Across the Bay

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Inevitable: Cousseran Hits the Syrian Brick Wall

This report in al-Balad (page 2) about Cousseran's visit to Syria dovetails very well with the Naharnet report the other day, which a reliable French source with contacts in the Elysee informed me is true. It restates what I have said numerous times on this blog: for the international community, Lebanon is the litmus test for Syria; nothing else.

Al-Balad writes:

Very knowledgeable western diplomatic sources in Beirut said: "the Syrian leadership told the French delegate Jean-Claude Cousseran: 'we hope that France would deal with Syria separately from its relations with Lebanon.' Cousseran answered: 'there will be no normal relations between France and Syria separate from dealing with the Lebanese crisis and [Syria's] attitude towards Lebanon.'

The paper adds: widely knowledgeable sources indicate that Cousseran came out after meeting the Syrians with the impression that the Syrian position is negative, and that the talk about Lebanon being the way forward for Syria's relationship with France did not reach Syrian ears. The sources added that the talk of French officials downplaying the importance of Cousseran's visit reflects Kouchner's disappointment. The sources emphasized that "Syria and Iran are playing the game of buying time while holding on to rigid positions."

Facing this negative impression, the French Foreign Ministry, on the eve of Kouchner's visit to Beirut, is leaning to declare a position that would put Syria before its responsibilities. The Syrian reaction to that anticipated position will determine, according to the sources, the results and outlook of Kouchner's visit amidst French fears that Syria is not at all willing to change its policy in Lebanon. This comes amidst increased talk about the American position which holds that Syria's performance will not change in Lebanon and the region. And amidst the French attempts at testing the Syrian position, Washington is moving strongly to form the international tribunal which will be met by strong French support.

First, the last graph seems to bolster Michael Young's recent argument:

What can Kouchner do to avoid being hoodwinked? Playing on Syrian and Iranian differences won't work. The two countries have perfected a good cop-bad cop routine. But France can perhaps position itself in such a way where it has the final word among the Europe countries on Syrian and Iranian intentions in Lebanon. In other words, it can agree to stand or fall by its efforts to determine the seriousness of Damascus and Tehran when it comes to finding a solution acceptable to all the Lebanese parties; with clear recognition in Brussels, particularly from the European Union's chief foreign policy official, Javier Solana, that France's judgment will be authoritative. For this to work, Kouchner should set benchmarks for success and a specific timeframe to try achieving a more detailed common agreement over principles. If nothing gives, then he should publicly declare who prevented a resolution to the crisis.
Lebanon is heading for a perilous vacuum on the presidency, and Kouchner and the EU should not fear blaming the guilty for this and going back to the Security Council, evidence in hand.

Second, the al-Balad story pretty much confirms the Naharnet report, especially the parts about the coordination between Syria and Iran, which Ahmadinejad's visit to Damascus was designed to bolster more publicly (and these very public visits serve, and have served in the past, the purpose -- among several others -- of dispelling any notion of a potential break in the alliance. For more on the history of this, read Goodarzi's Syria and Iran as well as Hinnebusch and Ehteshami's Syria and Iran: Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System).

It doesn't take a genius to realize that Syria's and Iran's strategic interests in Lebanon converge over Hezbollah and its role, and therefore against the UNSC resolutions and the Lebanese government that adopts them. Michael Young put it well: "there are no signs that the two countries have anything but common objectives today: to defend Hizbullah and its weapons; to put the international community on the defensive by eroding UN Security Council resolutions, particularly Resolutions 1559 and 1701; and to guarantee that the next Lebanese president is someone they can trust and who will help them achieve the first two objectives."

As such, this part from the Naharnet report hardly comes as a surprise: "The sources said the Iranian leadership has expressed solidarity with the Syrian regime regarding rejecting the formation of any Lebanon government that opposes Syria."

It was also rather clear from recent statements by Hezbollah officials (esp. Muhammad Fneish) to French and French-language Lebanese outlets, that Hezbollah is intent on torpedoing the tribunal (and the seven-point plan) by asking for the revoking of all decisions taken by the Seniora cabinet after the resignation of the Shiite ministers.

And in a statement that confirms the quote above from Naharnet, Fneish ominously said: "It is evident that if Damascus considers that the Lebanese political system allied with its enemies constitutes a danger to its security and interests, it will not sit by without reacting."

Aside from confirming Syria's responsibility for the terrorism in Lebanon, Fneish also confirmed that in order for Syria not to view the Lebanese political system as "allied with its enemies" (see Mashnouq's remarks in my post below), then the current government, its decisions ("allied with its enemies") and the resolutions it adopted, most prominently the tribunal, have to be eliminated. In other words, as the Naharnet report put it, "the Iranian leadership has expressed solidarity with the Syrian regime regarding rejecting the formation of any Lebanon government that opposes Syria." The whole idiotic (and diplomatically dangerous) notion of "prying Syria away from Iran" has to be put to rest.

