Thursday, September 30, 2004

Can the US control Syria?

Moshe Maoz, perhaps Israel's top Syrian affairs expert, said the Khalil killing in Damascus may have been "done deliberately" by Sharon "to undermine" mounting pressure by Israel's military establishment to restart peace negotiations with Syria.

Ofer Shelah, writing in the Forward, explains:

the assassination comes amid a flurry of contradictory signals. Syria has indicated repeatedly in the past year that it is ready to renew peace talks with Israel, which collapsed in February 2000. Israel refuses, accusing Syria of harboring and sponsoring Palestinian terrorism. Israel heated up its rhetoric last month, after the deadly August 31 double bus bombing in Beersheva, which Jerusalem blames on Syria.

At the same time, the Khalil assassination punctuates an escalating war of words within Israel's political and security leadership over how to respond to the Syrian peace feelers. On one side is the top army command, much of which favors sitting down with Damascus and has been unusually open about saying so. On the other side are Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his top political allies, who call the Syrian offers a ploy to win favor with Washington. In a reflection of the intensity of the debate, some figures close to the defense establishment were hinting this week that the Khalil assassination might have been carried out by the Mossad secret service, which answers directly to the prime minister, as a way to sabotage the Syrian peace opening.

Syria, for its part, has declined to take the bait, pointedly refraining from criticizing Israel directly for its presumed role in the assassination. Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A-Shara appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and attacked Israel for a host of sins, but killing a Hamas leader in Damascus was not among them.

Now all eyes are on Kofi Annan's UN report evaluating Syria's compliance with resolution 1559 passed last month. Powell has stated: "I hope it's a tough report," demanding respect for Lebanese sovereignty that says Damascus must do more to meet the world body's demands. Powell said Washington did not think Damascus had done enough to meet the requirements of the resolution which calls for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. "I'll wait for the secretary general's report before characterizing what score the Syrians get on their compliance with the resolution."

Michael Young in the Daily Star is not holding his breath for a tough report. "We'll be looking out for the Annan report tomorrow. The only definite thing one can say about it is that, unless it clearly recognizes, identifies and warns against the many ruses now being deployed by the Syrian and Lebanese authorities to undercut Resolution 1559, then it will be terribly deficient," he writes. All the same, he suspects that the UN officials responsible for drafting the report are too sympathetic to Syria's problems and may listen to Prime Minister Hariri, who has been lobbying them not to give the US too much latitude to stick their boot into the affairs of the new government he must construct. He is now in Paris to trying to get Jacques Chirac to "alleviate negative French input into the report," Young surmises.

A recent al-Nahar article suggests that the Security Council is bent on forming a 4-nation committee to monitor a total withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, the disarmament of Hizbullah, and any other armed militia operating on Lebanese territory, Lebanon's Vice Premier Issam Fares has warned. "The Security Council effectively wants to hold a sword permanently hanging over the necks of Lebanon and Syria by forming this committee," Fares told President Lahoud and Premier Hariri upon returning from the U.N. in New York, the Beirut media reported on Friday. The Security Council is determined to "place Lebanon under permanent international surveillance even before Secretary-General Kofi Annan submits his report Friday on Lebanon and Syria's disobedience to resolution 1559."

As-Safir said the monitoring committee, which the Security Council is bent on setting up, will be made up of the United States, France, Lebanon and Syria. Fares says the Council is inclined to ask Syria by name to withdraw its entire army troops from Lebanon without delay, overruling the two countries' linkage of the withdrawal to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Will Hariri's new government include Hizbullah? That is the subject of Celina Nasser's Daily Star article. Hizbullah MP Mohammed Raad, who heads Hizbullah's 12-member Loyalty to the Resistance parliamentary bloc, senior party officials believe that taking part in the next government will reinforce the legitimacy of the resistance even more. All the same, Raad said, "We don't want to lose our credibility," by joining a government that is ineffective. "We are still in the evaluation process."

