Across the Bay

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Interpreting Bashar's Speech

In my post on Bashar's speech, I included a number of pieces from the Lebanese papers reacting to it. I also noted the piece by Sami Moubayed that preceded the speech and foreshadowed it. That piece was published simultaneously with another one by another Syrian journalist close to the regime, Ibrahim Hamidi. Whereas Moubayed's piece signaled the hardcore Arab nationalism that we saw in Bashar's speech (it's almost like a set of bulletpoints that were taken up in the speech), Hamidi's floated the idea that the regime is willing to cooperate on regional issues.

Hamidi then came back after Bashar's speech (as I mentioned in my previous post) and explained that the speech was the result of the failure of all the diplomatic efforts by the Egyptians to get the Syrians off the hook of having to be questioned by Mehlis in Monte Verde, in Lebanon. That was reflected in the speech as well (btw. UNR 1636 denies the Syrian regime the right to determine the venue of the questioning). Nicholas Nassif of an-Nahar claimed that on Wednesday, the legal consultant to the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Riad Dawoodi, secretly went to Monte Verde and met for two hours with Mehlis. Apparently it was an attempt to try and convince Mehlis of accepting another venue than Lebanon. Mehlis obviously refused, and that sealed Bashar's decision to adopt the other alternative, floated by Moubayed, of a hardcore stance. (For this scenario in English, see Walid Choucair's commentary in the DS.)

Now Hamidi is back defending the line floated in his previous piece, and offering an "official interpretation" of the speech. That interpretation, versions of which did already appear in various outlets in Lebanon (and of course the BBC), holds that underneath the hardline rhetoric is indeed a signal that Bashar will cooperate. I tend to agree with Bshara Sharbel's assessment that those efforts seeking to find this "alternative reading," and digging for signs of pragmatism underneath the hardcore ideological discourse, are more wishful thinking than anything else. There was a line in the speech about the outsiders going after the "members of the household." Perhaps that's more than just figurative language.

But let's assume for the sake of argument that there is indeed a signal for a readiness to cooperate. What is Bashar's proposal? Let's turn to Hamidi for the answer. It's the same old line:

Because of his conviction that "the case is political not criminal" and that Mehlis will say in mid December that Syria "did not cooperate," Assad sent signals of moderation on the other fronts: Iraq, Palestine, peace [with Israel].

Where have we heard this before? Here's where. It's from Martin Indyk's interview with CFR where he talked about his meeting with Bashar in September of last year, after the passage of UNR 1559:

I came away from the meeting thinking that he had developed what appeared to be a very shrewd strategy; that he would cooperate with us over Iraq, that he would pursue peace with Israel in a serious way, and that he hoped in that way we would leave him alone to have his way with Lebanon.

Bingo. Bashar is not willing to offer anything new! (notice also, how Lebanon is what Bashar wants, while the Golan is negotiable! But of course!) It's pandering back to that "age of process" that I've described before, which was the hallmark of peolpe like Indyk and Leverett, who were both deeply involved in all the "processes" of the 90's (the difference is Indyk has now dumped Bashar, but Leverett, because he has much more at stake, is still holding the fort -- or should I say the "citadel of steadfastness"). I've described what Bashar has in mind in a recent post:

In other words, the US leaves Iraq immediately, and Syria expands its influence into Iraq. Josh Landis himself wrote that the Syrian regime sees the U.S. presence in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq, as the most serious threat to its vital interests in the region, even more serious than the threat of radical Sunni Islamists. So no amount of "cooperation" will matter. Despite what the Syrians say, it's diametrically opposed to their interests. Furthermore, I'll remind you of what Bashar told Amanpour in the interview on CNN. He made sure to distinguish between insurgents who kill Iraqi civilians, and those who kill US troops. That should give you an idea. 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. Syria pays no price, makes no public shift in policy, and only offers a dubious, unclear, and secret, intelligence "cooperation."

