Across the Bay

Friday, August 25, 2006

Myths Revisited

Here's my follow-up on Michael Young's post below.

I recently talked about this in the comments section of the Lebanese Bloggers. Here are my thoughts, edited and slightly expanded:

  • Syria is not at all desperate to have peace. First of all, Bashar cannot cut a deal on the Golan unless it's maximalist (not an inch less than what his father wanted), and that's not going to happen. Second, Bashar is really not interested in the fruition of a deal (in fact, it would be detrimental to the Alawite Assad security regime). Bashar is interested in the process. That's all. The process buys him legitimacy, aid, breaks his isolation, and resets his foot in Lebanon, the real prize that he's after (and to eliminate the Hariri investigation and the international tribunal). Everything else is fluff. Update: Former French Defense Minister Alain Richard summarized it perfectly: "What I fear, to speak very frankly, is that one of Syria's main assets is its domination over Lebanon. Consequentially, any settlement that would call into question its domination over Lebanon, even if it means regaining Syrian territory (from Israel), does not suit it." L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut), 19 April 2000.
  • Peace talks do not preclude terrorism. In fact, in Syria's case, they were simultaneous at all times all throughout the 90s, during the peak of the peace talks. The current Syrian position is to stay on this same path, as evident from Assad's statement that for him, "peace and resistance (i.e. sponsoring terrorist groups) are inseparable." This is the modus operandi of his father as well. It's called eliminationist peace. You can also call it terrorist blackmail. I "talk" peace to you while I have my proxies bleed you through Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. This is not to mention how Syria sabotaged King Abdullah's peace plan by lobbying hard to eliminate the term "normalization" from the plan.
  • "Talking" will yield a solution. Nonsense. In fact, in some cases talking can be detrimental to your interests. In this case, talking will signal a green light for Syrian return to Lebanon. It will signal that terrorist blackmail yields results. It will signal -- as was evident in Bashar's speech -- that only when your enemy is hurt will it come to the negotiating table, further encouraging the policy of bleeding through proxy. It would break Syrian isolation without giving you a certain end-product. In other words, you lose leverage but you get nothing in return. Update: To put it briefly, "Syria would gain 90 per cent of what it wants, just by being engaged." (So, pace Richard Haass, but yes, talking to Syria is in itself a reward. That's why a regime flak said on public television "if only President Bush would pick up the phone." It is a reward -- if not the end goal -- and the regime and its flaks know it.)

    Assad is interested more in regaining control over Lebanon than the Golan. Furthermore, he wants to impose his own conditions (in fact he needs to, and that is tied to the point about his father that I made earlier), as is clear from his speeches, statements, and those of his apparatchiks and cheerleaders in the US. Assad is basing that on his alliance with Iran (another reason why the notion that you can split him from Iran is ludicrous. If you don't believe me, just listen to Walid Moallem), and on the perception, which he seems to believe, that Israel is now in a weaker position. All this and more means that the proposal is dead on arrival. In fact, anyone who listened to his speech would have known that already. His only conclusion about Israel is that it must be weakened through terrorism, and then it would be pliable to Assad's conditions.
  • The proponents don't stop for one second to think about the internal dynamics of the minority Alawite Assad regime and the edifice on which it's built, and the repercussion of losing the Golan card as a populist whip, and of losing the card of the Israeli "enemy," etc. Assad's legitimacy is based on that belligerence. Barry Rubin said it well: "Syria is not a country that can be negotiated with or bought off. It is not taking a militant role because it is aggrieved or bargaining toughly, but because war, unrest, and extremism really do suit the regime's interests."
  • Last but not least, where does Iran, Syria's patron (which Syria will not and cannot abandon), stand? Is it going to sit tightly by after signing a defense pact with Syria and floating it all this time? For an example from the past, here's Dennis Ross in TNR: "[D]uring my time as the American negotiator, we were constantly aware of Iranian pressure on Hamas and Islamic Jihad to initiate acts of terrorism in Israel." Now that Bashar and Syria are but a toy, and a weapons cache, for Iran, and now that Syria has come out in full identity with Hamas and Hezbollah (Meshaal prances around in a Damascus hotel, and Nasrallah's photos are everywhere), and given Bashar's explicit endorsement of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the tactic of using them against Israel, and his ideological belief in this strategy, then the Iranian role becomes that much more potent and relevant. The belligerent mood, and ideological fervor, in Syria, both on the official and popular levels, perfectly suit Iran's interests in Syria.
Take this report for instance: "A new Syrian guerilla group modeled on Lebanon's Hezbollah is preparing itself to initiate hostilities against the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in the near future, reported Iranian state-run television Wednesday.

