Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Michael Young Replies

Michael Young, opinion editor for the Daily Star, replies to my last post "Will Syria Ever Leave Lebanon?" Also be sure to read the two comments linked to the post by the always smart Tony Badran and Lee Smith. I promised Michael I would give him the last word on this, and I will. His elegant reply deserves no less. Michael writes:

Dear Josh,

You've been doubly kind offering me a detailed response, and, dangerously, the last word. I realize that readers will be cut low by my painful response strategy, but alas your points merit a step-by-step response, so please bear with me. I'll preface those with my initials: MY.

Michael's basic argument, as I understand it, is that nothing has changed in Syria. It doesn't matter whether Syrians believe in Baathism; the country remains a corrupt and rapacious power. Only force will drive it from Lebanon. Bashar is window dressing. What he says means little because he doesn't hold real power, and anyway, he is a cynical rhetorician, who would rather have Lebanon than the Golan. Syria remains controlled by dark oriental forces.

MY: Not at all. Syria has surely changed, and the Damascus Spring was proof of this. There are an increasing number of Syrians, particularly independent and educated Syrians outside the power structure, who no longer fear criticizing the regime and risking paying the penalty. They are Syria's hope. I don't think Bashar is window dressing; I just think that his ambitions are not democratization, but modernization. I'm not sure what "dark oriental forces" are, but you caught me on my use of Oriental modernizer. An example, as an illustration? Perhaps a 20th century (not 21st century) Muhammad Ali - someone who wants to enhance the efficiency of his system, and who (unlike the Albanian) is sensitive to letting people breathe better, but unwilling, or incapable, of altering the fundamentally autocratic nature of the system.

What kind of state is Syria: Syria is an autocratic state that is trying to become a liberal autocratic state. The vast majority of Syrians - powerful and weak - wish to be more like Jordan or Egypt and less like the Syria of old. This means allowing for NGOs to form and civil society to operate, all be it, at a very unthreatening level. It means greater pluralism (minor party activity as in Egypt), freedoms of speech, a modicum of human rights, and hopefully a bit more due process. Most importantly, I believe, Bashar wants administrative reform so he can begin modernizing the country. Even if it is "oriental" modernization; it is modernization, which is better than nothing, even if not as good as democracy.

Bashar has to do this for regime stability and to control social pressures that will soon become intolerable at present anemic economic growth rates. He needs growth of at least 6% to begin employing the gobs of young people who are being dumped into the system. It is good for Lebanon that Syria is trying to become less autocratic.

MY: Overall I agree, but I offer two skeptical questions: Has Syria progressed since Bashar took power? If not, then even "oriental" modernization seems a distant reality. Second, at this stage is ineffective modernization the only option? Yes, I would prefer all-out democracy; but there happens to be an alternative: internal disarray because the system can no longer sustain its variegated pressures. In other words, ineffective change may lead to volatility, and the status quo may also lead to volatility. In the latter cases, then, "oriental" modernization is not "better than nothing"; it can be a vehicle for breakdown. On Lebanon, sure we benefit from a less autocratic Syria. But for the moment there is no domestic debate in Syria on giving Lebanon back its entire sovereignty, even though as there is one on opening Syria up politically.

The economic argument: MacDonald's for the Middle East or Crony Capitalism will be better than Crony Socialism.

Unlike his father, who was content to keep his country in lonely and backward isolation and to cling to the dwindling number of "samud wa tuhaddi" states, Bashar has shown considerable flexibility and eagerness to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world and the larger capitalist world. Why? Not simply because he was educated in the West or because he grew up in an era in which old-school Arabism was not cool, but more importantly because he must feed his people. Only by increasing trade and foreign investment in Syria can he get the country out of its present stagnation trap. (Whether he can succeed is another question - but he is trying.) At no time in Syria's history have relations with Turkey, Jordan, and perhaps now, also Iraq, been so congenial and free. 250,000 Iraqis came to Syria this summer, using only their identity cards!
If Bashar is responsible for this opening to the world, he has more power than Michael suggests. If he isn't responsible for it, then the dark forces controlling Syria, that Michael hints at, are not so dark and backwards as he suggests. Even if Bashar is replaced some day (and we hope he will be before he reaches 70) the pressure for change will continue. Maybe it's a good thing that Bashar does not have the power of his father and that power is pluralized.

MY: I agree with much of this, but bear in mind that Bashar's decisions were as much motivated by Syria weaknesses regionally than by anything else. The opening to Iraq, Turkey and Jordan were/are a necessity (as your Star piece so elegantly argued in the Iraqi case.)
Syria's need for trade, economic growth, and its desire to open up to the world is good for Lebanon. It creates a dynamic of growth, which requires peace and security, rather than war and brutality. Once Syrians understand that their lives improve because the pie is getting bigger for everyone rather than because their share gets bigger at the expense of their neighbors, Lebanon's chances of freedom rise. This is the old argument about countries with MacDonalds not going to war. Syrians have yet to get their first MacDonalds, (They still have to go to Beirut) but they are dying for it and much closer to having one than they were 5 years ago. They are joining the capitalist world slowly but surely. That is occidental of them even if they can do it without democracy.