Naturally, Bashar said precisely that in his speech. For one, he called for the US to withdraw from Iraq. He called for the Iraqi government to deal directly with him, so that he can offer help "beyond the border issue" (i.e., to try, as Landis once ludicrously advocated, to have a say in the Iraqi political process!).

As for Lebanon, the message is clear: Lebanon is ours (forget the Golan, Lebanon is what he's after). The way he went about conveying that message is telling. First the venue: the University of Damascus. Almost 30 years ago, that was the place where his father made that famous speech about Lebanon, in July 1976. Bashar's bombastic Arab nationalist rhetoric was an unmistakable throw-back, meant for both the domestic audience (I am my father's son) and for the Lebanese. References to "Tripoli of ash-Sham" (Bilad Ash-Sham means something like "the north country." At the time of the Mamluks, Tripoli was made a governorate, one of six polities that constituted what Arabs called Bilad ash-Sham. The territory of Bilad ash-Sham covered roughly modern Syria, Lebanon and parts of Palestine.) are intended to reflect that Bashar still considers Lebanon to be part of Syria, i.e., under Syrian control.

The mythology involved here is a good example of the amalgamation of Arab nationalism and a perverse Syrian nationalism through historical revisionism. The logic goes that since Tripoli was part of the distrcit of Damascus, it means that it is part of Syria. The problem is that "Syria" was not a polity. Damascus was an Ottoman governorate, from which Tripoli was governed, under the Ottomans. When Lebanon was created, many Sunni Arab nationalists weren't thrilled (and this sentiment persisted in the Nasserite era) to be cut from the broader Sunni interior in Damascus (it has nothing to do with them feeling "Syrian" as opposed to "Lebanese"). That same logic by the way was used against Syria by Abdullah of Jordan in the 40's, which led to Syria drumming up for war against the Zionists in order to fend off Abdullah's ambitions of ruling the former Ottoman governorates that made up Bilad ash-Sham.

But this is now a hollow card, demolished by Tripolitan Sunni participation in March 14th, (and their calling Bashar and Syria "the enemy of God" during pro-Hariri chants, near his burial site. The chants went: "There is no God but God, Asad/Syria is the enemy of God." They also drew the ire of Hasan Nasrallah in his Jerusalem Day speech, who thought that they should be directed at Israel, not Syria.) as described on March 14 by native Tripolitan blogger, Mustapha:

i'm getting word-of-mouth accounts from Tripoli today that are unbelievable!

Lebanese Flags on all houses, people desperate to go to the Beirut Demo and not finding places on the hundreds of buses lined up. Loud speakers in every street blarring nationalistic music. Some gas stations offering Benzine for free for cars going to beirut... such a lively bee-hive Tripoli has become (bye bye lethargy), i never felt so proud i am from there...

i was watching T.V this morning, you really know that the Syrians are losing influence big-time when you see a poor guy from dinnyieh [ed's note: poor northern outback, long under Syrian control], with no political backbone whatsoever, demanding the Syrian army to withdraw now!

This is a message my sister just sent me from Tripoli
"Everybody is happy, everybody is greeting everybody on the streets, everyone has a flag, i am actually waving a flag from d car to other people. Our flag is great!"

That same Tripoli rejoiced by distributing sweets upon the withdrawal of Syrian troops from its streets, and embraced the Hariri list in the Parliamentary elections. With a history of emasculating and targeting Sunni leadership (including the Sunni Mufti Hasan Khaled) culminating in the assassination of Hariri, not to mention his abuse of Saad Hariri and Seniora, Bashar is shooting blanks with this kind of rhetoric, and only drawing more anger. Meanwhile, Seniora summoned and met with a number of Arab ambassadors in Beirut (KSA, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, UAE, and Algeria), shoring up Arab support for his office as Prime Minister, especially after the cabinet issued a statement supporting him and rejecting Bashar's tirade. Meanwhile, Bashar cannot even get an Algerian veto, or even an Arab summit to break its isolation. In other words, Seniora just gave the Lion Cub a lesson in diplomacy.

