Sunday, September 12, 2004

Was Lebanon Bashar's mini 1973 War?

Was Lebanon Bashar's mini 1973 War?

What was the Lahoud trick all about? Last week, Lebanon's Parliament amended the Lebanese constitution to permit President Emile Lahoud, who is backed by Syria, to stay in office another three years, despite domestic and international objections.

But why did Syria do this? Scads of Lebanon and Syria watchers immediately concluded that Bashar had bumbled - that his sclerotic regime is blind and out of touch with international realities. (Ibrahim Hamidi, one of the smartest analysts of Syrian affairs, lays out an excellent arguement for this interpretation in his article, A 'victory' that looks suspiciously like a Syrian defeat.) Why else would Bashar drive President Chirac and President Bush together, causing them to coauthor and push through a UN resolution condemning Syria for its ham-fisted interference in Lebanon's constitutional affairs, they wondered.

What possible good could this do Syria? After all, Lebanon does not pose a threat to Syria. Sure, the Christian Lebanese are vocal critics of Syria, constantly complaining about how Syria has turned them into the unfree. But they had no Muslim allies in a land that has a crushing majority of Muslims, who could be counted on to choose Damascus over Juniyeh. Prime Minister Harriri plays Damascus's game, so does Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri. So does the largest parliamentary party, Hizbullah. In fact, so do most of the Christian politicians, despite occasional bitching and moaning. (See this link for humor on this subject. The cartoon is courtesy of Greg Marchese, political officer at the embassy in lebanon.)

Anyway, complaining Christians were good for Bashar. He could always point to them as exhibit "A" and say: "What me a dictator? Look at the indignities I suffer. Dictator schmictator. Benevolent den mother, perhaps."

Moreover, Lebanon is the land of a hundred Lahouds. Surely Bashar could have done a switcheroo happily and easily. He did not have to pretend that Lahoud was the only Lebanese politician happy to play Damascus' game. It was something else. He wanted to send a message.

So what was the message of the Lahoud trick?

At first I thought it was a simple matter of za`ama or leadership. One has to appreciate the peculiar form of leadership so characteristic of the Levant in order to get the full flavor of the Lahoud trick. Za`ims, or leaders, don't gain office through constitutional means or by hewing closely to the law. They must use force. They must intimidate and they must be seen not to shrink from using force and intimidation. The worst thing that can happen to a za`im is to be seen to be humiliated publicly or shamed by another za`im. This will destroy his aura of invincibility and power. He will be mocked. The pageantry of power and theater of za`ama is in many ways just as important as what goes on behind the scenes. Any good za`im must be SEEN to exercise his za`ama every so often in a very visible and awesome fashion in order to preserve the aura of invincibility. A successful za`im does not have to be violent. His credibility and aura alone will protect him. If he is feared, little gun-slingers will not challenge him. The red lines will be internalized by the public and order will prevail.

This is what Hafiz al-Asad did in Hama in 1982. He established the "Hama Rules" that Thomas Friedman wrote about so convincingly in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. The Muslim Brothers had been sapping Asad's za`ama for several years with their bombings and constant use of terror. Each attack emboldened the opposition and deflated Asad's aura of invincibility a bit further. But Asad showed them, and all of Syria, by utterly destroying old Hama. It was the theater of za`ama at its most macabre. That is why he allowed foreign journalists to come pouring into the city to inspect the devastation only days after the city's destruction, as Friedman observed.

I was living in Syria at the time and drove through Hama with a French friend a week after the end of the murderous campaign. There was not a road block or checkpoint in the town. We were free to gawk and drive about in horrified silence. The bodies were gone, but the bulldozers had not yet begun clearing out the rubble and pulverized houses from the old quarter of the city. Several weeks later, I again passed through the city, this time on a Karnak bus on my way to Aleppo. By that time the old-city, which straddled the Damascus-Aleppo highway, had been completely cleared and was just a great barren space in the midst of the newer neighborhoods, which were largely untouched. Before reaching the city, the bus driver turned off the blaring radio, and the 30 or 40 passengers fell silent as we crawled through the town. The bus driver slowed the vehicle down so everyone could look in stony silence. From the solemnity of the faces around me, it seemed that many were saying silent prayers. No one spoke for 15 or 20 minutes after that. We were well on our way to Aleppo before the first whispers punctured the funereal moan of the bus' engine.

Hama worked, though. Asad regained his za`ama and Syria has been surprisingly free of organized opposition ever since. That was 22 years ago. Only last month, Bashar pardoned most of the remaining prisoners of the era. The price of Hama for Syria has been high. The event, never talked about, still hovers over the Syrian conscience like an incubus. Any opponent of the regime must ponder the consequences of his words. Today, Bashar need only throw a few opposition members in jail to send a chill through Syrian society. The only consolation many Syrians find for the bloodletting, is that their suffering was mercifully contained, sudden, and short compared to that of their neighbors in Lebanon, Iraq, or Palestine, whose divisions have resulted in incomparably greater and more protracted sorrow over the last quarter century.

Of course, za`ama is not only Hama Rules. The use of force and exhibition of power is only one aspect of za`ama. That is where Friedman falls short in his description of Syria. A good za`im must also dispense justice, be generous, and have an open hand and good ear. Displays of generosity, Solomonic wisdom, and mercy are every bit as important to the aura of a successful za`im as their inverse. A good za`im must exhaust his energies in constant mushawarat or negotiations and consultation. He must tend to his flock and support his clients with the utmost care and attention. His madhafa or reception room must be festooned with gilded furniture and always be filled with visitors and supplicants. He must hold court often and for long hours. The cups of coffee, like the favors he bestows, must always flow. If he cannot provide a recognized form of justice for his people and give to each according to his rank and station, his za`ama will also lose its luster and eventually wither.

