Across the Bay

Monday, December 31, 2007

Off the Reservation

And so we close the year 2007 with the same lesson we learn every year: Engaging Syria never works... ever. Engage Syria only if you wish to make a complete fool of yourself.

Speaking of which, let's check in on our final exhibit of 2007: Senator Arlen Specter.

Of course, given Specter's fondness for engaging Syria, he's no stranger to badly embarrassing himself... over and over again. Not that that has ever deterred him.

But yesterday was extra special. After meeting with the murdering terrorists in Damascus, Specter declared that Walid Moallem showed him a document that the Syrians jointly achieved with the French that was sufficient to hold the election in Lebanon.

Right. We've all heard about this infamous document. And how what Moallem claims it contains has already been denied by the French and the Lebanese parliamentary majority. We all, that is, except Specter and his staff, who insist on always being as clueless as possible before going to "engage" Assad, just so that they can appear that much sillier every time.

This time it was extra sweet. For as this sad Specter spectacle was taking place, the French President (himself having been embarrassed beyond words by the Syrian thugs) was making his statement in Cairo that he is halting all talks with the Syrians because they haven't kept a single promise (like that's news. This is Bashar's entire record.).

Just goes to show you. The hapless senator was bamboozled -- apparently hardly a difficult undertaking -- and the Syrians got him to make a false declaration on their behalf exactly as the French were terminating all contacts with Damascus! Just priceless! There is no better example of what engaging Syria is all about. That's it right here: clueless diplomat-wannabe gets fed something by the regime during talks. He/she regurgitates it to the press without any understanding of what it is. He/she either does damage, or, if we're lucky, just makes a fool of him/herself.

Now what do you think this says about the other grand assertions made by Specter, about how he saw a "real opportunity" (I'm bummed out he didn't use the preferred cliche, "window of opportunity") for peace between Syria and Israel? He was "convinced" of it. Just like that document Moallem showed him.

It certainly is not the first time people started "seeing" things after speaking to the terrorists in Damascus. It's a chronic disease. It sometimes goes away after you munch on your foot with a bit of Sprite. But Specter just can't seem to kick it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Syria Threatened Spanish UNIFIL Contingent

Now, doesn't this come as a surprise:

Syria's secret service has threatened Spanish soldiers in Lebanon in a bid to block the extradition of suspected arms dealer Monzer Al-Kassar to the United States, the newspaper El Mundo reported Monday.

The Spanish intelligence service, according to a memo cited by the newspaper, fears that troops on UN deployment in south-east Lebanon could be targeted if the Spanish cabinet ratify a judicial verdict and send Kassar to the United States.

General Assef Schawkat, chief of Syrian military intelligence, wrote to his opposite number in Spain: "If you think we are going to ignore the affront inflicted by north-American henchmen on our brother (Kassar), you don't really know us and [you] are no friends of the Syrian people."

Dated end-July, the note also refers to Schawkat delivering a thinly-veiled threat during a discussion with Spain's Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

Shawkat reportedly warned Moratinos that it is not the Americans who are protecting Spanish troops in Lebanon, and such protection could disappear.

The original report can be read here.

Of course, this is hardly news. I have written in the past that a high-ranking European official I spoke to told me that the Syrians threatened him and the French troops directly to his face.

I've also noted that Syria's officials (from Assad, to Sharaa, to Moallem, to Mohsen Bilal, to Faysal Meqdad, to Amr Salem) and their pitbulls in Lebanon, especially Wi'am Wahhab, but also Michel Samaha, Charles Ayyoub, as well as Hezbollah's Nabil Qawouk, had openly and explicitly not only threatened to hit UNIFIL, but predicted the hit on them (detailing who would supposedly be responsible: "al-Qaeda"), back in late 2006!

And this is hardly the first report in a European paper about direct threats by the Syrians to attack UNIFIL. Back in June, Le Monde published a report about how Assad directly threatened Ban Ki-Moon.

Al-Kassar himself, even judging from Shawkat's response, has ties to the Syrian leadership as well. Kassar was placed on the Iraqi government's most wanted list for being one of the main sources of financial and logistical support for the insurgency. We all know Syria's official role in that.

This is why Syria has been on the state sponsors of terrorism list since 1979 and why it should remain there (remember this?). Terrorism (including support for Islamist groups) and terrorist extortion is the only tool with which the Syrian regime advances its objectives.

But then again, look how people like Moratinos respond to this terrorist thuggery. The Spanish report reads: "The Syrian chief told Alberto Saiz [CNI director] that he had the word of minister Moratinos that Spain will not hand over al-Kassar to the US.
And he raised the following question: if this promise were not kept, 'What respect does a country deserve that does not keep the word given to another friendly country.'"

Update: Michael Young picks up on the story over at Reason's Hit and Run:

More alarming was the information that Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, had assured the Syrians that Kassar would not be extradited. Moratinos has long tried to maintain good ties with Damascus, to the extent that he refused to even privately admit that Syria had played a role in the bomb attack against the Spanish contingent of the United Nations force in Lebanon last June that killed six peacekeepers. At the time, U.N. officials were privately saying the exact opposite, noting that there was anger with Syria at the U.N. because of the attack.

