Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The United States is calling for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, according to a a draft resolution circulated in the U.N. Security Council late Tuesday. It also calls for elections under the current Lebanese constitution, which would rule out a second term for pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. France is cosponsoring the resolution with Washington, which calls on the council "to consider additional measures,'' which are not specified, if the Syrians and Lebanese don't comply. This week, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that "the upcoming elections should be conducted according to the Constitution, which stipulates that the Parliament elects a new Lebanese president every six years."

Pro-Syrian ministers in the Lebanese government are attempting to minimize the damage. Lebanon's Foreign Minister Jean Obeid said Lebanese-Syrian relations are a matter for both countries to decide. He said Lebanon "completely separates between dealing with our internal affairs and international attempts at blackmail with the aim of fomenting a dispute between us and our brothers (in Syria).'' He also accused the United States and France of trying to "blackmail'' it and Syria, and create trouble between Beirut and Damascus.

The US is rushing to get the resolution passed today (Thursday), U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Anne Patterson told reporters in New York. It wants to beat the Lebanese parliament to the punch, which is sceduled to vote of the presidential term extension on Friday. Syria's allies will try to stall the UN vote, allowing Syria and the Lebanese government to hand the US a fait accompli.

The draft in the UN is almost certain to face opposition from Algeria, the only Arab nation on the council, and probably from Russia and China, which traditionally oppose council interference in a country's internal affairs. In Washington, the Bush administration sharply criticized Syria for meddling in Lebanon's politics, and a senior U.S. diplomat was likely to go to Damascus for high-level talks.

A second problem is that the French are worried that their efforts to push through quick council action could jeopardize the lives of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq whose captors have threatened to kill them unless Paris scraps a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools, U.S. officials said.

Patriarch Sfeir, the Maronite leader, created a considerable political stir last Sunday when he declared in a sermon that changing the Constitution would be "wiping out completely and definitively the shy and poor democracy that we still brag about." Lebanese newspapers have also been filled with articles by intellectuals brave enough to express the widespread Lebanese resentment at Syrian intervention in their affairs.

Hussein Ibish gives important background to the downward spiral in affairs between Washington and Damascus in his Daily Star article. He quotes me as saying:

"The neocons have got Syria clearly in their crosshairs and want to take down the regime," Landis said. "They established the line early on that Bashar Assad and the Baathist regime are irrational and cannot be dealt with." Landis said he thinks this is "the worst possible policy" for the US to follow.

"I don't think anything is going to stop the deterioration right now; Syria has dug in its heels and the US has set terms that the Syrians can't possibly meet." Landis said that Syria was creating serious problems for itself, because the Lahoud issue would "force many fence-sitters in Lebanon to choose between Lebanese nationalism and some sort of Arab identification."

"I think Syria is going to lose from this," he said. "Syria has nothing to gain from driving this fight internationally and in Lebanon." On the other hand, the regime has never been stronger domestically and has been able to make peace with a large array of domestic opponents," Landis added.

"Washington right now is very divided - there are many people who don't want to repeat what we did in Iraq in Syria, and who want to deal with Bashar, who has many promising qualities and who is trying to take Syria from being an autocratic state to being a liberal dictatorship, like America's best friends in the Middle East - many realists are ready to embrace this under their traditional mantra of stability."

Washington and Damascus have gotten themselves into a vicious circle of escalating hostility. It is to neither side's advantage. Murhaf Jouejati points out in the same article that with the CIA in such disarray, Syria has few defenders in Washington and the neoconservatives have a much freer hand to squeeze Syria.

Israel is coordinating with Washington to wratchet up the heat of Syria. Israel is now blaming the double suicide boming in Be'er Sheva on Damascus, which Israeli Chief of Staff called "the terrorist command." He wearned that Israel would "take care of those who support terror," singling out the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Hezbollah. "I don't want to get into the question of what we will do, but everyone who is responsible for terrorism against us will not sleep soundly." He also suggested Israel could resume its campaign to assassinate Hamas chiefs, both in the Palestinian territories and abroad. Israeli operatives sought to assassinate Palestinian militants in Damascus earlier this year.

The exile Syrian Reform Party based in Washington is also hoping to revive its fortunes and get back into the picture. It is calling for President Bush to meet with its leaders in order to show Damascus how serious Washington is. "Nothing will be more effective than President Bush meeting with the Syrian opposition publicly," they state on their website.

Eyal Zisser, a fine Israeli analyst of Syrian affairs, has written a smart analysis of how he interprets Bashar's actions over the last four years for the Syrian Reform Party website. It is worth a look for it gives a view widely held in Washington and Jerusalem.

Damascus has been trying to meet with high level US officials for some time in order to work out an agenda for settling their differences and regional problems. As the Reform Party states:

An unofficial emissary from President Baschar Assad to Washington last week
proposed a rendezvous between Powell and Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Shara
somewhere in Europe to discuss a deal. The answer he received was: Tell Assad to
show some tangible action first, before we talk. American doors stay shut to
dialogue because the Syrian ruler’s actions tell a completely different story
from the messages he keeps on sending. Every time they meet secretly, the
Ba'athists lecture Washington.

Unfortunately both sides have been reduced to lecturing the other. Washington has set the bar much too high for Bashar. They have asked him to throw Palestinian radicals out of Syria, move out of Lebanon, and close down Lebanon's biggest party, Hizbullah, get ride of WMD, and seal its border with Iraq, before negotiations can begin. Syria is demanding a US commitment to rekindle peace talks with Israel. Syria wants to know that it will get back the Golan from Israel before it will move ahead with any of Washington's demands, particularly in Lebanon which is its only leverage with Israel for a Golan deal. Neither side believes the other is serious about its offers.

As a backdrop to this strategic maneuvering is the larger ideological question of Arabism. Many in Washington, Israel and Lebanon are hoping to scuttle any substantive negotiations with Damascus because they believe this is Washington's chance to destroy Arabism as an ideology. Damascus is the last Arab capital holding up the Arabist flag now that the US has carried out regime change in Iraq. Damascus, however, has shown clear signs that it is committed to change - both economic and, to a degree, political.

In a recent interview with the independent critical Syrian weekly Abyadh Wa-Aswad (Black and White), whose editor is the son of Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, the Syrian vice president and a long-time pillar of the Syrian Ba'th Party, discussed possible changes in the role of the Ba'th Party in Syria. He didn't promise a great deal. But he made it clear that Syria is on the path toward a much larger degree of capitalism. It also wants to open up dialog on questions of Arabism and greater political freedoms. Washington would be wise to allow this internal debate, which is already very lively in the many new Syrian websites, to run its course.


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