In an interview with Al-Alam TV, a man identifying himself as the leader of the new Front for the Liberation of the Golan Heights (FLGH) said hundreds of fighters were currently being trained at several camps set up throughout Syria."

Where the announcement was made is of course half the story. It's rather amusing to see that Hezbollah is reportedly now in charge of training this force, according to Syrian officials. In fact, according to the IDF Intelligence chief, Syria is now a large weapons cache for the Iranian front against Israel.

A friend jokingly commented on Assad's laughable transparency: "Yes, and Assad wants to use the weapons as leverage to show how serious he is about those negotiations--and perhaps more car bombs, killings, and calls for coups in Lebanon, because, you know, WE REALLY ARE SERIOUS ABOUT NEGOTIATIONS! REALLY!"

In the end, to conclude this post on "talks" with Syria, I'm reminded of an excellent line in a recent op-ed by Henry Kissinger: "the bane of diplomacy is to substitute process for purpose. Diplomacy should not be confused with glibness. It is not an oratorical but a conceptual exercise. When it postures for domestic audiences, radical challenges are encouraged rather than overcome."

From what I'm seeing and hearing from all the "formers" (I won't even bother with the propagandists and cheerleaders), it seems that not one of them has a clue about diplomacy. I'll close with a line by Daniel Pipes, from an article on Hafez Assad in 1991: "Assad now needs US favor more than the reverse. Yet he will try to induce Washington to pay him for allowing himself to be helped; this must not happen."

Back then, it did happen. The result: Syrian occupation and complete control of Lebanon (and all the crimes that brought with it), no peace, and the inflation of Hezbollah, in alliance with Iran, into what it became up until July 12. Repeating this mistake would be utter lunacy.

Myths of Engagement and the Golan

The following was posted by Michael Young on the NYT select blog. It essentially follows up on all the ideas put forward by people like David Schenker, myself, and Michael himself, and deftly summarizes the facts in a tight argument.

August 20, 2006
Engage Syria at Your Own Peril
By Michael Young, Lebanon

BEIRUT — In recent weeks, a bevy of American commentators, many of them former officials, have recommended that the United States, in order to resolve the problem of Hezbollah, engage Syria. You have to wonder if these luminaries have a memory, because history has shown that this would bring nothing on the Hezbollah front, and would almost certainly mean the end of an independent Lebanon.

Several rationales have been put forward to justify talking to Syria. Doing so, one argument goes, will give Syria an incentive to break with Iran and cut off the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. Another view is that all Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really wants is recognition, and by giving him that the United States might be able to push for a negotiated resolution of the Golan Heights imbroglio, possibly leading to Syrian-Israeli peace. Yet another view is that Assad represents a secular regime in an increasingly “Islamist” region, so it would be a good thing to get him on “our” side.

All these arguments are either spurious or fail to take into account Syrian behavior in the past. Take the relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. It is under Syrian hegemony in Lebanon that Hezbollah built up its weapons arsenal. This served two main purposes for Syria: to pressure Israel from south Lebanon, providing Syria with a low-cost means of keeping its foot in the door for future negotiations; and it expanded the Hezbollah threat in the eyes of the international community, which then looked to Syria as the only actor able to control Hezbollah — requiring Syria to stay in Lebanon.

How realistic is it to assume Assad would change this strategy? Syria will not give Hezbollah up and risk becoming irrelevant. If anything, the Syrian president is likely to encourage Hezbollah to periodically behave menacingly along Lebanon’s southern border, so that Syria could be called in to “moderate” its conduct. It would be a good cop-bad cop routine.

What about Iran? Syria won’t give up on its relationship with Iran because it gains too much from it. The relationship is not what it was in the 1980’s; today Syria is a subordinate partner, and Assad has accepted this because Iran offers him a way out of his regional isolation as well as a credible military deterrent against outside threats. Why surrender this? For vague promises that Israeli might resume talks on the Golan? Because the European Union just might revive its association agreement with Damascus — though Syria has refused to adopt the economic and political reforms needed to make the agreement viable?

Mainly, Assad will not abandon his Iranian alliance because it offers him an opportunity to pursue regionally destabilizing policies that buttress his own regime. When Palestine goes up in smoke, when Lebanon collapses into war, when Iraq faces further violence, Assad sees events that allow him to keep his harsh security apparatus in place and silence and imprison domestic adversaries; that encourage timorous Arab states not to rock the Syrian boat; and, yes, that make American pundits and former officials advise that the road be taken to Damascus to “engage”.

As for the Golan Heights, those who think Assad is capable of negotiating a peace agreement with Israel are deluding themselves. The Syrian president would love a process of negotiations that would shield him from the United States, but his regime could never take the consequences of a final deal. The security edifice of Assad’s regime requires a state of war with Israel, and that edifice is essential to protecting Alawite rule in Syria.

