhile to note that a state fearful of sectarian conflict runs a regional policy in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel that aims to provoke elsewhere its own worst nightmares at home.
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This real fear of being surrounded and vulnerable not only drives the regime's authoritarian apparatus, it is also the source of Syrian identity.
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Eventually, Syrians will have to learn how to construct a positive national identity out of a multisectarian, multiethnic society without dispatching their demons abroad or sweeping them under an Arab nationalist rug.
Lee Smith, The Weekly Standard, 10/10/05.

Rallying around this regime, under whatever pretext and regardless of the motives, is like rallying around a corpse. The only thing that this regime can deliver is decay.
Ammar Abdulhamid, 11/09/05.

To noone's surprise, Bashar has opted for brinksmanship. In a speech, aptly described by an AFP report as "typically long and rambling," the Syrian dictator essentially declared war, as Josh Landis put it. Similarly, Lebanese politician Roger Edde described the speech as "a decision to go to war against the International Community, and against the political stability and security of Lebanon, represented by its Prime Minister." The direct targets of the war, consistent with long-established Syrian foreign policy, are Syria's neighbors, especially Lebanon.

This is a predictable move, and certainly more expected than the fanciful notion that Bashar would bring the battle home and turn against his brother and/or brother-in-law, as some analysts like Seale and Leverett suggested. Back on Oct. 23, Michael Young explored Bashar's two equally bad options:

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.
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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.

If the Baath Party Congress didn't convince you that Bashar was a believer, or, at the very least, that he was going to stick with "revolutionary" Arab nationalism, then his speech today should end all discussion on the issue (see Beirut Spring for links to an English summary and audio excerpts).

Actually, we caught a glimpse of what the theme of the speech was going to be from the "regime's liberal" Sami Moubayed, who wrote a long English version of the "Syria as the Pan-Arab citadel of steadfastness" (which, by the way, said the exact opposite of his piece from a couple of weeks earlier). Lending credence especially to the quote by Saghieh, but also the ones by Smith and Abdulhamid above, Moubayed informed us that "there is a consensus between the street and government" on the issues of "Lebanon, Palestine and the Iraqi resistance." That was one of the main messages of the speech: that there is no chasm between the Assad regime and the Syrian people.

While Bashar's chauvinistic and paranoid (see Feris Khishen's piece) speech splattered the Iraqis, its main target was Lebanon. (And for all the "deal on Iraq" folks, let me point out what Bashar said in his speech -- the Americans must pull out of Iraq -- and what I recently wrote on the issue: "The only 'deal' the Syrians have in mind, to quote a friend of mine, is one where the U.S. agrees to withdraw, and a 'partnership' in which the Syrians see it out the door -- in Lebanon as well as Iraq.")

Bashar laid the standard line on Lebanon (reflecting, I might add, a deep-seated contempt and general outlook), and echoed much of Hasan Nasrallah's speech, with all the charges of treason, and collaboration with Israel (May 17 reference), culminating in a characterization that Lebanon has become a passageway, factory, and financier of conspiracies against Syria. One rather obvious was the line about how "the agents who brought the colonizers" [i.e., the Lebanese] will be hurt if any damage should befall Syria. An interesting point of convergence however between the two speeches was the focus on PM Seniora (and MP Saad Hariri). In a sense, this reflects the bad blood between the Assads and the Hariris, but also truly explains and vindicates the late Hariri's statement that "our problem really is with Bashar." I think now more than ever it's clear that good and healthy relations with Syria are seriously at odds with the current Assad-led status quo. I think the omission of Lebanon from all discussion by the Bashar cheerleaders, be it Leverett or Landis, is also indicative of this fact. The assassination of Hariri, contrary to the assertions about him made by Bashar in his speech, is the direct outcome of the horrible relation that Hariri had with Bashar from day one (again, see Khishen's piece. Khishen adds that Bashar's speech has lent credence and added support to the fact that he did threaten Hariri in their last meeting).

