Across the Bay

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Assad Repeats Threat to Specter

Regular readers will recall how before, during, and after the summer war, I collected numerous, and consistent, statements by Syrian officials -- from Bashar, to Walid Moallem, to Mohsen Bilal, to Amr Salem -- making barely veiled threats about two things: 1- unleashing al-Qaeda in Lebanon, and 2- attacking and/or undermining the UNIFIL and UNR 1701.

All their policy since has been in this direction, including the recent fiasco over "Fateh Islam" an "offshoot" of the entirely Syrian proxy, Fateh-Intifada, which was uncovered in northern Lebanon, and two of its arrested members confessed that it was tasked by the Syrians to carry out assassinations against Lebanese figures and carry out operations against the UNIFIL (a UN official confirmed this to Le Monde).

So, after telling Sen. Bill Nelson that he doesn't support the Seniora government (as if we needed a "fact finding mission" to know this. These positions have been public.), Assad has seemingly now openly repeated these exact above-mentioned threats to Sen. Arlen Specter.

Assad reportedly told Specter that he's "concerned about the presence of al-Qaeda in northern Lebanon, and the fragility of the ceasefire [in southern Lebanon] in the absence of a political solution."

Translation: I will unleash al-Qaeda and undermine the UNR 1701 and the UNIFIL unless you do exactly what I say.

Again, I'm reminded of what Barry Rubin said: "[Syria] is the closest thing to a sponsor of al-Qaida today."

Assad's consistent threats are a testament to the veracity of this remark. And some people want to appease this regime and kill the international mechanism that would hold it accountable for its crimes in Lebanon!

"Syria Hallucinations"

Zalman Shoval sums it up perfectly:

Damascus' objectives are varied yet clear: Shatter the circle of isolation it faces, undermine America's status in the whole region and particularly in Iraq, fragment the Western front against it and its ally Iran, drive a wedge between Israel and the US, thwart Saudi, Jordanian and Egyptian initiatives to form an alliance against the Shiite threat, regain its status as Lebanon's ruler-in-practice – and if possible, regain the Golan Heights.

Readers may wonder, isn't regaining the Golan Syria's main objective? Not necessarily, as this issue is not vital to the regime's survival.

Shoval rightly dismisses the most ridiculous notion that pops up when discussing this matter -- "prying Syria away from Iran" -- which I have covered repeatedly on this blog:

One of the arguments used by Israelis and others who believe that we should accept the public Syrian calls is that it could allow us to disengage Damascus from Teheran. This argument is baseless, as the Shiite Iran serves as an "insurance policy" for the Alawite's regime in face of its internal and external enemies. (By doing this, Iran replaced the Soviet Union, which played this role in the past.)

Moreover: Can anyone imagine that Syria would accept the demand to end its support for Hizbullah when the organization is the main tool used to advance Syria's plans in Lebanon?

Read the whole thing. It's a good summary of the ridiculous fever that has taken over some people as a result of Syrian propaganda. It also echoes somewhat the comments of the Israeli Foreign Minister:

Livni said Syria's immediate motivation was fear of the international tribunal investigating of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. She said Damascus was worried the tribunal would implicate top Syrian officials and endanger the its regime. She added that Syria had no intention of abdicating its power over Lebanon.

Livni rightly noted that Assad is interested in the process and its dividends, but not in an actual fruition. "We have to ask ourselves what we would get at the end of a diplomatic process," she said. The answer is, nothing.

Read also Dore Gold's piece on the dishonest hysterics about how Israel is really "stymied" by the Bush administration. Gold lays out how talks with Syria, "from an Israeli viewpoint ... would be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot."

Also, in case you haven't seen it yet, make sure to read Ammar Abdulhamid's piece about the delusion of a dialogue with Syria, especially the "prying Syria away from Iran" joke. Ammar writes, "Assad cannot turn his back on all of this [his alliance with Iran]. No deal would be sweet enough, even if it included the return of the Golan Heights. For Assad and his supporters, survival is more important than sovereignty."