The argument in favor of the Syrian regime’s alleged secularism is equally vacant. It is Syria that has dispatched most foreign Islamists into Iraq, and that has armed or supported Palestinian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Islamists — Sunni and Shiite. After crushing the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, the Syrian regime embarked on a massive expansion of mosques and religious schools, both to better control Islamic currents and to regain some legitimacy. Consequently, Islam has grown in Syria, and while it has yet to challenge the regime, Assad has warned his critics and foes that if he were to fall, the Islamists would take over. Once again, that perennial tactic of creating a problem, then using it as a barrier against change.

But perhaps the best reason to isolate Syria is Lebanon. Assad’s deepest desire is to re-establish Syrian hegemony here. One reason for this, aside from Lebanon’s ability to again grant Syria regional relevance, is the United Nations’ investigation of Rafik Hariri’s murder. All the signs are that Syria will be accused of the crime, which could bring down the Assad regime. By dominating Lebanon, the Syrian president could stifle the investigation, which relies heavily on Lebanese judicial cooperation.

More generally, Assad would exploit any Western opening to seize power in Lebanon through his Lebanese allies, against the majority that forced a Syrian withdrawal last year. If this were to succeed, who would be the Praetorian Guard of that new order? Hezbollah. The party could, thus, preserve its autonomy, eliminate its domestic adversaries, and thrive under Syria’s sympathetic eye. This factor alone explains why Syria would never accept to diminish Hezbollah’s power. As Syria plots a return to Lebanon, it has no intention of harming its main ally in that venture.

This is no time to engage Syria. If anything, it is time to warn Syria that, because it sits at the nexus point of regional instability — in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and even Jordan — it had better alter its behavior, or the United States may seriously think about ways of finding an alternative to Assad. This needn’t be done through a war, of course. Yet unless the U.S. finds credible means to force “behavior change instead of regime change” in Damascus, it might soon find that war is inevitable.

The part about the Golan is of particular importance given all the nonsense being spewed by cheerleaders, apparatchiks, and the like that Bashar really wants to sign peace on the Golan. Rubbish.

A post with my own comments follows.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

About that "Sunni Arab Fold"

This is something from AP for all those luminaries who want to bring Syria back to the "Sunni Arab fold" and all that jazz:

Arab League Foreign Ministers convened for an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss how to fund reconstruction in war-ravaged Lebanon and defuse Mideast tensions amid rising discord between moderate Arabs and Syria, a main backer of Hezbollah.
...
Diplomats said Arabs want to counter a flood of money that is believed to be coming from Iran to Hezbollah to finance reconstruction projects. An estimated 15,000 apartments were destroyed and 140 bridges hit by Israeli bombardment in Lebanon, along with power and desalination plants and other key infrastructure.

"This is a war over the hearts and mind of the Lebanese, which Arabs should not lose to the Iranians this time," said a senior Arab League official.

Just one problem. According to this report, one Foreign Minister, from a particular country was missing. Guess who!

Walid Moallem, Syria's FM, has decided to boycott the meeting in Cairo, because of the current crisis between Syria and Egypt, after Bashar's rabid (yet "not radical," according to certain luminaries) speech the other day. And it is also due to the fact that Moallem has been put in his place in the last two Arab League meetings, and was both times harshly criticized by the Saudi Foreign Minister. His second appearance, in Beirut, was particularly embarrassing, and he had to leave early after being snubbed by the other ministers, who backed Fouad Seniora against him.

Back to the speech. Bashar basically lashed out against Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan (I'm not sure what other "Sunni Arab fold" there may exist), personally insulting their leaders as "half-men" and mercenaries. The speech drew contemptuous responses in the papers of the three countries in question (see here for some English excerpts). One Egyptian paper, Akhbar al-Yom, ran a column by its editor in chief, entitled "The Little Lion." In it, the editor wrote: "The Syrian president has started to publicize his merchandise in the market of political hypocrisy and cheap overbidding. He is tickled by dreams of returning to Lebanon, and is carrying, along with Hezbollah the banners of victories which have no basis in reality. Victories that have destroyed Lebanon and rendered his people refugges, killing hundreds and injuring thousands." He added, "Assad has picked from the stock of old slogans which he memorizes several accusations which he hurled at Lebanese political powers, in an attempt to stoke civil war and sectarian strife, and to settle scores and seek revenge from all the political powers that have defied and rejected Syrian hegemony."

But it wasn't only the papers. Egypt's President Mubarak himself bluntly told Assad (without naming him) that this stage is not one of "cheap overbidding," warning him of any attempt to interfere in Lebanese affairs.