Knowing this, you have to wonder if the memo was leaked to negate Moratinos' promise.

The attack on the Spanish UNIFIL troops came two weeks after al-Kassar's arrest.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Guardian of Crock

Check out the following jaw-dropping example of idiocy, ignorance and bias in this dispatch in the Guardian. Marvel at this remarkable pile of horse manure:

Hizbollah and the opposition have been demanding at least 11 ministries to exercise a veto to prevent any disarming of Hizbollah's military wing at the request of America and Israel.

Perhaps the stellar reporters of the Guardian have been absent the last three years, and so have not heard of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all armed groups in the country, as well as UNSCR 1701, which recalls 1559.

The shoddiness of the Guardian's reporters doesn't end there. Witness this beauty:

The situation has been exacerbated by the attitude of MP Saad Hariri - son of the former Prime Minister, Rafik Harriri, who was widely considered to have been slain by Syrian agents in early 2005 - who has been leading the ruling coalition. He has surprised even some of his own supporters with his belligerence towards compromise, a position some of his allies believe stems from the US and French government positions.

What unbelievable crock. In the Guardian's view, if -- even after the majority already conceded its candidates and backed down from rejecting a constitutional amendment -- Hariri doesn't agree to the so-called "opposition" blackmail by insisting on a vacuum unless it gets, in blatant violation of the constitution and the parliamentary democratic process, veto power, ability to name the next Prime Minister, the next Army Commander and the security chiefs, the make-up of the cabinet and the cabinet's policy statement, among other demands (otherwise known to normal people as extortion), then Hariri is just not compromising! The Guardian apparently confuses compromise with capitulation to thuggery and blackmail.

What outrageous nonsense. Then they quote someone they dub a "political veteran" as telling them that the French and the US are intent on keeping Hezbollah out of government. The slapdash reporters quote this utter garbage without any balancing statement or commentary.

Anyone who has read anything, not to mention done some actual reporting, for the last two months, knows that this is baloney. The majority have openly said that they have agreed to the principle of forming a "national unity" government -- euphemism for a government that represents the major groups in the so-called "opposition": Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun.

The real issue is that Hezbollah wants to prevent the president and the parliamentary majority from exercising their rights, as stipulated in the constitution, to hold consultations, after the presidential election, to proceed on the formation of the cabinet, the allotment of seats therein, naming the premier, and then the policy statement, all of which will be then put to parliament for a vote of confidence before the term begins.

That's usually called the democratic parliamentary practice. In la-la land, where the Guardian's ridiculously clueless reporters live, it's called "belligerence towards compromise." And it doesn't even end there. The "veteran" these reporters quote completely uncritically is quoted as saying that part of the problem is that Hariri "still wants revenge for his father." The pathetic reporters then frame this quote by following it with a quote by Hariri, completely out of context, attacking Syrian sabotage and interference in Lebanon -- the context of which was a response to outrageous comments by Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem and Vice President Sharaa, neither of which get a single mention in this piece of trash report. Doing so indicates a reaffirmation of the preceding quote by the ridiculous anonymous "veteran" they spoke to. What reprehensible, dihonest garbage.

Hariri is trashed by the Guardian for supporting international law and a Chapter 7 United Nations resolution demanding the establishment of a tribunal to try the assassins -- the Syrian regime -- for their murders in Lebanon, which, by the way, never once get mentioned in the entire report.

Apparently, in the looney world of Prothero and Beaumont, there are no UNSC resolutions relating to Lebanon! There's the evil dictates of Israel and America and the "belligerence" and "vengefulness" of Hariri!

What utter trash.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

What Happened in Paris?

The media today highlighted French President Nicholas Sarkozy's statements about him "reaching the end of the road" with Assad.

Moreover, the statement issued after the meeting between the US, France, Saudi Arabia and a number of others at the Paris donors' conference also stressed three international resolutions on Lebanon (1559, 1680, and 1701), as well as the tribunal.

All of this can be commented on as meaning that Assad once again alienated the French, leading perhaps to the end of the French opening to Syria, as well as a failure of the Syrians to split the French from the US, and so on.

But there was one more crucial item that was reported today. US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad told al-Hayat that he expected the international tribunal to start functioning in February. Khalilzad said that he was informed by the UN office for legal affairs that "there was good progress in the last few days with regards to the tribunal, and the office received important sums to finance it, and so everything is on track to set up the tribunal in February."

The Future TV news broadcast today added one more important detail. It quoted sources as saying that all parties have paid up, and that the sums were secured at the Paris donors' conference (hence the "last few days" referenced by Khalilzad).

This then would strongly suggest that Saudi Arabia has quietly decided to finally put in its share of the tribunal's cost.

This is a very important move, and it explains, as Emile Khoury noted, Assad's desperate attempts at securing the veto power for Hezbollah in the new cabinet before the election of Suleiman. He hopes to torpedo the tribunal through that veto power.