Never mind the propaganda and the hysterics.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Syrian Agitprop

The Syrian propagandists are apparently circulating a story that Lebanese PM Seniora had a "secret" meeting with his Israeli counterpart under Saudi and Egyptian auspices.

The Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported this "story" on Dec 21.

This theme, as well as the bash-Bandar and Saudi Arabia campaign (and the "secret" training of Lebanese Forces fighters in Jordan, etc.), started months ago in Bashar's personal internet propaganda tool (Cham Press) and then in the outlets of Syria's Lebanese tools (in fact, one such story in Cham Press was the work of SSNP pitbull and Syrian tool Khodr Awarkeh. The pro-Syrian SSNP store houses were recently raided and car-bomb material was found. The SSNP are being investigated in the recent assassination of MP Pierre Gemayel.) and is now being propagated in the typical dishonest fashion by the Syrian regime's most crass blogger-propagandist (not much difference between the latter and Cham Press anyway). You'll note the hilarious formulaic propaganda line inserted in there (esp. in the version publicized by the blogger-propagandist). It's so reminiscent of Syrian propaganda: crude, transparent and pathetically hilarious. Just like the people who disseminate it.

I can state as a matter of fact that the Seniora story is absolute rubbish (as if Seniora's every move and call is not monitored by Hezbollah and the Syrians!). All this is part of the Syrian months-long attack against Seniora but also against the Sunni Arab states, and once again merely confirms Assad's strategic choice to be a client of Iran.

Just a reminder to all those geniuses who want to "pry" Assad away from Iran and return his regime to the "Sunni Arab fold" (of which it was never part, whatever that "fold" may have been).

Sunday, December 17, 2006

No talks with Iran and Syria

There have been a number of sane and sober editorials in recent days on the latest fad of "talks" with Syria and such. Two good ones appeared in the LA Times and the Washington Post.

Today's LA Times ran a very good op-ed by David Rivkin and Lee Casey arguing against talks with Iran and Syria.

The thing I was most glad to see was their critique of the insane idea that "you lose nothing by trying" which has been floating around among the so-called "reality-based" commentators (God I hate that condescending term that often masks a bunch of pretentious clueless buffoons).

Rivkin and Casey counter: "Unfortunately, this argument is fallacious. In fact, there is a great deal to lose."

They explain:

But negotiations are unpredictable, and timing is all-important; they should never be commenced without realistic, identifiable goals and a clear idea of what compromises are acceptable. Any notion that the U.S. could open talks with Syria or Iran without being prepared to give something (in return for something) is wrongheaded and dishonest. The very act of negotiating (at least of negotiating in good faith) implies a willingness to strike a deal, to accept a quid pro quo.

The questions, therefore, for Baker and others who support immediate, unconditional, direct talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Iranian mullahs are what exactly does the U.S. hope to gain from their assistance in Iraq, and what would it be prepared to give in return? Those questions have not been answered, and it is unlikely that they will be anytime soon.

At the same time, the costs of talking to Damascus and Tehran are clear. For example, the U.S. and France have diligently worked to isolate Syria, primarily because of its suspected involvement in the assassination of senior Lebanese officials. Engaging Damascus diplomatically would instantly relegitimize the Assad regime.

Similarly, the U.S. has spent years building a coalition within the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran over its nuclear weapons program, insisting that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment activities as a precondition for any serious diplomatic dialogue. Abandoning this posture precipitously, and opening an unconditional dialogue, would be humiliating and would irrevocably undermine all of this diplomatic spade work.

It's amazing to see that people who screamed and yelled about multilateralism, international law, working with our Arab allies, etc. don't stop for a second to see how this "engagement" actually destroys all of the above without gaining anything! The Syrians naturally (and that includes their flacks in the media and the blogosphere) have been spinning everything in that direction! And these people call themselves "realists" and "diplomats." They haven't a clue about either concept.

In fact, I was glad to see the authors highlight another important issue. We often heard that "talking itself shouldn't be seen as a reward." Well, I happen to think that it is a reward (pace luminaries such as Richard Haass), and guess what, the Syrians do too! Assad even inadvertently admitted it in his latest typically pathetic and thuggish interview with La Repubblica.