MY: True again, but I must remind you that our economic relations with Syria are heavily tilted in Syria's favor. I don't mean by this that we cannot benefit; we do. But there is always a fear that investment in Syria will be sucked up by the patronage system - unless a powerful Syrian partner is brought in, in which case profits are reduced. Yes, we've managed to impose some change on the Syrian economic system, and we have potential influence in the banking sector, but whether it is labor (and I actually support Syrian laborers in Lebanon on economic grounds) or agriculture, or indeed cross border trade, the relationship is not one between equal partners. But yes, Lebanon is Syria's ticket to economic openness, and it's in Lebanon's interest that Syria open up. Alas, they have been very slow in doing so.

The Golan:It doesn't shock me that Bashar would say he is willing to compromise over the Golan's border and then let Buthaina Shaaban deny it. This is standard diplomatic ambiguity. It is no different from Powel saying, "Let's talk" to Syria and Bolton saying, "Never!" The door is now open if the Israelis are willing to try it. More importantly, When Bashar stated that Syria would give up Lebanon when it gets Golan, he is signaling Israel that he is willing to link the two, although his father refused to. Hafiz tried to insist that Israel had no right to control Syria's relationship with Lebanon. Negotiations on Golan were about the Golan and that was it. In contrast, Bashar suggests he is willing to talk about the whole nine yards. This is greater flexibility from Bashar than Hafiz showed. The Lebanese should see it as a good sign.
If Israelis still "prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan," as you quote Rabin saying, that is a problem for Lebanon - but it is Israel's fault, not Syria's. Why not ask the Lebanese to pressure Israel to get out of the Golan and come to the bargaining table? Without Lebanon to sweeten the pot, Israel will never consider giving back the Golan, and Syria will have one more excuse to stay.

MY: I must disagree that Hafez de-linked Lebanon and the Golan. He also tied in progress on one with progress on the other. However, what I cannot understand is what the Golan has to do with Lebanon. Why should we consider Bashar's linking of the two objectively legitimate? Until 1994, it was Lebanese policy to de-link the two - namely to de-link UNSC resolutions 242 and 425 (which governed an Israeli pullout from Lebanon), until the Syrians compelled Lebanon to eliminate the difference. Why should Bashar link withdrawal from Lebanon to an Israeli withdrawal from the other? What's the logic? If it's Syrian security, well rest assured the Golan has been the quietest of Arab-Israeli borders, barring none. If it's fear that an Israeli threat comes from Lebanon, then perhaps someone can explain to me why it is Syria that is the keenest to allow Hizbullah to continue attacking Israeli troops in south Lebanon, even though the UN had declared the 2000 Israeli withdrawal complete. Very simply because Lebanon gives Syria regional relevance. That's understandable in realist terms, but why should the Lebanese pay the price?

As for your suggestion, I'm not sure how the Lebanese can pressure Israel to do anything, but given the fact the Syrians were keen to keep the Israelis in Lebanon (to use as pressure points) for so long, it's really not up to us to get them out of the Golan. Hafiz had his chance in Geneva just before he died and basically blew it

Words and ideology make a difference: Just yesterday you wrote a fine article about how institutions, like the Lebanese constitution, make a difference. It is not easy for Syria or Lebanese friends of Lahoud to get him a second term as president because the law has weight and historical momentum. The word of the Syrian president is not much different than the law. (Probably more reliable) If Bashar says that Syria has "no territorial ambitions in Lebanon" often enough, people will begin to believe it and expect it to be true. Talking about Lebanese sovereignty is very different than Hafiz's "The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two countries." The latter is ingeniously ambiguous and very Baathist. It evokes to the notion of one Arab nation. Sovereignty is quite different. It means something in international law and in people's minds. A sovereign state implies that the people of that state are their own nation - at the very least it isn't a direct denial of Lebanon's distinct peoplehood as the old "one people" line is.

MY: All I can say here is that words mean far less when you have the power to transform them into action. Why should I praise Bashar for his intentions, when nothing prevents him from implementing them? The Syrians have been in Lebanon for 28 years, four of those under Bashar; the final decision-maker on the Lebanese presidency will be Bashar. He was the person who backed Emile Lahoud in 1998, while he was being groomed by his father to inherit Syria-s republican throne. This isn-t the behavior of someone who really has a desire to return Lebanon its full sovereignty. It-s the behavior of someone who perhaps senses that the increasingly resented old ways can-t continue, but who simultaneously seeks to maintain the status quo by offering tidbits to guarantee the continuity of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

You pooh-pooh the notion that the demise of Baathism as an ideology and system of belief is important. I think you are wrong. The idea that the Arab people formed one nation with a sacred destiny was powerful, religious, and the single most important source of instability in the region last century. The Greaters - whether Greater Syria, Greater Arabistan, Greater Israel, the Fertile Crescent Plan, or even Greater Lebanon - have been the source of endless bloodshed and unhappiness. For Bashar to even begin to dilute Greater-Arabistan-think should not be underestimated. Such worldviews are like the proverbial aircraft carrier - they take a long time to turn around - but they have a lot of firepower.