Another Tripolitan blogger, Raja of the Lebanese Bloggers (please note their URL change) discussed the changes in the definition of this Arab identity. Hell, even bona fide Arabist Abdel Wahhab Badrakhan is slamming Bashar.

So Bashar's remarks amount to nothing more than anachronistic chauvinism. Anachronistic and sclerotic because in so many ways they sound like his father's remarks of 30 years ago. Here are excerpts from Hafez's speech in 1976. Notice the convergence and the continuity. There is also some divergence, which shows that no matter how hard he tries, Bashar cannot fill daddy's shoes:

Indeed, our interpretation was shared by many parties in Lebanon who call themselves nationalist as well as by groups of the Palestinian resistance. We argued that the events of Lebanon were the result of an imperialist plan which seeks, first, to cover up for the Sinai Agreement, second, to drag the resistance, smash it, liquidate the camps, and embarrass Syria, and third, to partition Lebanon.
Throughout history, Syria and Lebanon have been one country, one nation.
Lebanon, whether united or divided, does not at present constitute a burden to Israel and is not expected to become a military burden within the foreseeable future as far as Israel is concerned. ... Israel seeks the partition of Lebanon for a political and ideological reason. It is superfuluous to mention that Israel wants to create small sectarian states in this part of the world so that it can become the strongest of them all. ... Israel wants the partition of Lebanon in order to discredit the motto of a secular democratic state.
We decided to intervene under the guise of the Palestine Liberation Army. The Palestine Liberation Army began to enter Lebanon.
In the middle of April we held a meeting with resistance leaders which lasted the whole night, as I recall. The following morning we made public the points we had agreed upon.
4. To reject American plans and solutions in Lebanon.

5. To adhere to the continuation of the Syrian initiative.

6. To reject internationalization of the conflict and the entry of any international troops into Lebanon.

7. To reject Arabization of the crisis in Lebanon.
Our policy, however, does not change. It is based on unchanging principles for the sake of a just cause which we consider to be our own cause. Our policy will remain as it was and will never change.

While clearly many things have changed since then, Bashar is still playing with the same ingredients. While aiming to avoid internationalization and/or Arabization, Bashar has brought on both. Now he has a number of UN resolutions against him and his interference in Lebanon, and an Arab consensus that Lebanon is no longer Syria's exclusive colony. But Bashar is still playing the "nationalists" vs. "agents of American and Israel" game, and still playing the various pro-Syrian Palestinian factions, etc. He also still tells the Lebanese (and the Arabs and the West), in his speech, that they cannot think they can "alter the equation." It's that same chauvinism that is behind his refusal to allow Syrians to be interrogated in Monte Verde (again, see Choucair's piece linked above). It also certainly plays a role in his shelving of all plans at border demarcation and exchange of embassies with Lebanon.

Indeed, all his "offers" (more like threats of burning the region if not accomodated) are aimed at recapturing that equation, despite everything. It was therefore rather gratifying to hear President Bush not mention Iraq or the "process," and simply tell Syria that it should respect Lebanon's independence and sovereignty. Not just that, but that the US supports democratic change in Syria. Hence, this statement by the White House Press Secretary (see also Sec. Rice's remarks in al-Manama):

We are deeply disturbed by reports that Dr. Kamal Labwani was arrested by Syrian authorities upon his arrival in Damascus earlier this week. Only last week, Dr. Labwani attended a meeting at the White House. We stress that the United States stands with the Syrian people in their desire for freedom and democracy.

The Syrian Government must cease its harassment of Syrians peacefully seeking to bring democratic reform to their country.

President Bush calls on the government to release all political prisoners, including those arrested after the Damascus Spring: Arif Dalilah, Riad Seif, Mamun al-Homsi, Walid al Bunni, Habib Issa, and Fawaz Tello.

So I guess Hamidi's suggestion has fallen on deaf ears. Chirac (not the US!) has already threatened sanctions if Bashar continues "not to understand." The EU's Solana has told Bashar that this is no longer the time for discourse. Let's see how far Bashar really wants to take this.