Rivkin and Casey put it as follows:

Ironically, the Iraq Study Group, for all of its emphasis on diplomacy, vastly underestimates the forces that diplomatic discourse can unleash. Diplomacy is a serious exercise, capable of producing either good or bad consequences.

Jaw-jaw matters a great deal, especially when conducted by a great power like the U.S. This explains why most rogue regimes are eager to dance a diplomatic minuet with the U.S., whether they acknowledge it or not. They grasp that once the U.S. begins to talk to them, it implicitly legitimizes at least some of their positions and impedes the building of regional and global coalitions against them.

Other than an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, it is difficult to conceive a course of action more perilous to our interests in the Middle East than seeking the Baker-style assistance of Iran and Syria.
What does not make sense is to open a dialogue with two of Washington's bitterest enemies without a clear notion of whether their help in Iraq would be worth the price in the long run.

In the case of Syria, every gullible envoy dispatched there (Scheinwald, Steinmeier, Nelson, etc.) has received the same consistent message (which, had these people read my blog, would have known without going to Damascus!): Lebanon is ours and ours alone, period. Kill the international tribunal. Oh and we will not cut ties with Hamas or Hezbollah, let alone Iran. (Not to mention the other messages, like the murder of Pierre Gemayel).

So, based on the logic laid out by Rivkin and Casey, what is there to "talk" about?!

Henry Kissinger also knows what Syria's real objectives are and that its "help" in Iraq would be marginal: "Syria is primarily concerned with Lebanon and Palestine. The Syrian contribution in Iraq, one way or the other, is essentially marginal."

As for negotiations with Iran, Kissinger says fine in theory, but doing it through the Iraq issue is not smart and counterproductive:

I do not think focusing it on Iraq is the happiest way to do it, because that's the region where they may think -- and I actually think exaggeratedly -- that they hold all the cards and that they're doing us a favor.

We need to talk to them about the nuclear problem. We need to talk to them about their role in the region and about the need to avoid what would head into a confrontation if present trends continue.

That would be an important subject for a conversation with Iran. But not when they -- when they feel so arrogant and self-confident. Then to focus it on Iraq is not the happiest subject.

Kissinger adds that first they need to decide whether they're a nation (the basis of "realism") or an ideological cause. Once you go through all that, once again you're faced with little basis for serious "talks" (as defined by Rivkin and Casey, again pace the diplomatic "genius" of people like Haass), terrible timing, and no real value.

The WaPo editorial said it well:

But bilateral "engagement" is hardly the most important answer to the reckless regional offensive by the Iranian-Syrian alliance.

On the contrary: What is urgently needed is decisive steps by the United States and its allies to counter the extremists and to force them to pay a price for their aggression.
"Realism" in the Middle East means understanding that Syria and Iran won't stop waging war against the United States and its allies unless they are given reasons to fear they might lose.

With all that in mind, perhaps it's not a coincidence then that the latest EU statement sounded an awful lot like the Bush administration policy on Iran and Syria!

Addendum: Read this related and most excellent piece by Barry Rubin.

Update: Even Assad's people know that Syria's "help" in Iraq would be negligeable (never mind what thug-caricature Imad Mustapha says, he's a mere functionary). Here's Sami Moubayed admitting it (Hat tip, Michele). I've said it before, it's a big scam, and it's clear the administration and the State Department (see Sec. Rice's comments) realize it. Everyone knows what Bashar is.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Three-Layered Conflict

Here's my piece in the National Review Online today. It examines the three dimensions of the Lebanese crisis: domestic, regional and international.

The crisis, as I argued in July with the Hezbollah and Hamas operations against Israel, is about shifting the balance of power in the Levant in favor of the Iranian-led axis of which Syria is a part. Syria will not be "flipped" from Iran. Syria has made its strategic choices clear.

On a related note, Abu Kais points out how Syria vetoed the Arab attempt at pulling Hezbollah from the streets. The reason: the international tribunal, which as I have said repeatedly, is the reason for this crisis. This is all about the tribunal.

