Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Fantasies of Peace

Fantasies of impending peace negotiations have been sparked among some journalists by recent moves in Israel, Syria, and Lebanon. The comment by Israeli Chief of Staff Yaalon (quoted in my last post) that Israel can defend itself happily without the Golan sparked speculation in Israel that perhaps Sharon was sending up a trial balloon for renewing negotiations with his nemesis Syria. When Yaalon's remarks were added to Vice PM Olmert's balloon about Israel needing to relinquish 80% of the West Bank and Likud's recent vote blocking any future coalition with Labor, speculators put 2 and 2 together to imagine that the US may be agitating for renewed peace negotiations.

In Lebanon, their is a new wrinkle in the Lahoud story (Will Syria force through a second, unconstitutional, term for its man in Beirut, President Emil Lahoud). When Suleiman Franjia maintained after a recent meeting with Bashar al-Asad, that Lahoud's chances of being reelected as President had risen from 20% to 60%, the Lebanese all began reading the tealeaves. Michael Young's always incisive imagination was sparked, leading to this article in the Daily Star. Speaking of the Syrian's Michael writes:

Their noisy support for Lahoud may be a way of driving a bargain with the Bush administration, perhaps when Syrian and American representatives meet on Aug. 27 in Rome. The American response will likely be a brush-off, since the Syrians are unwilling to give the US what it really wants. [What do they really want, Michael? I can't figure it out.] Genuine negotiations must await the November US election, and if any deal is to be made, which is far from certain, it will rise above the tenant of Baabda; it will include Syria's giving up its domination of Lebanon and support for Hizbullah, in exchange for negotiations on the future of the Golan.

Throughout the 1990s, as they talked with Israel, the Syrians never accepted this equation. Hafiz Assad always sought a comprehensive agreement that would compel Israel to return the Golan to him in its entirety (which new talks "from scratch" could undermine), while Syria would also retain overpowering influence in Lebanon. Washington appears dead set against any such arrangement. However, Israel might see the benefits of compensating Syria for a limited pullout from the Golan by helping it find a long-term role for itself in Lebanon.

For the moment, this is just mental foreplay. Even the statement by Israel's chief-of-staff, Moshe Yaalon that his country could defend itself without the Golan will not change much. Syria needs regional relevance, and the only ones playing along are its pitiful partisans in Lebanon. That's why it is ironic that if anyone pays the price of a Syrian extension of Lahoud's mandate, it will be those very partisans who have
offered their country up as Syria's ticket to regional significance.

Michael is right that Syria's partisans in Lebanon will suffer the most if they have to usher a change of the constitution through parliament in order to get Lahoud reelected. Junbalat has already fired a warning shot.

Walid Junblat has effectively warned Syria that keeping Lahoud in power for a new term would amount to a disaster that leaves Lebanonfraying in depression. "An Extension for Lahoud and for Premier Hariri for six more years is a catastrophe," Junblat said in an interview splashed across the front-page of As Safir Friday. "Respecting the constitution means no extension as a matter of principle."

Junblat said "it is important that we aren't told that it is Lahoud or elseā€¦this will be an insult to us." The leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, which holds three cabinet seats in Hariri's current 30-man government, reiterated that he would not join the government if Lahoud's term is extended, even if Hariri is retained as prime minister. (Thanks for sending this, Tony and the Nahar article below.)

Syria will pay a high price for fiddling with Lebanon's constitution. Young speculates that Bashar's interest in having Lahoud reelected is tied to US pressure for negotiations on the Golan and a Lebanon withdrawal. Abdullah Alahmar, Assistant Secretary General of the Baath Arab Socialist Party, said that Ya'alon's remarks were "active", but Syria would continue to observe "whether the Israelis were sincere or only kind of rhetorics".

Zeina Abu Rizk of the Daily Star, claims that some Lebanese "politicians believe that Assad's early move was the result of a deadlock in the US-Syrian negotiations. The Syrians may have come to the conclusion that they will not get anything from Washington in return for picking up a new president in accordance with the Lebanese Constitution, which is why they publicly started showing their preference for Lahoud. For its part, Washington may find it more interesting to let Damascus commit a constitutional mistake and later hold it responsible for it. "

Samir Qasir, writing in today's al-Nahar also takes Bashar to task, claiming he is blind to the realities around him. Of course he can humiliate and marginalize the "nationalist" politicians in Lebanon that his father created. He can do whatever he wants in Lebanon and no one can lift a finger to stop him. He can even grind their faces in the mud to show America who is boss, perhaps in the misguided belief that Washington will negotiate with him to save Lebanon. Qasir argues, however, that this would be the worst possible choice for Syria because it would reduce Syria to the smallest kind of nation. The US would not negotiate and Bashar would only have succeeded in destroying his own house. Qasir even suggests that Bashar is not the "real leader" in Syria and perhaps that is why he acts so arbitrarily in Lebanon, to disguise his impotence at home. Qasir argues that there is no honor in humiliating one's servants. His anger gives us a hint at what anger Bashar will stir up should he mess with Lebanon's constitution.