However, this part from the Naharnet report was the most ominous: "Cousseran said Iran neither desires a political vacuum in Lebanon nor the crisis to continue, but at the same time Tehran would not consider the two issues as redline."

This may be a carefully formulated position, designed as a very dangerous bluff. Let me explain:

We had all heard in recent weeks how the Syrians were pushing Lahoud to form a second parallel government to split the country politically and administratively, but also to prevent parliament from electing a president and to prevent Seniora's government from assuming all executive powers in case of a presidential vacuum. That idea is now dead, as it was always destined to be, signaling once again Syria's utter political bankruptcy in Lebanon.

It was dead because none of the serious political players (Aoun, Berri, and reportedly Nasrallah), who have an independent base of their own and are not totally reliant on Bashar (like Wahhab, Arslan, and the counter-elite that Bashar cultivated since assuming control over Lebanon in 1998) have all rejected it. In fact, even Sunni figures like Salim Hoss and Najib Miqati (people Syria may have banked would lead this government) rejected it outright. Hell, even Sunni pitbulls like the Islamist Fathi Yakan rejected it (especially after the Fateh al-Islam plot he supported in the north, and which may have been a crucial, Sunni, preamble, was totally decimated).

The US blacklist also played a role in putting it to rest. One Sunni figure who may have contemplated leading such a government, Fouad Makhzoumi, had to think twice given his financial interests in the US (the same applied to Berri).

But it was the Iranian ambassador to Paris (wink, wink) who officially buried the idea when he declared that Iran was against it.

If so, then what does that quote above mean that Tehran doesn't consider the vacuum and the continuation of the crisis as a redline? One analyst told me Iran "will escalate until the last minute, and then brake hard." This was perhaps echoed by Walid Jumblat who recently said that while the Iranians don't give a damn about Lebanon, they do still care for Nasrallah's image, and a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon would kill it, assuming anything of it still remains. For a second, parallel government to see the light, it would need Hezbollah's muscle, turning it effectively into a Shiite-government. It's little surprise Berri was opposed to it (and this is perhaps one reason he may have been summoned to Damascus for some harsh words).

But is that enough? It seems unlikely that Hezbollah, let alone the murderous madmen in Syria, will simply sit tight and let the Seniora government assume all executive powers in the case of a presidential vacuum, or, worse still, allow the election of a president by the current parliamentary majority.

This is why we're hearing about multiple new potential scenarios, all of them ridiculous and dead-ends (which is not to say that a desperate and bankrupt Syria won't push for anyway). One has it that Lahoud will form a "transitional government" that would dissolve parliament and call for early parliamentary elections (with the hope that March 14 would lose its majority). There was even talk of Lahoud delegating all powers to an emergency military cabinet. Then there's Hezbollah's supposed proposal (via Michel Murr apparently) to have a transitional, two-year president (allegedly Michel Suleiman) after which new parliamentary elections would be held, and then a new president would ostensibly be elected.

This pathetic option was shot down not just by all the Christian forces, but even by Aoun himself, who is loath to seeing Suleiman come to office.

There are other concoctions (by Berri of course) of engineering a supposed "centrist" bloc in parliament, which effectively would be a pro-March 8 bloc made up of March 8 MPs and would-be defectors from March 14, to elect a "centrist" consensual president (which would actually mean a pro-March 8 president).

All of this is maneuvering in the bottleneck. Nevertheless, the danger of a presidential vacuum is real, and unless Hezbollah and Aoun agree to meet March 14 half way and agree to a consensual candidate to the presidency in return for a national unity government, the stalemate will persist, and may even degenerate into dangerous confrontation. Hopefully, Aoun and Hezbollah will realize that their putschist attempt in January failed, and almost led to war. Neither they nor the country can afford another such failed adventure. Only Syria can, as Cousseran found out.

Addendum: A telling statement that also fits well with the al-Balad report: "[French Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Pascale] Andreani also said that Cousseran stressed to MP Saad Hariri during talks in the Saudi capital Riyadh Thursday 'Paris' full support to the government of Premier Fouad Saniora.'"

Addendum 2: The Syrians apparently threatened Cousseran (original report in as-Safir here), as they did with Ban Ki-Moon:

According to As Safir, French sources revealed that the Syrians had informed Cousseran that what is threatening Lebanon and its stability at this time was the spread of al-Qaida across Lebanese territories.

I.e., they directly threatened the French, as they do with all their interlocutors. That's what they are. They will never change, as the French learned... yet again.

How pathetically transparent. They still don't realize that this jig is up. They have nothing else. That's what the regime is. Syria's foreign policy assets are limited and well-known. It's a matter of bending the entire international community to its will through intransigence and terrorism. They tried it with UNSCR 1559 and with Hariri's murder. The Syrian "demand" for a "clear recognition of Syria's influence and interests in Lebanon" and the "natural and distinguished relations linking Lebanon with Syria" is nothing short of a "demand" to terminate UNSCR 1559 and 1701, as Michael Young noted above.