Sunday, June 13, 2004

Road to Democracy, via Damascus

Michael Young published an important article in the New York Times yesterday, entitled: "The Road to Democracy, via Damascus." He suggests ways that the US and EU could nudge Syria toward withdrawing from Lebanon. I reproduce the entire article here for readers, and comment on it below.

The Road to Democracy, via Damascus
By MICHAEL YOUNG

BEIRUT - Last month President Bush bowed to Congressional pressure and imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria. Although the president went beyond what Congress demanded - banning most exports to Syria, prohibiting Syrian commercial flights to America and freezing assets of Syrians with known ties to terrorism - he missed an opportunity to show that the United States is serious about democracy and self-governance in the Middle East.

The sanctions may be helpful, and the United States has long called for an end to the Syrian military presence of Lebanon - just last week President Bush said that "the people of Lebanon should be free to determine their own future, without foreign interference or domination." But the Bush administration, working with the European Union, should be doing more to encourage Syria's withdrawal.

Because Syria is the patron of Lebanon's postwar political elite, this idea provokes official antipathy in Beirut. Recently, President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon declared that Syrian forces would remain in the country until a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Given the deadlock in regional talks, this invited an open-ended stay. Since May 2000, when Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon (removing a Syrian justification for its troop deployments), the Lebanese authorities have defended the Syrian presence as necessary, legal and temporary.

For decades, Syria has been the unavoidable force in Lebanese politics. Even after 1991, when Arabs and Israelis were negotiating peace, American and European envoys dealt with Lebanon in Damascus. Things have changed in recent years. There is growing boldness by Lebanese opposition figures who are now openly demanding a new relationship with Syria leading to a pullout. The Syrian president, Bashar Assad, has made reform his mantra, though he has not discussed a full pullout from Lebanon except in the most indefinite of terms. For the Lebanese, however, Syrian reform must include reviewing a Syrian military presence in their country that is seldom discussed in Damascus and has never been put to a referendum in Beirut.

American sanctions have heightened pressures on Mr. Assad. Yet by themselves they will not improve Syrian-Lebanese relations. In fact, trying to force a Syrian pullout may be dangerous. It could lead to domestic tension in Lebanon that Syria would highlight, and even encourage, to reaffirm its indispensability to civil peace.

What the United States and the European Union should do is put Lebanese sovereignty at the top of their agenda — even if they have few means of enforcement. And Syria and Lebanon should themselves recast their relationship and set a sensible deadline for a Syrian withdrawal; it need not be immediate, but neither should it be relegated to a distant future. This would help marginalize those who, wrongly, seek a rude divorce between Beirut and Damascus.

What would the advantages be to Syria and Lebanon? It would end a debilitating relationship that benefits neither — so that both can, together, endure the impact of future regional realignments. But it would also acknowledge that Syria's real challenges come not from Lebanon or even from Israel (the Syrian-Israeli border is among the quietest in the region), but from Iraq, where American forces can continue to intimidate Syria.

How can the international community help? First, by calling, after years of indifference, for the peaceful carrying out of United Nations and other resolutions demanding foreign troop withdrawals from Lebanon. This would include a renewed commitment to the 1989 Taif accord that ended the civil war and outlined a Syrian redeployment to the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon within two years. While the wording of the accord is open to interpretation, its spirit is not: the Syrians are asked to move their troops with the implicit promise of a total withdrawal.

Second, the United States and Europe should insert themselves into the Syrian-Lebanese relationship by advising the two states to redefine their rapport and set a framework for a Syrian departure. Both power blocs say they favor democratic self-determination; they can prove it in Lebanon. This might represent interference in the bilateral affairs of foreign states — but sovereignty should not be an excuse to allow the domination of one country by another.

Third, the United States and the European Union should protect and enhance Lebanese liberal institutions — timely and free elections, and respect for the constitution, judicial independence, civic groups and opposition parties. A priority is guaranteeing that Lebanon's presidential election this year and parliamentary elections next year take place and are free and fair. After all, it is Lebanese democracy itself, not Syria's presence, that makes Lebanon stable. Only true democracy will ensure a Syrian pullout goes smoothly and that a durable Syrian-Lebanese bond — one between equals — is built afterward.

President Bush has often spoken of the importance of bringing democracy and freedom to the Middle East. His focus has been on Iraq, but Lebanon provides as good an opportunity to advance such aims. And while the international community should play a role, it is the Lebanese and the Syrians who must take the lead in redefining their relationship.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason magazine.


Let's hope Washington can refine its approach to Lebanon along the lines Young recommends. The background and motivation of the spokespeople for the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act in the US congress did not inspire confidence. With pro-Likud members of congress and General Aoun as the frontmen for America's free-Lebanon policy, it is not clear how Washington will "help marginalize those who, wrongly, seek a rude divorce between Beirut and Damascus," as Young puts it. Because of the genesis of the Act, and its clear connection to the neo-conservative groups who were simultaneously calling for regime-change in Damascus, who could help conclude that "rudeness" what it was all about. Most every politician in the region shuddered at its implications and treated it with deep skepticism. All Arab heads of state condemned it without waffling or honeying their words.