Azme Bashara, the Palestinian-Israeli MP, believes there is nothing new in Yaalon's remarks. He writes that any speculation about an improved Israeli attitude toward talks with Syria is deceptive. He believes that Israel and the US will go to war against Iran eventually. In a recent al-Ahram article, he argues:

Apart from the fact that [Yaalon's remark about the Golan] was issued in the context of Sharon's silent treatment towards Syria and expectations of what US pressures on Damascus might bring, the statement contains nothing new. This was always the position of the Israeli military establishment on Golan. At the time of Barak and Netanyahu, then chief of Israeli Military Intelligence Uri Saghi campaigned to revive negotiations with Syria on the basis of returning the Golan in exchange for peace. Rabin and Barak, who were the most prominent representatives of the military establishment in government since the founding of Israel declared their approval of a complete withdrawal from Golan to the borders of 4 June 1967. What was always missing was the ultimate political resolve.

According to prominent Israeli journalists, such as Raviv Drucker in his book, Hara-kiri, on the rise and fall of Barak, Barak eventually altered his position on the Golan. In the Wye River negotiations (December 1999-January 2000) he started out with a clear intent to negotiate on the basis of a full withdrawal from the Golan but soon retracted his position when he caught sight of public opinion polls. In his narcissistic
memoirs, Bill Clinton confirms the Syrian account of this development and belies that of Barak, almost in so many words.

No one bothered to apologize to Syria for blaming it for the collapse of the negotiations. Those commentators who let their antipathy towards Syria make them lose sight of the fact that Syria is the victim of armed aggression, with a large chunk of its territory under occupation and that it is weighed down by national and regional responsibilities with regard to how it handles this situation. They simply do not want to mention Syria in any positive light.

It wasn't Syria that was the object of Clinton's anger that fateful day in Geneva. Rather the resentful glare of all, including Clinton and Albright, was directed at the "champion of peace", Barak (who was not there, of course). At least the Arabs did not reproach Syria, as some of them reproached the Palestinians for having had the audacity to turn down the "deal" Barak offered in Camp David.

According to Itamar Rabinovich who headed the Israeli negotiating team in the days of Rabin and Peres, the greatest breakthrough in the negotiations occurred in August 1993 with the issuing of the deposit, which he terms the "non- Paper". Syria regards this document, whose existence is recognised by the US, as the point at which negotiations with Israel must be resumed. In 1999, Barak agreed to abide by it.
Rabinovich mentions further progress on the Syrian-Israeli track in 1995. Nevertheless, Peres called a halt to these negotiations following a wave of bombings in February and March 1996. It appears that the bombings themselves were merely a pretext; Peres and his advisors had certain qualms regarding Syria's regional role and simultaneously felt that they could make quicker progress on the Palestinian track, operating under the mistaken presumption that progress on one track undermines progress on the other. Ultimately, however, the issue boiled down once more to the lack of political resolve and domestic political considerations inside Israel.

It was as clear then as it is today that the resolution of any Israeli-Syrian negotiations entails the restitution of the Golan to Syria. Sharon was put in such an awkward position by the peaceful overtures made by the Syrian president in an interview with The New York Times in December 2003. When pressed by a parliamentary committee as to why he had ignored the initiative, he was forced to respond that he had chosen to remain silent because the resumption of negotiations with Syria meant returning to pre-June 1967 borders. If he had to enter into negotiations with Syria, he added, they would have to begin at zero.

So, Ya'alon offered no startling revelations regarding the Syrian track. Nevertheless, his remarks were taken as a peace gesture towards Syria and it is probably only a question of time before someone faults Damascus for failing to return the complement.

