Thursday, September 23, 2004

Powell Praises Syria

Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday praised Syria for its willingness to do more to control its border with Iraq and its apparent redeployment of some troops in Lebanon, the first significant easing of tensions between Washington and Damascus in months. Powell spoke after a rare meeting with Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Shara, whose country is under growing international pressure to change its behavior toward Lebanon and end its tolerance of terrorism. The outcome of the meeting, which Powell called ''a rather positive development,'' is important because Syria has been mentioned by some hawkish advisors to the Pentagon as a possible next target for ''regime change'' by the United States.

A senior State Department official briefing reporters said Syria has redeployed 3,000 to 4,000 of its roughly 20,000 troops in Lebanon away from their positions south of Beirut. ''They're talking about redeploying troops out of Lebanon'' altogether, he said. 'We're very much in a `we'll see' kind of attitude.''

"It's a tough military mission and a tough political mission, but I sense a new attitude from the Syrians, but of course, it all depends on actions, not just attitudes," Powell said. A US delegation is expected in Damascus later this month to discuss concrete ways of securing the border, across which Washington alleges militants are crossing to destabilise the interim Iraqi administration.
He said his conversation with Shara was "a good, open, candid" and "rather positive discussion" that focused on a range of US concerns about Syrian policy on Iraq, Lebanon and its support for alleged terrorist groups. ''I think the Syrians are anxious to do more,'' Powell said.

Italy also expressed appreciation over Syria's efforts in combating terrorism, pointing to its important role in foiling a terrorist attack that was targeting the Italian and Western interests in Lebanon. In a statement issued Wednesday, Italian Defence Minister Antonio Martino underlined the importance of Syria's role in cooperation with the Lebanese and Italian authorities to thwart an attempt to blow up the Italian embassy in Beirut, and its cooperation to foil a series of other attacks on the Western interests in Lebanon and other states.

'Top Al Qaida Operative Captured in Lebanon
Lebanon said Wednesday it had arrested 10 members of a Qaeda-linked group planning to blow up the Italian Embassy in Beirut using a car packed with 300 kilograms of the explosive TNT. Interior Minister Elias Murr told a news conference that Ismail Mohammed al-Khatib, a Lebanese man whom he described as "the head of a network linked to the Al Qaeda terrorist movement," had been arrested Friday in the predominantly Sunni Muslim area of western Bekaa. "It is the first time Lebanon has arrested an Al Qaeda network," he said, adding that Khatib's role was "to recruit fundamentalist youth to carry out operations against coalition forces in Iraq."

Michael Young writing in the Daily Star explains why he thinks Syria has overplayed its hand in Lebanon and may be sent packing home, if America and France continue to put the squeeze on him. He writes:

Assad's mistake may be in assuming that American necessity can, somehow, be translated into strategic sympathy. His stalling may work for a few months, but it won't do away with the myriad other problems the U.S. has with Syria. Even the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks only brought Damascus some respite, as the Bush administration blended cooperation and threats. A Syrian redeployment in Lebanon does nothing about Hizbullah, about Syrian support for Palestinian groups the U.S. considers terrorist, or (and Resolution 1559 cannot simply be filed away) about Lebanese sovereignty and independence.

Another Assad mistake would be to assume that his redeployment of forces will arrest the steady disintegration of Syria's position in Lebanon. While nothing may soon change with regard to Syrian domination, in time, assuming serious redeployments take place in the coming days, a Syrian Army replaced successfully by Lebanese units will imply that a full withdrawal won't lead to carnage. The Syrians risk marginalizing themselves on Lebanese security, even as their continued presence means they will still be held responsible for Hizbullah's actions.

Using the logic of Taif, since that is what Lebanese and Syrian officials have held up as the rationale for the pullbacks, the Syrians must move to another stage. Taif specifies that after a withdrawal to the ridges of the Bekaa (or anywhere else they and the Lebanese decide), "the two governments shall also agree on the size and duration of the deployment of the Syrian forces in the locations mentioned above..." In the Syrian mind this terminology is hazy enough to allow an open-ended stay; but in the context of a significant shift in Syrian forces, it can easily be turned into an instrument mandating talks on a full withdrawal.

Reportedly, when Assad met with his Egyptian counterpart, Hosni Mubarak, last week, he was told the game was up on the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Mubarak is said to have proposed that the matter be "Arabized," so it could be taken out of the hands of the UN and the U.S. In that way Damascus could maintain a hold on things, if less solidly than before. The redeployment is surely Assad's way of saying, "No thanks." He is keeping Lebanon entirely in his own pocket.

Okay, but that means Syria alone will have to navigate through the long-term repercussions of Resolution 1559. If Assad is too clever by half in Lebanon, his adversaries will be tempted to push him off the edge. The redeployment, no matter how limited or broad now, may turn into a sprawling one-way ticket home.

I don't see the weakness of Asad's position in Lebanon. The government and military officials that count have gone along with Asad. Should they stop cooperating, that would be a severe blow to Syria's position, but there is no indication they will.

Morally, Syria's position has been eroded. But so has America's. The two cancel each other out to a large degree. When most of the leading government officials cast the struggle to be one between American and Syrian interests in Lebanon, many Lebanese continue to chose Syria over America, even if they are fed up with foreign intervention and occupation. The tense situation throughout the Middle East, created by the US occupation of Iraq, does not help America's moral purchase on the conscience of most Lebanese.

What is more, America has no military muscle to flex so long as it has yet to break through the wall of its Iraqi marathon. On the contrary, it is seeking US help on Iraq's border. Should Europe seriously consider joining America in the imposition of economic sanctions, Syria would be doomed, but Europe is unlikely to embrace US policy with such zeal. I think Bashar has calculated correctly on that score. To see if resolution 1559 has real meaning, we will have to await Kofi Annan's follow up report in a month's time. Maybe Michael is right? Maybe Annan will slam Syria. I am not sure who is responsible or the mechanism in place for assessing the degree of Syrian compliance, or what sort of measures will be recommended should it be found wanting. My suspicion is that Annan will be hesitant to embroil the UN in another confrontation in the neighborhood.

Israel is the one state that could effectively pull the rug out from under Bashar's feet. By engaging in talks with Syria and agreeing to quit the Golan, it could accomplish the sort of revolution many in the region dream about. Every Lebanese official has justified his pro-Syria stand by pointing to continued Israeli occupation and threat. So has every Syrian official. Without that justification, the moral calculus of Syria's occupation would be completely thrown off. There would be no more excuses, no more talk of a Syrian "presence" or of "cards" to be played. The notion that Syria was somehow protecting Lebanese or Arab honor and its own territorial integrity against the depredations of the "West" would evaporate. The occupation would be just that - an occupation in all of its nasty detail and ugliness. It could be caste as nothing else. Without a regional settlement, Syria may continue to win the sympathies of many Lebanese - and even a few Europeans - for sometime to come.


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