Across the Bay

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Explaining the Latest Assassination

This is my elaboration on my previous post. Why did the Syrian regime kill Gen. Francois Hajj? The answer can be found in the terrorist Farouq Sharaa's statement yesterday (there is no official transcript for it, but the essential points can be found in these three reports).

The bottom line is that Syria's only conception of its relationship to Lebanon is complete brutal domination, where Syria decides every single minutae of Lebanese life, including who gets to be president, prime minister, speaker, Army Commander, security officials, election law, cabinet make-up, cabinet portfolios, cabinet policy statement, etc. This is precisely the threat Bashar relayed to Rafik Hariri in their last meeting before he ordered his killing: I alone decide who Lebanon's president is, and if you disagree, I will break Lebanon over your heads.

This is the framework within which the assassination has to be placed, along with another parallel, inter-Arab framework, as I will explain below.

First, let's put Sharaa's statement in context. The assassination comes amidst a vacuum in Lebanon's presidency. The presidential seat has been vacant since November 24. Since that date, the Syrians have pushed their allies, which, according to Sharaa, include Michel Aoun, to sabotage any effort at filling that vacuum.

There was at one point an agreement between Berri and Hariri on Robert Ghanem, which was sabotaged by the Syrians, leading to the complete trashing of the presidential list the French had urged the Patriarch to compile. The French of course bear tremendous responsibility for their criminal incompetence during their so-called initiative. They essentially played into Assad's hand, setting the stage that allowed him to bring about the vacuum.

Assad of course never gave a hoot about the French or their offers. Assad wants an American and regional (read Saudi) mandate for his colonization of Lebanon. This is the same reason why he wants talks with the Israelis, as he believes that would be his ticket to the US, and consequently, for his return to Lebanon. The Europeans and Arabs thought, and some might still think, that if you offer Syria the prospect of the Golan, then they would leave Lebanon alone. I urge them to read Sharaa's statement yesterday. Syria, as always, wants both. Here's what Sharaa said:

Lebanon is not Syria's flank only with regards to Israel, but also in what concerns joint security. Even if we assume that the matter is settled between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon, you cannot feel secure unless you had a good relationship with Lebanon.

Sharaa went on to describe the definition of that "good relationship," characterizing it as a "unique relationship, not found anywhere else." Bashar Assad clarified it even more in an October interview in a Tunisian paper when he specified that what Syria considers to be a "good" relationship with Lebanon is when things return to how they used to be prior to 2005, when Syria was colonizing Lebanon completely. In other words, a good relationship with Lebanon is one where Lebanon does not exist. Hence Sharaa's recourse to the old Anschluss terminology of the determinism of "history and geography" when it comes to Lebanon. As Hazem Saghieh recently put it, Syria's self-image is of an aspiring regional imperialist power with entitlements over its neighbors (save the ones that threaten to crush it militarily, like Turkey did in 1998); Greater Syria.

EU Member of Parliament Jana Hybaskova described this well in a must-read piece in the English edition of al-Hayat last month. After meeting with Assad and other officials, she concluded:

Anything we touched, answer was similar. Syria is different. Syria is unique. As such it quite clearly can not be a normal, equal member of the international community, of community of states in the Middle East. Syria is so different that it can pursue its relations with its neighborhood differently than normal states. It reserves for itself the right to interfere, to collaborate openly with terrorists. With its fragile perception of uniqueness it painted itself into the corner: "there is no peace without Syria." Message given was clear: "you, Europe, you can do anything in the Middle East. You can talk to Lebanon, work on Israeli Palestinian issue. You can try to stop extremism, support Arab Initiative. If you do it without accepting unique Syrian conditions, we will destroy any of your efforts. We will not allow you to bring any peace to the region. There is no peace without Syria.
There was no sign of interaction, readiness to listen, to collaborate, to quit uniqueness, to be normal modern state of the normal modern Middle East. Officials, whom we met, do not represent modernity. They represent the opposite: keeping Syria in martial law, in hostile relations with Lebanon and Israel, collaboration with terrorism, economic racketeering, and open door to Russian military presence.

Yet, the Alawite regime in Syria has a problem today. The Sunnis of Lebanon are overwhelmingly against its designs for Lebanon and are an anchor of the March 14 pro-independence coalition.

The Syrians managed to split the Maronites -- a multipolar community to begin with -- through the criminal useful idiot Michel Aoun, whom Sharaa characterized as an ally subject to Syrian pressure (which, incidentally, undermines the lies his boss Assad made to the French, that he was able to pressure Hezbollah to go along with the Suleiman presidency, but his hands were tied when it came to Aoun. Little does Aoun know, of course, that he's basically just the window dressing of Syrian sabotage.).

The undermining of Hariri's (both father and now son) influence among Sunnis has been a primary Syrian objective since Bashar took charge of the "Lebanon file" in the mid-90s (Bashar groupie and advocate Flynt Leverett wrote in his book Inheriting Syria about that time period, "[Hariri's] removal from power had become a Syrian objective." [p. 100]). It is for this reason that the Nahr al-Bared affair was concocted, and why the Shiite ministers resigned from government, all the way to the siege of the Grand Serail, and the occupation of downtown Beirut.