Israel has obstructed every political agreement, either because the government felt that it could never get the support of the Israeli people (as though democracy gives Israel the right to annex any land between Pakistan and Morocco as long as the majority of the Israeli people vote for it) or because, even in the Rabin era, it expected more from Syria than just "normal" peaceful relations. Of course there will always be Arabs who agree. After all, they would argue, why should Syria be prevented from changing its role and joining the American camp so that it could work to spread stability and democracy just like the current government of Iraq?

It is not useful to allow his remarks to drive us to ecstasy over some "new" Israeli position, as some thrilled over Sharon's deceptive approval of the roadmap. There is no new position, not even a budge.

The US and Israel are working their way up to another war. It might be in a year, it might be in 10, but the Iranian question is the way. Every interview and every statement by Israeli and US officials seem to point in that direction. The details are not always important. What is important to the strategists is building up Iran as the focal concern in the region as they did with Iraq. If Syria is threatened in the process, its only possible response is to cling to fundamental positions on national and Arab issues (even the Israeli chief-of-staff recognises Syria's right to Golan). It will have to step up and expand a political and economic reform process that will mobilise the social, economic and political creativity of Syrians towards the development and consolidation of the state and society, and it will have to strengthen its alliance with the whole of, not just part of, Lebanese state and society. Syria should be looking for allies not collaborators, and there are a lot of them around.

The notion that the US administration would propose a real peace plan for the region is attractive. It would give Bush a new profile as a possible peacemaker and electrify the region, allowing US allies among the Arab countries to breath more easily and say that America is not all bad. It would give Allawi in Iraq a big boost for the same reason. It would give a boost to Labor in Israel and Perez's call for new elections. If Sharon could get on board, it could even give his plan of unilateral withdrawal a boost. By offering Syria the Golan in exchange for Lebanon withdrawal, he could neutralize Arab criticism of his West Bank policy. The Palestinians are in such disarray that they would be in no position to do much about it. Jordan and Egypt and even Saudi would be back in business as helpful brokers and hand holders.

This, of course, is fantasy. Bush is not a peacemaker. He is too wedded to his vision of punishing Syria and Arab nationalists. He is too beholden to Sharon's tough talk. Washington's recent acceptance of Sharon's West Bank expansion plans proves this yet again. Sharon is cut from a similar mold. He doesn't have the imagination or desire to deal with Arab nationalists as people with legitimate concerns and aspirations.

Yaalon's remarks were meant to impact internal Israeli politics as Sharon's position weakens. Sharon was very forthright it declaring that he has zero interest in the Syria file at this time and is focused on his Gaza deal.

Syria and the US are playing hardball as the war of nerves between them escalates. Perhaps Bashar just wants to send a message to Washington that it has complete mastery over Lebanon and can do what it wishes there. If Syria should persist in making Lahoud President for a second time, it will only damage its own position. I suspect Syria is only showing its teeth in the face of recent US tough talk about Lebanon.

I can't really see what the US can do to hurt Syria further. Any attempt to cut Iraq-Syrian trade would hurt Iraq more than Syria. Hurting Lebanon would push many Lebanese closer to Syria and only punish the victim. Europe recently said it is closing in on finalizing the Madrid process and the EU trade pact with Syria. They don't want to play Washington's game of punish Syria. European countries don't see Syria as a big problem in the region. They are more inclined to see the US and Israel as the problems. I suppose the US could encourage Israel to strike out at Hizballah or even at Syria itself. But this has been done before and wouldn't really change anything beyond making Arabs mad. The Lebanese Christians are powerless to clamp down on Hizballah. They would end up being hurt by Israeli action against Lebanon more than Syria would be. The US has zero leverage with the Syrian opposition and can't stir things up internally in Syria. It could give more money to Farid Ghadry and the exiles, but they are losers and it would just be a waste of taxpayer money. Washington could cut off all diplomatic relations, which would upset Syria and inconvenience many people, but Washington needs the phone lines open.

Washington has run out of good options for punishing Syria. That is why fantasizing about a Bush revolution, revived peace talks, and a Golan deal is therapeutic. What does Washington have to lose?


At 8/22/2004 03:45:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

In addition to Qasir's remark that Bashar isn't really in control of his domain, An-Nahar's Jihad Zein also took a swipe at Bashar and said that Bashar's running of affairs in Lebanon -- where he has to cater to an opposition, a free press, a constitution, a free market economy and an established political elite -- is in fact more successful that his lame enterprise in Syria! I think Zein might have his finger on something here! It's intresting to speculate that Bashar would in fact like to dump his Damascus trap, and become the president of Lebanon! Maybe he should seek to amend the constitution to that end!


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