Bashar already has one dead Sunni PM on his hands. By coming out after Seniora, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf States and Jordan, he is, in essence, at once reflecting his total isolation (not to mention paranoia) from his Sunni Arab surrounding (except for the tiniest of self-interested efforts by the Egyptians to get him to cooperate, which, as this speech makes clear, have failed. Ibrahim Hamidi suggests that the speech is a result of these diplomatic failures), and sealing it. Bashar may soon find that even his last remaining card (that after him comes chaos) might no longer have any value if (as Lee also pointed out in the piece linked above) Assad's Syria becomes an intolerably destabilizing element anyway. This operates on several fronts: first there's obviously Iraq. But now that has expanded to Jordan. Regardless of whether Syria had anything to do with the latest attack in Amman or not, that attack will have repercussions on it. Zarqawi's network relies on Syrians operating from Syria, and this was an issue in the perivous attempt in Jordan using a truck full of explosives that originated in Syria, and which caused great tension between Syrian and Jordan, and added to their history of animosity and suspicion. Today King Abdallah declared his own war on terrorism and "those who support it." That might prove significant as Syria continues to support Jihadists in Iraq, and those are now finding their way into Jordan, via Syria.

The issue also expands to the Palestinian factions and the Palestinian camps. Jordan may also end up having a role in the West Bank (like Egypt in Gaza) and they are supporting Mahmoud Abbas (just like the Lebanese are trying to establish direct and official relations with Abbas to try to solve their own Palestinian problem). If Syria continues to undermine Abbas by supporting all the rejectionist factions, it will soon find itself in more trouble with the Jordanians, the Lebanese and the Egyptians (who themselves got hit earlier, and need to keep the Sinai and Gaza in order).

There may be yet another element in the Jordanian angle. Lee Smith wrote about this not too long ago in the Weekly Standard:

In the last two years, Amman has grown exponentially, with new luxury hotels, malls, and restaurants that seem to be positioning this once undistinguished Arab capital as a second Beirut. Indeed, some of the cash coming in is a direct result of Syria's forced withdrawal from Lebanon. "Lots of Syrian money came after it left Beirut," says Braizat. "The Syrians are investing to escape Bashar [al-Assad's] regime."

So, what does it mean that Syria's merchant class is putting money into the coffers of the country's long-time regional rival? "If the private sector in Syria is connected to the private sector here," Braizat argues, "then this is cementing its relationship with the government here, and they don't see the [Syrian] regime surviving."

In other words, Bashar has another Sunni problem: the Syrian merchant class. There have also been reports of flight of capital to Gulf accounts. If he continues to lead the country, and whatever financial interests they have, over the edge, they may soon decide to turn against him too. All this is speculative of course, but it's not quite fanciful either. Assad's base has already narrowed down to his immediate family, and even Alawites are voicing dissatisfaction (especially after Kanaan's death).

President Chirac (not the US) already told Assad that he's looking at sanctions. And, as Sec. Rice noted, "Mehlis can report problems at any time to the Security Council and does not have to wait until his final report, which is due Dec. 15. The next two weeks will be critical in determining Syria's intentions, Rice said." The State Department called Bashar's speech, "appalling."

Finally, there's Lebanon, where all of this is likely to play out. We are perhaps to expect more bombs, and more activity by pro-Syrian Palestinian factions (by the way, members of the Sa'iqa organization and the PFLP-GC were arrested on charges of belonging to a terrorist network with ties to Syrian intelligence officer Jameh Jameh, and for smuggling weapons respectively). But all eyes will be on Hizbullah. So far, there's been a rhetorical identity between the two. Also, the Shiite Ministers (representing Amal and Hizbullah) walked out of a cabinet session because Seniora wanted to discuss Bashar's attacks on Lebanon and on him personally. While they said that this didn't amount to a resignation from cabinet, the show clearly highlighted the tension between Hizbullah and Seniora that's been building for months. Yet, as L'Orient-Le Jour put it, it didn't amound to a cabinet crisis. The quote by Amal MP, Mohammad Khalifeh, supports my own reading, that before they made a decision, the Shiite MPs needed to confer with their respective leaderships.