Mubarak also took a position surely antagonistic to Syria when he qualified the "right to resist occupation" by adding "on the condition that this comes from the people's own national will, and in accordance with its own interests." This statement hits at two things: 1- that Hezbollah is working for a non-Lebanese agenda, namely Iran's and Syria's, which is not in the national interest of Lebanon. And 2- There's clearly no "national will" in Lebanon to pursue this agenda, in clear reference to the fact that Hezbollah's actions and armed status are firmly outside the Lebanese consensus. It may even be said, again to Assad's dismay, that Mubarak's statement echoes Walid Jumblat's: "Is this (Hezbollah) resistance Lebanese or is it a tool of the Syrian-Iranian axis on Lebanese territory? ... We have the right -- and it is not treason to say it -- that we are Lebanese who look forward to a secure future without war of others on our land."

This not only suggests that the pre-July 12 status quo is no longer tenable, but it also points to what I've said before, that Egypt and Saudi Arabia realize this is a direct threat to their standing in the region. It wasn't for naught that Mubarak accused Syria and Iran of sabotaging his efforts to end the crisis over the Gilad Shalit kidnapping by Khaled Meshaal. As I've put it before, this was an attempt at a regional coup d'etat, aimed specifically against Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Syria is now viewed as fully entrenched in the Iranian camp, as Iran's client (this was evident long ago). The other camp has Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. All this business about returning Assad to the "Sunni Arab fold" is just the stuff of pundits and "formers."

Nothing makes that clearer than the symbolism of Moallem boycotting the Arab League conference.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Why Syria Should Not Be "Engaged"

David Schenker has once again provided a definitive argument why Syria should not be "engaged" by the US.

He once again reminds of Assad's history and unreliability. This has been the refrain of people who have tried to engage the murderous thug of Damascus and regretted it, such as French President Chirac and Martin Indyk. Schenker also highlights the prohibitive costs of such an engagement, to top its virtually guaranteed failure.

That such a misguided policy is certain to fail can be easily gleaned from listening to the paradoxical, dishonest, self-imploding garbage of the regime's pitbulls, apparatchiks, cheerleaders and propagandists in the media and the blogosphere. But Schenker does an excellent job dispelling many myths that have been thrown at us in recent weeks, mainly by people (former careerists) who have axes to grind with the Bush administration.

Here, another article by Itamar Rabinovich is also worth mentioning (though, I disagree with his conclusion). Rabinovich also goes through Assad's horrendous track record. He also notes what I had written about Syria's relationship with Iran, and dispells the ridiculous myth that Syria's alliance with Iran is "a marriage of convenience" or what have you. Rabinovich rightly notes, as I have, that the relationship dates to the very first days of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and has been enduring, and strategic, and has consolidated precisely around Hezbollah. Assad's speech, which I will hopefully return to soon, as well as an equally rabid interview with the Egyptian al-Ousboua', clearly demonstrate that Assad has long made his strategic choice with Iran. Even a regime hired hand recently said on TV that Syria will not abandon Iran.

That is why I will venture to slightly modify Rabinovich's final remark: "it is possible, if not likely, that Syria might seek the political and diplomatic dividends of such a dialogue without actually disengaging from Iran." No. It's absolutely, 100% certain that it will do that! Furthermore, and this echoes Schenker, Syria's so-called cards are its policy. In fact, Rabinovich spent the first half of the article telling us how Hafez Assad, who had all the diplomatic goodies offered him during the 90s, still straddled the fence and never gave up these cards. It's guaranteed that his son won't. By the way, this alone should answer Dennis Ross' remarks ("None of these things can be available if Syria is not prepared to cut off Hezbollah and Hamas. Why, after all, would we invest anything in a peace process when those two organizations retain the means -- with Syrian support -- of subverting that process at a time of their choosing?"). Assad's speech (or rather, speeches, as this speech was a rehashing of the pathetic speech he gave last year in November) should answer the rest. And here I should add that Bashar is not interested in anything but the process of "peace talks," which would give him international legitimacy. He's far more interested in killing the Hariri case (which no one is willing to give him) -- i.e., the regime's survival -- and everyone knows it. The rest is just fluff. Update: As Michael Young put it:

Syria won't liberate the Golan by force of arms because Assad can't risk losing his regime; nor can he negotiate a return of the territory, because his regime could not go through with talks that would almost certainly lead to a worse deal than the one his father rejected in 2000. What Assad wants is a process that can protect him for a time from the U.S., one that will pay him dividends, but which otherwise will never come to fruition.

As a friend of mine put it, peace with Israel would mean the end of the Alawite-dominated security order in Syria. It would be political suicide for Assad.