Of course, officially the Syrians say they support the Arab initiative, but then Hezbollah rejects, and then the Syrians say, "we support what the Lebanese agree to." Oh and just as a minor detail, that thing "they" disagree on is the tribunal!

For example, Al-Hayat reported yesterday that Turkey's Erdogan was told by the Iranians during his visit that they have "remarks" about the tribunal. Then when he visited Syria, he was told by Assad that Hezbollah has reservations about the tribunal due to its "anxieties" that this tribunal might target it (a very telling statement in so many ways), and that the Syrians would later send the precise remarks to Erdogan.

Meanwhile, it's clear from even a cursory reading of the latest Brammertz report that Brammertz is already thinking in terms of the tribunal, and has tied all the crimes together, further tightening the noose on Syria.

This is all about Assad trying to scuttle the tribunal which will indict him and his regime.

Update: Just in case Assad didn't get the message, the White House makes it clear. The US policy on Syria is not about to change.

Update 2: More about Erdogan, Assad and the tribunal. This from al-Mustaqbal: Sources in Ankara revealed that Assad relayed to Erdogan his rejection of the international tribunal. He made two specific remarks, rejecting the clause that holds him responsible for the actions of his underlings, and the clause that expands the tribunal's mandate to cover all assassinations that have been tied together by Brammertz, starting with the attempt on Marwan Hamade all the way to Gebran Tueni's murder, potentially even covering Pierre Gemayel's assassination.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The General in His Labyrinth

Following up on my previous post on Aoun, Hezbollah, and the rules of the Lebanese system, here's my piece in the Los Angeles Times today.

The argument, as with my post, is that Aoun (and, naturally, Hezbollah) displays breathtaking ignorance of, or contempt for, not just Lebanon's rules, but also regional realities.

"As such, Aoun is but the latest in a line of challengers of Lebanon's unwritten codes. He will fail like all the others."

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Super Genius

Let's face it, Michel Aoun is far from being politically astute.

One thing Aoun shares with Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah is complete contempt for the complex Lebanese system. With that comes a fundamental lack of understanding of and disregard for its deeply enshrined rules. That leads to devastating consequences not just on Aoun, or the Maronites, or the Christians, but the entire country.

Let's talk in raw sectarian terms. Take this example for instance. A Sunni Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers are gathered in the Grand Serail (the PM's headquarters). They are joined there by the Sunni Mufti. The Sunni King of Saudi Arabia calls the PM and talks to the ministers as well lending his support to the government. This after Shiite ministers resigned refusing to lend their vote (for the second time) to a cabinet decision to adopt the establishment of an international tribunal to try the murderers of, among others, the most prominent Sunni Prime Minister in recent Lebanese history. This also comes days after the scion of one of the country's most prominent Maronite political families was gunned down by the same people who killed the Sunni former PM -- the first Maronite to be killed since the Syrian regime began the recent series of assassinations about two years ago.

Within this local context, comes a mass, overwhelmingly Shiite rally (sprinkled here and there with the orphaned punks of the Syrian regime, the same people who are likely implicated in the murder of the Sunni former PM, one of whom also flaunted his punkness by publicly insulting the highest Maronite communal symbol, on Shiite Hezbollah's television station no less) gathered outside the Sunni PM's headquarters demanding he leaves. One of the Syrian regime's most loyal pitbulls, Wiam Wahhab, who is likely going to be indicted in the murder of Rafik Hariri, had come on another pro-Hezbollah TV station, and threatened the current Sunni PM, that if he doesn't leave now, he will meet the same fate as Nouri al-Said, the Iraqi PM who was captured and shot dead during the 1958 coup. The threat comes in the midst of an open Syrian campaign of assassinations, and infiltration of Syrian-controlled proxies tasked with assassinations and sabotage.