Young wants to take the policy away from the hit-men. To do this he turns to Washington. But it is the Lebanese themselves who will have to guide Washington and push Damascus toward the greater subtlety and politeness that will ultimately bring legitimacy and success to the effort. Young writes that "there is growing boldness by Lebanese opposition figures who are now openly demanding a new relationship with Syria leading to a pullout." I hope he will expand on who these people are and how they can build bridges to all the communities of Lebanon to formulate a full throated call for Syrian withdrawal.

The only way the Lebanese will push Syria out is if they are unified and demand it; otherwise, the Damascus game of divide-and-rule will be too easy, and Lebanon will remain Syria's playground for years to come. In a recent interview Bashar accused the Lebanese of blaming all their troubles on Syria. He quite honestly admitted that Syria does have interests in Lebanon and does throw its weight about during election season, but he added, "Don't throw it all on me." There is no doubt that Syria pushes its weight around - but there is also no doubt that Lebanon has sucked Syria in, due to its internal divisions. To a large extent, it is that sucking motion that keeps Syria so happily ensconced in Lebanon.

Young explains that the Lebanese who want Syria out may never be able to gain much power in the country. Why? "Because Syria is the patron of Lebanon's postwar political elite, this idea [asking for Syria to leave] provokes official antipathy in Beirut. Recently, President Émile Lahoud of Lebanon declared that Syrian forces would remain in the country until a comprehensive Middle East settlement."

President Lahoud is today’s "bad boy" in Lebanese politics because he has been maneuvering to change the constitution to allow himself a second term. It is a terrible idea and would symbolize the total corruption of the Lebanese system. Everyone knows it will only happen if Syria throws its weight behind the notion.

There are many other bad boys in Lebanese politics. One doesn't even want to start going down the list because it becomes too long and depressing.

But the real problem is not the bad boys; it is the "good boys." By this I mean true Lebanese patriots who are liberal and in Michael Young's camp. I think of my good friend Paul Salem: smart, Harvard educated, enterprising and from a wonderful family that has long served Lebanon in politics and education. He was brave enough (some say foolish) to run for parliament a few years back (and lost). Many friends remarked with a smile, "How pro-Syrian Paul has become of a sudden." It didn't help him in the end. Paul is too clean and perhaps too much of an idealist. But the point is he tried to be pro-Syria, perhaps just long enough to get in the door so he could do good for his country … but he tried....

My final gripe with Young's argument is the issue of the Golan. He dismisses it on the pretext that it will never be solved. But the legitimacy of borders and national sovereignty of Middle East countries is THE POINT. As Thomas Friedman correctly stated in today’s op-ed: "Taking the High Ground," respecting legitimate national borders in the region is the only real solution. It is the only way to gain the moral high ground. Just as Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon gave it the moral high ground in fighting Hizbullah, so will withdrawing from Gaza (and the WB) give it the high ground in fighting Hamas and extremism. Now all the pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon can say with a straight face that "Syrian forces should remain in the country until a comprehensive Middle East settlement." What if they couldn’t say that? What if they were denied this moral principle? What if Syria were denied the moral high ground of occupation? What would it tell the Lebanese? What would it tell its own people? Today Syrians and many Lebanese actually believe Syria has a right to wage its cold war with Israel on Lebanese soil. Bashar has said straight out that Syria will leave when the Golan issue is solved. Why not force him to live up to his words?

Certainly, it is unfair for the Lebanese to have to wait on Israel and Syria, as they have done for the last 30 years. Moreover, the free-Lebanon movement in Washington derives its clout from pro-Israeli lobbyists, who would drop their Lebanese friends like cold fish were they to take up the free-Golan issue as well. All the same, it would give Michael Young and those who call for ending occupation the the moral high ground in the Arab world as well as in Washington. They could stand on principle and not just half-principle - if not in Washington then perhaps in Damascus. After all Michael Young claims that The road to Democracy is Via Damascus. Washington will not get it for him alone.

Maryam Shaqra, a Washington media analyst at the Embassy of Syria
replies

Contrary to the implicaiton of the article by Michael Young (“Get Syria out of Lebanon," Views, June 18), Israel did not withdraw from all Lebanese territories. And since Israeli forces can reach Damascus in less than half an hour, the Syrian presence in Lebanon is a security necessity for both Lebanon and Syria.

The Syrian presence is mainly in al-Bekka valley. More important, it is by a mutual agreement between both the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Syrian troops are there by invitation not invasion, and the remaining troops are there temporarily. Reaching a peace agreement between Syria and Lebanon on one side and Israel on the other side will eliminate the need for such a military presence.

I am glad that Young referred to implementing the United Nations' resolutions. Indeed, this is a Syrian demand.

Maryam Shaqra, Washington media analyst, Embassy of Syria

2 Comments:

At 6/14/2004 12:11:00 PM, Blogger wesley said...

withdrawing from the Golan Heights may give Israel the "MORAL high ground"...but pre-1967 it gave Syria the TOPOGRAPHICAL high ground...and Israeli farmers in the Lake Galilee valley were shooting targets for Syrian marksmen...that is why the Israelis are reluctant to turn these positions back to Syria...altho the Barak government did offer to return virtually all of the Golan, but Hafez al-Assad demurred.

 
At 8/17/2007 01:19:00 AM, Blogger Maldives Islands said...

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