Schenker said it best: "A former US diplomat in Syria used to say that discussions with the Syrians regarding Hamas, PIJ, and Hizballah were largely "sterile" affairs. They were also futile affairs. Today, Syria remains a state sponsor of terrorism not because Washington refuses to engage with or otherwise offer sufficient incentives to Damascus. Syria supports terrorism because the repressive Assad regime perceives it to be in its interest."

Enough already with the nonsense, ok?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bashar Arafat

French President Chirac is not missing any opportunity to express his disdain for Bashar Assad, and his refusal to bestow any credibility on him or on the ludicrous proposition that Syria should be given a seat at the table on the Lebanon crisis.

Here's his latest comment:

"Experience has led me not to completely trust Syria. A few days ago, I noticed that the Spanish Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, met with Syrian leaders and President Bashar Assad, and Moratinos declared that Syria would use all its influence to build peace in the region. Within a half hour, Syria denied what was said about it. This is not encouraging. I repeat, I have no trust [in Syria]." Chirac added, "Syria has more than once declared its agreement on the Lebanese identity of the Shebaa Farms. But it never accepted to prove its agreement in writing, even when this is a legal demand, so that the UN could adjust the border."

And reminding Syria that the UN investigation is not going away, he added, "Therefore, I repeat, I don't trust [Syria]. I might also add that there is another big problem regarding which Syria can launch a strong confidence-building initiative, and that is to facilitate the work of the UN international investigative commission whose aim is to uncover the truth behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri."

Syrian blogger Ammar Abdulhamid caught the Moratinos fiasco a few days ago and wrote:

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos spoke on Thursday to Moron and came out with the impression that some kind of an agreement on Hezbollah. He even shared this impression with the rest of the unbelieving world in the press conference following his visit. But, and in a typical Syrian fashion, and mere hours after the FM’s departure, Syrian officials made a statement categorical[ly] denying this matter. So, is there anyone else who cares to talk to the Moron?

Of course, it wouldn't be typical Syrian fashion if it ended there. No. The (Lebanese) AFP reporter who reported Moratinos' statement (in Spanish, which were intentionally omitted by interpreter) was kicked out of the country.

Randa Takieddin put it well, "It was strange of Moratinos, who was aware of what Syria was doing in Lebanon and of the messages it used to ignore, to return to Damascus thinking that he would succeed. It was equally strange that many commentators said, when the Israeli war on Lebanon broke out, that somebody should talk to Syria. ... Those who are calling for dialogue with Syria have definitely forgotten that France has great experience in such dialogues. Dialogue is futile after the death and destruction Lebanon has suffered."

Chirac reportedly informed the Spaniards of his disapproval of the visit and warned that it would affect French-Spanish relations. It should be noted here that this is not Chirac's "personal" view, as the Syrians like to think. The Quai d'Orsay has come out fully in support of Chirac on not talking to Syria.

As for the other part about Shebaa, Chirac may be responding to the latest round of lies and deceit by the Syrians on this issue which they fabricated.

A few days ago, the venomous Buthaina Shaaban told Wolf Blitzer (scroll down) that the Shebaa Farms were governed by UNR 242, which governs the Golan Heights. The problem of course is that this means that they are not governed by UNR 425, and thus, have nothing to do with Lebanon. Yet, they are still not saying that they are part of the Golan. And Walid Moallem told PM Seniora, as Seniora himself revealed on Al-Arabiya, that Syria has no problems with the UN taking over control of Shebaa, but that Syria would still not officially demarcate the borders with Lebanon.

Syria's deceitfulness has become quite exposed, and the Shebaa farce even more so. It's nothing more than a tool, quickly becoming the last remaining one, to keep Lebanon hostage.

Aounist MP Nemetallah Abi Nasr addressed Moallem in a statement yesterday, and said:

"The words of Moallem in Beirut has removed any illusion about a positive change in the mentality of the Syrian regime. The intent to dominate Lebanon is still the same."

"Moallem behaved as if Lebanon was still under Syrian control, and tried to overbid the Lebanese by calling for the expansion of the war and hinted at internal (Lebanese) strife, and this is the permanent Syrian desire to return to Lebanon through the door of stopping (intra-Lebanese) strife."

"Pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Shebaa Farms cannot be complete without border demarcation between Lebanon and Syria, and putting the Lebanese at ease as to Syria's intentions cannot happen without an exchange of ambassadors between Beirut and Damascus, and without the release of Lebanese prisoners in Syrian jails, and without the cessation of arms smuggling across the border." (PS. Abi Nasr's statement here is almost identical to the one made by Minister Joe Sarkis of the Lebanese Forces upon Moallem's visit)

"So far, based on the statements and behavior of the Syrian officials, we are not sensing any honest intention to open a new page in [bilateral] relations and the disappearance of the hegemonic mentality in their dealings with Lebanon. The Lebanese noticed that Minister Walid Moallem left Beirut before the end of the Arab Ministerial conference as an expression of his annoyance at the rejection of his demand. His demand in reality is the refusal to deploy the Lebanese Army in the south all the way to the border. But the Lebanese government made the right decision whether Moallem likes it or not."