They all failed, however. So Syria calculated that it needs to get the Saudis to sanction its return to Lebanon, and to basically capitulate to Syrian demands, including Syria's integration into the Arab order along with Saudi and Egypt, without giving anything in its relationship with Iran and Hezbollah. Sharaa made sure to stress this in his speech, especially when he said that if Annapolis was designed to split moderates vs. extremists, and thus isolate Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Syria's participation foiled such notions. It made me smile thinking of the dozens of idiotic articles during the Annapolis conference heralding a "thaw" in US-Syrian relations, and better still, slight troubles in the Syrian-Iranian alliance. Just goes to show you how much of the material out there is worth diddly squat, reflecting piss-poor understanding and knowledge (for more, see Barry Rubin's column today). The Syrians dragged negotiations with Israel for 9 years during the 90s, while consolidating their strategic alliance with Iran, and while cementing their grip over Lebanon.

Syria had tried to get this summit from Saudi before going to Annapolis. Syria knew that it wasn't going to get anything on the Golan at Annapolis, but it couldn't afford not to go. So they tried to extract a price for their attendance from the Saudis in the form of a five-party summit, joining them, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Saudis. The Syrians have been trying to market this idea for months, but the Saudis never agreed. They also rebuffed them this time, telling them they had to pay up in Lebanon before any talk about such a summit. A Western diplomat made the same point to Walid Choucair in al-Hayat today.

But Syria is in another tight spot. In March, the next Arab summit is scheduled to be held in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has the power to embarrass Syria by boycotting the summit, increasing Syria's Arab isolation. The Syrian attempts to leak false news through their bus-boy at al-Hayat, Ibrahim Hamidi, about an "imminent" summit with Saudi is reflective of this anxiety.

So crucial is this for the Syrians that it was a central part of Sharaa's speech. In a segment very obviously aimed at Saudi Arabia, Sharaa said:

The [Arab] summit will be held on time and will succeed, because everyone has a need for it. The Turkish and Iranian presidents will attend and it will certainly be a success. ... We must all close ranks at the upcoming Arab summit in Damascus next March in order to face all the challenges. The next Arab summit will be the summit of bridging the chasm in Arab relations and taking them to a better level.

This statement reflects Syria's deep anxiety and its flipside -- its threats.

Yet, yesterday, Syria's aspiration was dealt a double blow when Egypt's Foreign Minister denied any plans for a Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian summit, and even downplayed the proposed conference in Moscow next year that was supposed to deal with the Syrian-Israeli track saying that on top of there not being any clarity regarding that conference, its role would be merely a "follow-up" to Annapolis, which focused on the Palestinian track. He also shot down Syria's attempts to market itself as the driving force behind a rapprochement between Fateh and Hamas.

I think the assassination today has to be seen in this light. It was Syria's response. Syria will keep Lebanon on the brink and in the void until Saudi capitulates to Syria's demands, both in term of its regional integration, epitomized in a summit with Saudi and Egypt and Saudi attendance at the summit in March, as well as a Saudi imprimatur on its reentry into Lebanon. As one of Syria's pitbulls in Lebanon, Naser Qandil, put it, Syria will return to Lebanon, whether on the military or security level. "This is a Syrian decision." It wants a renewed Arab mandate. The Damascus summit would be the effective ceremony for this, in Syria's vision.

As such, it was rather telling that the pro-Syrian rag al-Diyar (whose editor is a lowly dog of the Syrians) ran a headline on November 24, the constitutional deadline of the election, that read: "The 'vacuum' will reign until mid-Spring." How "prescient."

So how does all this relate to what I said in my previous post regarding the assassination being a message to Suleiman and the future Army Commander?

Suleiman's candidacy was backed by Egypt and Saudi. After the French screw-up and mishandling of Syrian sabotage led to the vacuum, March 14 took the initiative by endorsing Michel Suleiman for the presidency. Although Suleiman was always viewed as Syria's preferred choice, his endorsement by March 14 threw a major wrench in the "opposition" and Syrian camps.

Syria's allies have been sabotaging the constitutional amendment mechanism (required because of Suleiman's current position as Army Commander) that would allow for Suleiman to assume the presidency.

The general assessment was that having got their choice for President, the Syrians were now going to milk other concessions on the cabinet and the appointment of the new Army Commander and new security chiefs before even facilitating the presidential elections.

But this is not the full, complex, picture. Syrian hurdles to Suleiman's presidency emanate from two considerations:

1- Syria has consistently been saying that Lebanon is its exclusive property. It alone decides who becomes president. It alone decides who the next Prime Minister is. It alone decides who Lebanon's security chiefs are. I had noted how back in February, when the Syrians suspected that Amin Gemayel was visiting Washington to test the waters for his candidacy to the presidency, they triggered a bombing in his backyard in Ain Alaq. A Syrian official at the time commented on Gemayel's visit by warning that "those who might be promising him the presidency may not be able to fulfill their promise."