How the episode transpired, according to the reports, is that Seniora (after opening the session addressing the Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace, so that HA doesn't jump all over him) wanted to discuss the speech, and the HA Minister Fneish decided that it shouldn't be discussed, under the pretext that they didn't get to study the speech (i.e., he didn't get yet what Nasrallah's reaction to it will be). In other words, Seniora wanted to force them to make a stand, and they wouldn't commit. The cabinet did issue a statement rejecting Assad's comments, and expressed surprise at his choice of words. The Hariri bloc also expressed its digust with the language, and that Assad decided to "stoop so low." As-Siyassah quoted anonymous sources in the Future Movement who considered the speech a direct threat against Lebanese leaders, which would open the door again to assassinations and physical liquidations of those who reject Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. They added that this serves to close the doors between Beirut and Damascus, that were being slowly attempting to reopen (On the repercussions on Lebanese-Syrian relations, see this piece by Bshara Sharbel). They also characterized ithe speech as hostile towards the Lebanese people, and eerily similar to speeches made by Saddam Hussein right before he was deposed, which makes it very dangerous, even amounting to suicide. For similar views, see Gebran Tueni's op-ed.

Even Jumblat (who was hoping the Egyptians would convince Bashar to cooperate) told Reuters that "describing Fuad Seniora in this fashion as an obedient slave of a hired slave is something not fit of the President of the Syrian Republic. Seniora's Arab credentials are clear." He added on Syria's cooperation: "his [Bashar's] talk about the subject of the investigation was ambiguous. UNSCR 1636 is clear, and cooperation will be in the interest of the Syrian regime. We want the truth to come out, and to know whether some of the members of the Syrian regime named in report were guilty or innocent." Apaprently, having Syrians interrogated in Monte Verde proved too much for Bashar to swallow, so much so that he even mentioned it in the speech.

Seniora replied indirectly to Assad at the end of a speech he gave at the opening of a Francophonic book fair: "I would like to address all the Lebanese inside Lebanon and abroad, and all the Arabs that the will of Lebanon and the Lebanese to hold on to a life of independence, freedom, democracy, and sovereignty will remain [unshaken]. Lebanon will remain committed to being part of the Arab nation and its causes, and its identity regardless of what has been and is being said. Lebanon is Arab, independent, sovereign, free, and democratic, and the unity of the Lebanese is the basis. Lebanon will remain attached to these values and will remain open to all cultures, first and foremost to the French culture."

It is extremely difficult to play the Arabist card with a Sunni. The Alawite Assad cannot out-Arabize the Sunni Seniora and Hariri. I've said this before, and now you realize the historic significance of the Sunni participation on March 14th, and the movement it represented. Moreover, as Lee put it, "Arabism is not what it once was because more often than not these days the enemy is so obviously other Arabs." What Seniora said, including the last part about Lebanon's openness to the West, is quintessentially Lebanese. Therefore, Hizbullah should be very careful in how it decides to respond and behave. It stands to look bad on both the Arab and Lebanese front if it reacts in the wrong way. And with the regional Shiite-Sunni tension as high as it is regionally (with all the implications of the Party's Iranian ties), they need to be exceptionally careful. It's not the Christians they're facing (they are quite secondary in this case), it's a regionally and internationally-backed Sunni PM with a majority, multi-sectarian Parliamentary bloc. A good example of the kind of support Seniora has can be seen in this statement by Lebanese Forces MP Antoine Zahra, quoted in as-Siyassah, which I think reflects a broad Lebanese sentiment: "we are proud of our methodical, diligent, and humble Prime Minister, who seeks to restore Lebanese rights without provoking anyone." He added his rejection of such contemptuous and haughty reference to Seniora.

On the other hand, a good example of what I meant about Seniora and Arabism can be found in the recent words of the PFLP-GC's Ahmad Jibril. A couple of weeks ago, when the Army layed siege to pro-Syrian Palestinian camps in the Bekaa, Jibril lamented that the "Arabist Sunni" current was being dragged into a stand-off with the Palestinians. His choice of words is very telling: "Arabist Sunnis." It's far more difficult to accuse a Sunni of being an Israeli agent and a traitor to Arabism, which is why Nasrallah's attacks have been relatively muzzled and qualified. We'll see how he decides to respond to Bashar's speech (and I anticipate he'll take an ambiguous stand, which he'll mistake for intelligence, but which will make him look even more bad domestically). Like I said, he stands to lose both domestically and regionally.

So in the end Bashar hasn't surprised anyone, and has stuck with petty defiance, which Syria has perfected. Let's see how, to quote Michael, he decides to impale himself... and burn his neighbors, especially Lebanon, doing it. The title of Ziad Makhoul's L'Orient-Le Jour piece said it well: "Assad lays down his final card: trying to burn everything before sinking."

Update: Kais of Beirut to the Beltway comments on Bashar's speech.