And finally, here's a comment, a propos Abi Nasr's allusion to Moallem's threats. The other day, the Syrian official rag al-Thawra launched an attack on Hariri, Jumblat, and Geagea. The attack on Geagea was the most direct: "Geagea receives direct aid from the Mossad and the CIA ... in order to provoke acts of violence in Syria."

It should be evident that Syria is, and always was, part of the problem, not the solution.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Not Welcome

The Syrian regime, which still has illusions that it rules Lebanon and that it is a "player," when it's little more than a client-proxy spoiler of the Iranians, is very clearly threatened by the UN draft resolution. So they're threatening left and right. This is on top of the repeated threats of unleashing al-Qaeda on Lebanon (just a reminder to all the "experts" who tell us that the "secular" Syrian regime cannot have ties to Islamists or al-Qaeda even as they are a client of Khomeinist Iran on top of it!).

So while their venomous foreign minister was in Lebanon, he gave a reminder to all those who think that the Syrians have any interest other than boosting Hezbollah and undermining the central government, and essentially staging a classic coup d'etat. He volunteered to join Nasrallah's army, and put himself at Hezbollah's disposal, and offered every possible support for Hezbollah. And in the end, he issued a veiled threat that unless they get their way, they will try to provoke civil war in the country.

People didn't take too kindly to Moallem's visit or his obvious and intentional attack on Lebanon's government. Walid Jumblat issued a statement saying: "we tell Moallem, who intentionally forgot Lebanon and the Lebanese state, that it is much easier to overbid when bargaining with the last drop of the Lebanese people's blood," adding, "you lion (= asad) in Lebanon and a rabbit in the Golan, if it weren't for proper manners and protocol, he should have been stoned and thrown out of the country."

Another member of the March 14 coalition (which holds the parliamentary and cabinet majority), former MP Fares Soueid, told AFP "Walid Moallem is not welcome in Lebanon." He added, "the Syrian position against the draft resolution sponsored by France and the US is totally unacceptable. The Lebanese must work on improving the text which will be discussed at the UN and we will not be given lectures especially from the Syrians who were at the heart of many problems from which Lebanon has suffered."

Dozens pro-Hariri demonstrators gathered in front of the hotel where Moallem was staying and called for him to leave Lebanon. They were carrying a large map of Lebanon and a large picture of Hariri, who was murdered by the Syrians last year. The picture read "we resist for the sake of Lebanon, and we demand the truth [of Hariri's murder]." Another rally was held in Jbeil also protesting Moallem's visit.

Furthermore, such is the Syrian delusion that Moallem was reportedly talking about the "unity of tracks" (between Lebanon and Syria), a now defunct cliche from the days of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. That's where the regime is stuck.

But another member of March 14, former President Amin Gemayel, reminded them of current reality: "Syria's diplomatic situation is not enviable. It was the former minister of Iran who came to Lebanon to negotiate, not the Syrian foreign minister. These are all indicative signs in the political lexicon. Syria is now trying to create a crack in the Western wall that's imposed on it, but its mission is not simple because of all the negativities it created during its presence in Lebanon."

Of course, the Syrians are also worried that the Arab states, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, will support Seniora and the Lebanese government, and further undermine the Syrian attempts. That's why even before the meeting, sources in Cairo (and Cairo has been leaking a lot of stuff against Assad these last couple of days) said the Syrians were already making threats and issuing ultimatums and warnings, trying to determine the outcome of the meeting (they don't want to see Hezbollah disarmed. A note to all the "experts" who think Syria has any interest in "reining in Hezbollah"). This is what you do when you're irrelevant, and of course, when you're a regime of thugs and thuggery is all you know. It is perhaps indicative that Moallem was quoted as saying that he didn't expect much from the Arab League's meeting.

Ali Hamade summarized well the prevailing political consensus in Lebanon on the authority of the central government:

1- it's difficult to have an Arab-backed international solution based on the principle of returning to July 11, i.e., the status quo before this war started. There is an explicit international, American-European-Arab consensus on this point.

2- there is a predominant Lebanese desire, which has heretofore not expressed itself in order to maintain a publicly united stand, and which converges with the international consensus on not returning to the status quo of before July 12. Its greatest fear, after all these exorbitant sacrifices, is that it does not emerge victorious by seeing the rise of the state above everything else, including Hezbollah and its weapons. And here it should be noted that this public display of solidarity would quickly erode if Hezbollah refuses the Lebanese project, which would demand its integration within the state's mantle.