With this background, Hezbollah Shiites gathered to topple a Sunni Prime Minister. And Michel Aoun barges in. Having never seen a war he did not want to enter, and drag his community along, Michel Aoun does the dumbest thing possible. He manages to squeeze himself right smack in the middle of inter-sectarian (Shiite-Sunni) tensions, making a deeply divisive and polarizing Maronite figure, a party in this fight. In the Lebanese context, this is the peak of stupidity and utter incomprehension of the system. The infinitely wiser highest Maronite symbolic authority knows this and so warned Christians (implicitly) not to take to the streets.

The funny thing is it was so clear that Aoun was being used as a fig leaf. The coverage of the pro-Amal and Hezbollah station NBN was so obvious as it kept showing its reporters on the ground talking to the protesters. Every single one they showed, almost without exception, was either an Aounist, or a follower of Frangieh (another minor and marginal Maronite figure, and a punk pitbull of Syria, who was interior minister when Hariri was killed, and will possibly be indicted). If you were watching NBN, you'd think that the crowd was basically made of Aounists and Frangieh supporters, not Hezbollah and Amal!

The point is so glaringly obvious. With Sunni-Shiite tension running high, with Iraq and Iranian interference in the background, Hezbollah wanted to make sure to give its own attempt at a coup a non-Shiite face. Enter Michel Aoun, who was the only major speaker at the rally (his speech by the way was incredibly unimpressive and barely coherent)! An abomination in the context of Lebanese politics if there ever was one. Hassan Nasrallah had another engagement in his bunker, and was more than satisfied to see Aoun in that spot. Nabih Berri wanted no part of this. Not even Salim Hoss, the pro-Syrian former PM wanted anything to do with this. He didn't show up. Nor did a Christian leader from Zahle, who belonged to the Aounist bloc in parliament, come to the rally. I wonder why!?

Michael Young summed it up the other day:

[T]he question becomes, what does [Aoun] gain from being perceived as a Christian fig leaf for a possible Hizbullah coup? The general's involvement is important, because neither Hizbullah nor Amal wants their campaign to be seen as solely a Shiite endeavor. But if Aoun agrees to be their vanguard, he stands to lose even more politically than he already has, from an action sure to heighten ambient animosities.

The irony of course is Aoun's own hypocrisy. During his remarkably unimpressive speech, he tried one his typical bitter and angry rants against the media (Aoun is always a victim, you see). He chastized some TV stations for suggesting that the crowd was predominantly Shiite, with minor supporting acts (essentially, a repeat of the March 8 rally), and a low Christian turnout. "Shame on you," the demagogue Aoun yelled, "for trying to categorize along sectarian lines." The problem is that this lame cover-up doesn't mask the General's hypocrisy. After all, on which platform did Aoun run for election last year? That he was the only "real" Christian not co-opted by Sunni Muslims! That he would end Christian marginalization. In other words, it was a crude purely sectarian platform.

Moreover, Aoun's hypocrisy was most glaring in that a year ago, he was barking like a lunatic that solving the issue of the Presidency, "does not happen in the street." So what does the genius Aoun do? Become a party to a conflict as the fig leaf, battering ram for a Hezbollah (Shiite) coup against the Sunni office! Brilliant! It showed just how badly Aoun mishandles Lebanese politics. He will, if he hasn't already, pay a steep price. Needless to say, he will never become President.

The question here is, to paraphrase Walid Jumblat, where do you think you're going? The March 14 coalition also has its massive crowds. Let's not mention the "tariq jdideh" Sunnis, who are boiling with anger. What precedent does this set? A Shiite rally to topple a Sunni PM in a sectarian system? How can the voice of a Shiite leader (Nasrallah) be blasted on speakers at the rally promising the Shiite protesters "another victory" (against a Sunni Prime Minister) in a country ruled by the formula of "no victor, no vanquished"? Where does he think this escalation will lead?

Michael Young again said it best:

It is that the society imposes complex, unforgiving rules on its political actors—rules made necessary by the sectarian makeup of the country and the need for each religious community to respect the limits acceptable to the other. When these rules are disregarded, conflict tends to ensue.

This is why Nasrallah's and Aoun's contempt for the system is so dangerous.

Addendum: A propos. Hezbollah's agenda in a nutshell.

Update: Abu Kais discusses this issue further.