March 14 continues to reject this. And while the vacuum continues, the tribunal is now around the corner.

So come the Arab summit in March, Syria might find itself without anything institutional in Lebanon, with a functioning tribunal (with all that implies), and if its relations with Saudi continue to remain in the pits, it might find itself with a failed summit that would highlight its Arab isolation on top of its alienation of the French... again.

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.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Bombs on Tap

An excellent briefing from the EIU that follows the same outline found in Michael Young's and my own analysis:

In the final report submitted by Serge Brammertz, the outgoing head of the UN commission investigating the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri and its many sequels, there was the chilling observation that the perpetrators of these serial assassinations may have prepared a fleet of car bombs in several locations in order to be mobilised at short notice. That comment arose from the circumstances of the killing of Antoine Ghanem, an MP, on September 19th, which had demonstrated extremely effective surveillance and swift mobilisation by the bombing team. The successful dispatch of General Francois al-Hajj in the next operation, on December 12th, showed a similarly high level of skill, combined with well-judged political timing.
...

Sarkozy's gaffe

The continued deadlock over the Lebanese presidency and the long-anticipated revival of car bomb politics have cast France's decision to engage with Syria on the issue as at best naïve and at worst criminally negligent. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has had the misfortune of being quoted by Agence France Presse after the Hajj assassination as saying that he is prepared to visit Damascus if there is a consensus presidential election and if the assassinations are halted. The interview from which these remarks were taken was evidently conducted before the latest assassination, and the full quote included the condition that Syria should not impede the Hariri tribunal. However, the impression has been created that the French president is prepared to gloss over aspects of the Syrian regime's behaviour in the pursuit of an elusive diplomatic breakthrough in one of France's former stamping grounds.

Sarkozy's statement was taken from an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur conducted prior to the assassination but published on the same day it went down.

Statement from Pres. Bush on Hajj Assassination

President Bush Condemns Assassination of Lebanese Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj

I strongly condemn yesterday's assassination of Lebanese Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj and extend my condolences to his family and the families of the innocents who were murdered alongside him.

This assassination marks the twelfth political assassination or attempted assassination Lebanon has suffered since October 2004. Like the many victims before him, General al-Hajj was a supporter of Lebanon's independence and an opponent of Syria's interference in Lebanon's internal affairs. I call on the international community to support the Government of Lebanon in its efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of these vicious attacks, and to stand with the citizens of Lebanon who continue to struggle to safeguard their freedom, sovereignty, and democracy. This act of terrorism again reminds us of the importance of the International Tribunal established by the UN Security Council earlier this year and of the urgency of ensuring that the Tribunal is fully funded and capable of commencing its operations as soon as possible, to begin holding accountable those responsible for this systematic campaign of murder against Lebanon's most ardent patriots. We must work together to support and strengthen an independent and democratic Lebanon.

This attack comes as Lebanon is seeking to choose a new president. The United States supports the efforts of the democratically elected Lebanese Government and the Lebanese Armed Forces to maintain the sovereignty and stability of Lebanon before the presidential elections. As Lebanon seeks to select a president democratically and in accordance with its constitution, interference by the Syrian regime and its allies, aimed at intimidating the Lebanese people, must end. The people of Lebanon deserve the opportunity to choose their leaders in freedom and without fear.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So Much for Originality!

Just when I thought I was being original in my analysis, having spent a good hour typing it up, I open Thursday's issue of The Daily Star to find that Michael Young has beat me to it:

One of the things most disturbing to the Syrians about the decision of the March 14 coalition to support army commander Michel Suleiman was that this was apparently preceded by commitments on both sides. One such commitment appeared to have been agreement on a new army commander, or a list of potential army commanders. Hajj, despite the opposition's effort to paint his killing as a blow against Michel Aoun, was actually Suleiman's man and was reportedly one of those on the list.

The message, therefore, was that for Suleiman to become president, he has to, first, renounce all previous commitments reached with March 14 and enter into new arrangements with the "true force on the ground."
...
Their treatment of Suleiman in particular reveals that they don't quite trust the Lebanese Army, and that they certainly don't want a new army commander who might reverse pervasive Syrian infiltration of the senior officer corps.

So much for my originality! I console myself with the self-flattering belief that our minds think alike!

Make sure to read Michael's piece in full. It's excellent as always.

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.

Syrian Killing Machine Back in Action

I don't have much time, and I'll come back to this asap, but a quick comment on today's assassination of Gen. Francois Hajj.

This is a direct translation of that terrorist Farouq Sharaa's thuggish belligerent statement yesterday.

That the target was military is a message to Suleiman in case he had any ideas, but also, a message from Syria to whoever is to replace Suleiman as Army Commander. March 14 is said to have one contender lined up for the job, as part of the compromise over Suleiman. The Syrians just made their point the only way they do: through terrorism.

I hope the French are proud of themselves. Engage Syria means get Lebanese killed. Period.

More to come.