In any case, it will be impossible to go back to before July 12 regardless of who wins this war.

But given all these threats, I remind you of Walid Jumblat's fear of a return to assassinations by the Syrians. Jumblat suggested Seniora might be a target. I'd also add Berri, depending on what role he ends up playing.

Update: This newsflash from Naharnet: "Moallem left isolated at emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers, after wanting to pay tribute to Hizbullah in the final declaration."

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Schenker: Engaging Syria Will Not Work

One of the smartest Syria analysts, David Schenker, writes in the Weekly Standard, in no uncertain terms, that "it would be foolish to look toward Syria as part of the solution."

He lays out what I think is a definitive argument, one that I certainly sympathize with and have tried to advance.

I laid out how not only was the notion of "trying to pull Syria away from Iran" rather silly and baseless, but that the other notion, of having Arab states, namely Egypt and KSA, try to talk to Syria, has already been tried all throughout 2005 and most of 2006 and found a resolute failure, and one of the reasons why we are where we are now.

Schenker follows a similar line, only with the history of American engagement with Syria (something that Martin Indyk also talked about, as I noted in my post):

This policy prescription is ill-advised and poorly timed. Moreover, the strategy was tried and failed during President Bush's first administration. Washington engaged Syria in a robust fashion from 2001 through the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, sending no less than five senior-level U.S. delegations to cajole Bashar Assad to change his unhelpful behavior. Discussions during this period focused on Iraq--in particular on Syria's role in destabilizing the newly liberated country--but also touched on Syrian interference in Lebanon, provision of safe haven to Palestinian terrorist groups, and ongoing support for Hezbollah.

It's no secret that the administration was divided over the utility of this engagement, but, nevertheless, the effort was made in good faith. On a broad range of U.S. policy concerns articulated during these meetings, Syria was without exception unresponsive. And this was when things were going relatively well for the United States in the region.

Richard Armitage, who seems to have a short memory, was himself one of those who were repeatedly humiliated by Assad, along with his boss Colin Powell (which is why it was no coincidence to hear thug-caricature Imad Moustapha lament the loss of the Powell days). They were slapped in the face and embarrassed so many times, that to hear Armitage argue for more of the same was rather pathetic. Others who experienced similar repeated snubs, like President Chirac or Martin Indyk, have learned not to go down that dead end again.

Further echoing Indyk's argument, Schenker writes:

Granting Damascus a reprieve from its well deserved international isolation would undermine what remains of U.S. credibility with Syrian reformers and Lebanese demo crats. Reengagement would also practically invite a Syrian return to Lebanon. Even more problematic, as Assad has put it, "Syria is not a charity," and as such we can expect that Damascus would extract a high price for even temporary compliance with U.S. demands.

The price is not hard to envision. At a minimum, the Syrians would need the U.N. to bring the Hariri assassination investigation to a swift conclusion without implicating the Assad regime. Assad would also no doubt want a free pass from Washington for his ongoing repression of the Syrian people, and an end to the freedom agenda as it relates to Syria.

This is simply not an acceptable price for a completely uncertain product -- especially with a thuggish, spoiler and unreliable regime whose position in this case is itself secondary when compared to Iran -- as the French and US, and even Israeli, positions have made amply clear.

Moreover, Schenker puts his finger on a point that I have pushed repeatedly: Bashar's own political and ideological position. The premise of the cheerleaders is that Bashar really wants to be with the West, but has been "forced" to adopt a hardline position, such as his alliance with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. This is not only total rubbish, it's historically baseless. This is not reality. As Schenker writes:

In any event, Syria's behavior--its bellicose statements about military conflict with Israel, its playing host only last week to meetings with Iran, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas, and its attempts to rearm Hezbollah--do not suggest that Assad is looking for a deal.

Speaking of Indyk, he repeated his warning against talking to Syria in an interview with Ynet:

"I am a diplomat and a man who believes in dialogue, but at this stage I believe it is forbidden for the United States to hold direct talks with the Syrians" ...
"As someone who believes in dialogue and worked to advance Israeli-Syrian peace, I believe that the situation is different now. The United States was behind the Security Council resolution to withdraw the Syrians from Lebanon. A million Lebanese went to the streets demanding the Syrians leave," Indyk said, adding that speaking with the Syrians would amount to betraying the Lebanese people.

He added that Syrians would interpret negotiations with Washington as an invitation to reenter Lebanon.

Instead, Indyk said the only thing Damascus must be told at this point is a clear warning: "if Damascus doesn't stop its support for Hizbullah it will find itself entangled in the conflict it created."

