Across the Bay

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Decoding Sharaa

Following up on a point I made in my post on the Hajj assassination, make sure you read this excellent editorial in NOW Lebanon.

It's our guess that Qandil is far closer to the truth than Sharaa, because the Syrian regime invariably issues its threats from where they think no one is looking. Which Western diplomat will pay a moment's notice to an embarrassment like Qandil, let alone quote him in a dispatch home? Only the Lebanese and some Arabs will see that he, like Wiam Wahhab, another phonograph assembled in the workshops of Syria's intelligence services, often expresses the true aims of the men in Damascus – even as Syrian officials issue higher-profile comments implying the opposite.

Why do we believe the Syrians want to return to Lebanon militarily and in a security capacity? Very simply because their regime knows no other way than that of absolute, suffocating domination. Indeed, no sooner had March 14 decided to endorse General Michel Sleiman as president than Syrian suspicion kicked in. Fearing that the army commander might be less than loyal, that he would get the ludicrous idea into his head that Lebanon was a sovereign country, the Syrians blocked his ascension.

They did so for a simple reason: to tell Sleiman that if he really does want to be elected, then he must first abandon the idea that it is March 14 that will bring him into office. Only Syria can give him the green light to Baabda, providing Sleiman meets its overriding condition. What is it? That he should be an updated version of Emile Lahoud.

Assad is telling Suleiman he has two options; two models he can choose from. He can either be another version of Emile Lahoud, or he can end up like Rene Moawwad. They reminded him of the Moawwad model by blowing up Hajj, his right hand man. But, as the editorial went on to say, that's still not enough.

But you know what? The Syrians wouldn't even be satisfied then. As far as they're concerned, Lahoud was what he was because he had thousands of Syrian soldiers bivouacking under his swimming pool. There was no "soft power" in how Syria ruled the Lebanese. When a strong arm was needed, the Lebanese security services provided it; but always implicit was that Syrian guns were the final rampart of intimidation. We think Sharaa said what he did only to obscure the fact that the Syrians have every intention of coming back, with their tanks and guns and bludgeons, because they don't trust the Lebanese to turn their own country into a sub-province of Syria; and the Assad regime will never allow more than that.

As a sharp analyst put it to me, "if we ever needed an answer to the question as to whether Syria would let up if the tribunal were watered down and Syria were engaged, we have it now. Their principal objective is control over Lebanon, and they know that's what will undermine the tribunal."

More to come.