What people don't understand is that Syria doesn't "share" in Lebanon (contrary to the assertion of useful idiots like Bashar's court scribe David Lesch, that "there is room for compromise"). Not even with the Lebanese, let alone what it perceives to be foreign "shares." This is, after all, a paranoid totalitarian police state run by a murderous sectarian clique. This is why they stuck with Lahoud in 2004, even as they controlled all of Lebanon and had 30,000 troops and a myriad intelligence servicemen on the ground. This is why they murdered Hariri.

The notion that Suleiman was endorsed by Hariri, without whose parliamentary bloc Suleiman has no chance of becoming president, immediately raised red flags. This is not to mention the emerging relationship between the US and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which is deeply anathema to Syria (hence all the info ops in Syrian and pro-Syrian outlets regarding the alleged "US base" in Lebanon). This was further compounded by the statement Suleiman made the other day in a speech to the LAF wherein he stressed the spreading of state authority over all Lebanese territory, a clear nod to the March 14 position and international resolutions (the last thing both Hezbollah and Syria want is for the UNSCR 1701 status quo to be solidified). Suleiman also adopted the March 14 position on the constitutional amendment mechanism, saying it must pass through the Seniora cabinet, or else he would withdraw his candidacy.

It was then that the Syrians had enough and decided to send him a message by killing his chief aide, who ran the operations in Nahr al-Bared (the ones Hezbollah tried to sabotage by dubbing a military operation a "red line"), the major cause for Suleiman's public support.

As that Western diplomat put it to Walid Choucair, the so-called "opposition" in Lebanon want to "make Suleiman understand that they are the ones who are carrying him to the presidency, along with their regional allies, and not the [parliamentary] majority."

2- This is precisely why Syria needs to make sure that Suleiman arrives on its terms, and that his maneuverability is nullified, his hands tied, and his task pre-defined. In other words, he becomes another Lahoud. That's precisely why Syria's pitbulls were calling for prior agreements on getting veto power in the cabinet, naming the next Prime Minister, setting the policy statement, and they especially stressed the appointment of the next Army Commander and security chiefs -- and reviewing all the decisions made by the Seniora cabinet since the resignation of the Shiite ministers last year (which include decisions relating to the tribunal). This is what led the Maronite Patriarch to finger two reasons behind the current impasse: an attempt to restore Syrian hegemony and to sabotage the tribunal.

This was made crystal clear by Sharaa in his speech:

They [the Lebanese] know what the hurdles are before the president. [Suleiman] is supported by Syria, but there are complaints that they [March 14] endorsed him as a maneuver, and they are not willing to discuss a consensual Prime Minister and the veto third which was under discussion months ago, and the government was stuck on this point.

March 14 said this will not happen. The "opposition" will not get veto power. Instead, the swing vote will be left to Suleiman's share in the next cabinet. The constitutional mechanism has to pass through the government, regardless what Hezbollah says. And no appointments will be discussed until the president is elected, as they are parts of his presidential prerogatives and part of the constitutional process.

Sharaa set the stage for it the day before in rhetoric, and the following day, Syria made its point through bloody terrorism. A clear message to Suleiman, and a clear message to any future Army Commander not appointed by Syria. Not March 14, not even Suleiman (who was close to Hajj, described by some as his "right hand man"), decides who the next Army Commander is. Only Syria does. Also, it's a clear message to Saudi Arabia that the vacuum will continue until Saudi gives Syria everything it wants both regionally and in Lebanon. It's also a message that the vacuum can be rather dangerous as now even the guarantor of security in the country, the Army, is itself a target of political assassination, threatening the very unity of the Army and the viability of every move it makes. This has grave consequences as far as UNSCR 1701 is concerned, and thus, as far as UNIFIL and the participant nations therein (France included) are concerned.

Sharaa's statement that Syria won't return militarily to Lebanon should not be taken at face value, especially given how it contradicts what Qandil, a faithful mouthpiece for Asef Shawkat, has said. What it means is that Syria will still behave as though its military and security apparatus were still in Lebanon, and the world, including Saudi Arabia, will not only accept it, in Syria's mind, but they will officially sanction it as well.

This Syrian machismo is actually borne out of weakness. Syria threatens Saudi, but Saudi is in a much better position to hurt it in March. Syria sabotages and threatens in Lebanon, but it has not been able to forcefully impose its writ, which is precisely why Suleiman's presidency is blocked. It is not even sure it can trust Suleiman unless it handcuffs him entirely and clinches exclusive power in Lebanon, which is not currently feasible. After all, March 14 has not given anything institutional yet, and Syria's promises to France and Saudi Arabia have been broken yet again, which might lead to an end in the current French ill-fated and ill-conceived attempt to "engage" Syria.

My sense, or perhaps my hope, is that this Syrian cockiness will backfire. No one, not even the most stary-eyed "engagers" are willing to sanction a Syrian return to Lebanon. Let's see if this holds up. But for now, as the al-Diyar headline put it channeling the Syrians, the vacuum reigns.

Update: How transparent is this? Berri now openly endorses the "package deal" (i.e. prior agreement on the cabinet, the PM, the Army Commander, etc.) as a precondition for the constitutional amendment -- right after Sharaa explicitly demanded it in the speech on Tuesday, and immediately after Hajj's assassination on Wednesday.