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lee's, Fawaz's and My Lebanon

With all due respect to all my American friends, only my brother Lee Smith has managed to caputre a snapshot of Lebanon that feels like something I would've written, or liked to have written; something that I can identify with.

I have strived to maintain an analytical edge on this blog, but for the first time since this war started, I was deeply moved as I read his piece:

It is very hard to see Lebanon--the region's crowning hope, the Arab world's exception--come to this, the destruction certainly, but also the ugly foundations that the destruction has now laid bare. Walid Jumblatt, the courageous and morally nimble, aristocratic jester of the Cedar revolution is holed up in his ancestral mountain estate. Fouad Siniora, a prime minister who had the support of Lebanese across the political spectrum, all of them thanking their fate to have been blessed after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri with such a competent and clear-headed leader now clutching to the grubby clichés of Hassan Nasrallah.

The Lebanese always believed that their political class was largely craven, even Michel Aoun, the patriot who returned after 14 years abroad to make a deal with Hezbollah. But there was also the youth, that unblemished segment of the population that fearlessly took to the streets to demand that Syrian troops leave their country. So maybe there's hope to be found in young Lebanon, even if right now the beautiful girls and boys who draped themselves in the red, white, and green a year and a half ago are suddenly reduced to hysterical children screaming on blogs and blaming everyone who is not Lebanese for their fate.

FOR ME ANYWAY, Lebanon is now a very small place on the map that comes down essentially to Fawaz and his ideas of Lebanon: a free, prosperous, tolerant, and peaceful state where all of its citizens would be allowed to pursue their version of the good life. Fawaz would have liked talking to Sharansky, one of his heroes. But the impossibility of such a meeting, of crossing the border for a cup of coffee, strikes me as what is tellingly sick about Lebanon. It is a country where a person who says he wants peace with his neighbor, not a peace that comes through destruction and elimination, but a real peace, such a person is considered a traitor.

Thank you, Lee, for a heartfelt, but not crass piece.

Who's the Realist?

A quote by Richard Haass the other day caught my eye:

"The arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction," said Richard N. Haass, who was President Bush's first-term State Department policy planning director. "The biggest danger in the short run is it just increases frustration and alienation from the United States in the Arab world. Not just the Arab world, but in Europe and around the world. People will get a daily drumbeat of suffering in Lebanon and this will just drive up anti-Americanism to new heights."

It reminded me, you know, as a stranger to the "reality-based community," of another comment, written about two years ago by Michael Doran, who I believe has also been designated as a "non-Realist":

Any serious evaluation of the war on terror must gauge the balance of power between the U.S. and its enemies, not the level of American popularity with the Arab public. It is a fatal miscalculation to treat the war as a zero-sum game, with every mistake by the Bush administration somehow translating into a victory for Osama bin Laden. In order to win the war, America need not be popular. In fact, it can afford to be hated. What it cannot tolerate is a global balance of power that favors al Qaeda, kindred groups, and rogue regimes that might be tempted to supply them with nuclear weapons.

So which is the Realist position again? Just a random thought.

Come Again?!

TNR's Annia Ciezadlo, whose reports last year during the so-called Cedar Revolution were almost invariably horrid (as my regular readers know), has a new piece out (sub. req.). The piece is pretty full of the usual hagiography that you see everywhere these days, but the best part is a quote by the ubiquitous Hezbollah groupie (who will likely, and thankfully, go back to obscurity once this war is over) Amal Saad-Ghorayeb:

But not all Shia are happy. In fact, secular Shia are outraged. Lebanon's Shia merchant class, like all the country's bourgeoisie, has been devastated by the current conflict. And even some of the devout are privately expressing doubts about Nasrallah's promise to rebuild their decimated villages and neighborhoods with the help of a new "friend"--i.e., Iran. "People are sleeping on the ground, and Nasrallah doesn't care," mutters Umm Hussein, a devout Shia woman from Beirut who says she has never criticized the sayyid before. "He said he was going to make Lebanon like it was before. Is he going to bring back the people who died?"

But, in the end, Hezbollah may not care that much about local public opinion. "Of course they're not happy that people are dying," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "But I don't think that public opinion is all that important to them, especially not now."

Wait, wait, wait... I thought Hezbollah's so-called "victory" is precisely because of public opinion?! I thought that was the reason behind that bogus poll conducted by Saad-Ghorayeb herself and taunted everywhere as "proof" that 90% of the Lebanese population supports Hezbollah! Now all of a sudden, when presented with evidence to the contrary, "it's not all that important to them"?!

This is when you know that you're dealing with groupies, cheerleaders, propagandists, call them whatever you like. Those 15 minutes are almost over.