Raad said his party - along with Lebanon and Syria - is willing to fully implement resolution 1559, but only after Israel complies with all UN resolutions calling for it to pull out from occupied Arab land. "UN Resolution 1559 could have been dispensable if Israel had implemented previous resolutions adopted a long time ago," he said.
Raad was referring to resolutions such as 446 of March 1979, 465 of March 1980, 471 of June 1980, 497 of December 1981 and others that called on the Jewish state to end its occupation of Arab territories occupied since 1967, including the Syrian Golan Heights.

Despite growing international pressure on Syria to stop supporting Hizbullah, which is on Washington's list of terrorist organizations, the Hizbullah official did not seem to be worried about his party's relations with Damascus.

"The resistance seeks to liberate (land), and it constitutes a pressure card on Israel, and is a factor that keeps vital the issue of the occupied Golan Heights. ... There is a common interest between Lebanon and Syria to keep the resistance as is."

Asked if Hizbullah was considering retaliation following the assassination of Hamas activist Izzedine Sheikh Khalil, which took place in Syria, Raad said: "Our duty is to condemn these Israeli actions and declare our solidarity with Syria and the Palestinian intifada."

Unlike repeated rhetoric in support of the Palestinian resistance in the Occupied Territories, Hizbullah remained silent throughout the clashes between followers of Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr and U.S.-led troops in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf that ended in a peace deal last month. Raad said Hizbullah "rejects American occupation in principle, but we do not interfere in the details of the Iraqi performance when dealing with this occupation."

Just as important to Syrian-US relations as 1559 are the negotiations about border security with Iraq, where things are going better. On US Embassy official stated that negotiations were "constructive and positive." In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher urged Damascus to implement these actions, adding that the United States "will measure the Syrian commitment to the stability of Iraq by the concrete steps that it takes." However, American officials have not set the specifics of the Syrian border security commitments.
But Boucher said there are "fairly concrete understandings, particularly between the Iraqi government and the Syrian government, on things like communications activities, how they can deploy forces, how they can move together to cut off the border traffic."

National Public Radio's Steven Kenyon is doing a series of reports on the Iraqi-Syrian border that explain why it remains a "Byway for Insurgents Entering Iraq" All Things Considered audio. Although salaries for Iraqi border guards have been raised to $300 from the $20 a month they used to be, corruption is still rife and old habits die hard. One Syrian truck driver explained that he still has to tip everyone as he goes through and he has no clue who they are.

Moral amongst the Iraqis is terrible. In this mornings report, Kenyon interviewed a number of Iraqi border guards at a new "fort" the Americans had established. The only thing the soldiers wanted to talk about was how they were all wearing plastic slippers because the boots they had been promised failed to be issued. They had no showers, no proper weapons and complained that their pay was well below that of police in Baghdad. "Why would we work hard for nothing?" one officer asked? So much for the new national spirit being instilled in the new army. Obviously, the US is more interested in complaining about Syrian non-compliance than doing anything about it.

For Syria, it will be imperative to get high level American military officers on the ground in Syria. Damascus will have failed to take advantage of the new military mission if they allow the US to staff the new agreed boarder liaison with Iraqis and international staff. The only assurance that it will be effective from a political point of view is if top American brass are directly responsible for it. Then if Israel bombs Syria or Washington alienates Syrians, they will feel the drop in moral at the border and hostility from their Syrian counterparts. Only American officers will have the clout to shape Pentagon policy.

I have been to Iraq's border with Syria a number of times and seen how easy it is to cross. Once I went with a Syrian-Kurdish friend who fought with Barzani forces for 3 years in Iraq during the 1980s. He explained to me how he had crossed back and forth easily, either by taking a boat across the Tigris - every night people cross the river - or by going through the desert, where there is no fence or surveillance of any kind. Syria had never tried to control the border. It depended on the secret police to intimidate those it suspected of illegal activities. My friend was ultimately arrested by the mukhabarat for six months. It was not an experience he will forget.


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