MY: In theory you're right, but in fact you're wrong. Bashar is not leading on this, he's following; he's following increased skepticism in Syria on the Baath and what it stands for. Syrians have no illusions about the party. They see it little more than a network of patronage, not as the vessel for a sacred destiny, even though some of the most outspoken critics of the regime still adhere to Arab nationalism, or other 'isms. That is what has allowed Bashar to question the Baath's power, even as he's utterly failed to do anything about it. His father tried and failed too.

Corruption and greed are quite different forces than ideology. They are easier to negotiate. People may cry over losing money, but only ideology and the loss of nationhood and identity can turn one into a suicide bomber.

"I believe that the Baath is God, who has no partners, and Arabism is a religion with no peer." This line, written by a Baathist poet, was quoted by Thahir Ibrahim in al-Quds al-Arabi the other day. He invoked it to show how far Syrians went in "exaggerating their ideological commitment to the Baath in the 1960s and 1970s." He explains what an ideological opening Syria has seen recently only to decry the lack of any real political opening. It will be easier for the Lebanese to combat greed than nationalism.

MY: Agreed, which proves my point just above.

Lebanon is the problem: Finally, there is no doubt that Syrians will not quit Lebanon for the beauty of Lebanese eyes. Only when Lebanon acts like a distinct and unified nation, will it have the power to get rid of Syrian influence and troops. Your criticism turns on Syria's shortcomings, which admittedly are legion. But Lebanon's shortcomings are the real reason Syria occupies the country. Every country would like to decide what its neighbor does and to dip into its honey pot. All have tried. Syria is not unusual in this. What makes the relationship between Lebanon and Syria so unequal is not Syria's evilness or "oriental" cast of mind, but Lebanon's weakness and internecine bickering. Perhaps, the day that Lebanon agrees to carry out its first census since 1930 and overcomes its sectarian rivalry, will be the day it shows some unified backbone in just saying, "Get out." So long as every top political and military figure in Lebanon strokes Syria nicely everytime they want something, Lebanon will have a Syrian presence.

I would suggest that it is not I who makes "the mistake of reading one's desires and sympathies" into the region. It is easier to attribute dark forces to one's neighbor than to see them in one's own country.

MY: Alas, Josh, I feel you utterly miss the point here. Lebanon's real problem isn't that it is sectarian, and therefore divided. Lebanon is indeed sectarian (as is Syria), but our political model was always destined to embrace that reality while also permitting a fairly pluralistic system. We look around us and see that sectarian Arab states have chosen to dissolve sectarianism under often brutal autocratic rule where the state is strong: Assad's Syria; Saddam's Iraq - In fact, what these states have (or had in Iraq's case) is autocracy at the top and a sectarianism in society below. Lebanon's is a weak state, but one where democracy, or a considerable portion of it, survived a horrendous war, and still survives.

Yes indeed, our divisions did allow outsiders to take advantage of us over the years, particularly Syria. But don't be fooled: the Lebanese are united in being fed up with the Syrians. True, they don't express it in a united way, but that's in large part because of fear of Syrian retaliation. When our own prime minister was suspected of moving too closely to the US last year, rockets were fired on his TV station. Hariri very clearly implied who the perpetrators were, and I'll leave it to you to guess. I can count at least half a dozen Lebanese officials, politicians and senior religious officials who paid, or almost paid, the ultimate price for threatening Syrian interests. And over almost three decades, almost no one outside sought to challenge Syrian predominance in Lebanon.

We've been on our own for a long time. That's why many Lebanese "stroke" Syria, and why we should break out of the theory and look at the facts. There are 15,000-20,000 Syrian troops here, and there is a reason for that. In 28 years they have set up a complex apparatus of control (in which many Lebanese have collaborated, granted), but that is to be expected in a society that has enjoyed (greatly) more than a generation of an unquestioned foreign military presence. Surely, we're guilty, but those who rejected this have been marginalized or killed. In 14 years of peace, the Syrians have undermined our constitutional institutions in a way we Lebanese did not do during our war. We had four elections in the war years between 1975 and 1990. Since Syrian control has become absolute, we've fallen into uncertainty as to whether elections will even occur.

I think I'll stop here, as this is droning on. But it's easy to blame the victim; the problem is that the victim is often partly guilty. But let's not lose sight of reality here. We are a Syrian protectorate, and nothing suggests to me that the Syrian regime has any real intention of altering this system unless it is compelled to do so.

Thanks for allowing me the backhand; I look forward to more.



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