This kinder and gentler aspect of za`ama is what separates a Saddam Hussein from a Hafiz al-Asad. Asad always sought to tend the wounds opened by his iron fist. He applied the healing salve of mercy and favors as assiduously as he did the whip. Almost every Syrian can recount how Hafiz called them or a relative to his palace or offices for a consultation to ask their opinion in a ritualized ceremony and then to ask what favor he could do them. If this was not done by the president himself, then it was performed by one of his minions. His relations with his brother Rifaat epitomized this quality. How many times did Hafiz banish and then repatriate his troublesome and rebellious sibling? Unlike the psychopathic Hussein, Asad never spilled family blood and always kept the door open for reconciliation. In fact, Bashar just welcomed Rifaat back to Kardaha, his home town, after years of exile in Spain just this week. With this amnesty, Bashar is showing that he is in charge and rules Syria absolutely enough to welcome his ruthless uncle back into the bosom of the family, despite Rifaat's effort to elbow aside Bashar four years ago. Rifaat was also in charge of the Hama campaign. What message does that send Syrians?

Za`ama is crucial to leadership in Syria as it is in all patriarchal societies. But Syria is more patriarchal than most. Although tribalism in any kind of pristine form has disappeared from much of Syrian society, its forms and ingrained virtues remain very much alive. This disquisition on leadership in Syria, and indeed in Lebanon, can help explain the Lahoud affaire.

Since the US invasion of Iraq, Bashar's za`ama has been seriously challenged, not by internal forces, but by the new US profile in the region and the threat of Bush's "Forward Strategy of Democracy." Bashar went into a defensive crouch as American troops poured into Iraq. He ordered Hizbullah to refrain from its military activities, the radical Palestinian groups in Damascus had their offices shut, though not their homes, he followed every American threat with demands for dialogue. He ran after Europe to sign the Madrid process economic treaty. Bashar has been caught in the weakness trap.

He has violated the first rule of za`ama - which is to act strong and never flinch in the face of threats. Bashar was clearly flinching as American power grew with the presence of 120,000 troops and the toppling of Hussein's regime. He did nothing as Americans crossed the Syrian border from Iraq to kill alleged smugglers and collateral border guards. He could only issue denials as Washington officials accused him of taking in Iraq's WMD and of helping jihadists. He did nothing when Israel bombed Syria in contravention of long tradition and practice. The US imposed onerous economic sanctions, shut off the Iraqi oil pipeline and looked for every way in possible to strangle the Syrian economy and starve its society. Bashar looked weak and he was weak. Everybody saw it in plain daylight.

This has led the pundits in Washington to thump their chests and proclaim the language of threats and sanctions a success. Only through deprivation and humiliation can tyrants learn respect for the West, they say. Washington will play by "Hama Rules." Why has Asad behaved as he has?" one pundit asks rhetorically. He answers: "The main reason is that Assad's Ba'athist dictatorship is one of those regimes that respond only to the threat or the actual use of force." Arabs respect force. How many times have we heard that dreart phrase from Washington over the last three years?

So Bashar is caught in a deflationary za`ama cycle. Of course, za`im logic means force can be effective. But only if it is matched with graciousness and justice in the end. He must get justice, or at the very least, a good bargain for his people or they will abandon him. That is one reason the cowering za`ims of the region - Egypt, Tunisia, etc. are filling their jails with fundamentalists and opponents of various stripe. Their people say they are humiliated. Maybe they actually feel humiliated?

In the mean time, Bashar has been appealing to the West and to Israel for negotiations, primarily aimed at getting back the Golan. But his appeals have fallen on deaf ears. Washington has adopted the mantra of preconditions. Bashar must shut down Hizbullah, get out of Lebanon, cough up the Palestinians, get rid of WMD, and seal the Iraq border to show good faith. In other words, he must say uncle and give up all his negotiating cards. Only then will Washington will look into the Golan issue - with no guarantees that it can pry it away from Sharon. From the Syrian point of view, this is a non-starter. Bashar would be a fool to falling for it. He would end up without the Golan. No one is taking Bashar seriously. He has no credibility and is locked into a dialogue of the deaf with Washington.

So Bashar must make a show of force. This is where the Sadat 1973 handbook comes in useful. Sadat planned the October War in order to get Washington and Israel's attention and respect. He did not believe he could win a war against Israel single handedly. Ever since Sadat came to power in 1970, following Nasser's death, no one took him seriously. He was considered a joke, not only by foreign statesmen but also by his own generals. He reached out to the US and Israel for negotiations on Sinai, but the Israelis considered themselves invincible after 1967 and the Americans were preoccupied in Vietnam. No one would listen. Hence, going to war was the only way to win back credibility and respect. Egypt threw out its Russian advisors in 1972, in advance of the campaign, in order to create the proper conditions for negotiations. The Suez crossing was a success in that it completely surprised the Israelis and destroyed the Bar Lev line of defenses. Egypt lost the war, but proved that it could hurt Israel, coordinate with another Arab power - Syria, and disturb the status quo to threaten a super power crisis. Sadat won za`ama and the attention of Washington and Tel Aviv. From that came the Sinai agreements and ultimately the Camp David Accord and the return of Sinai.

Bashar's Lebanon campaign is certainly nothing of the scale of 1973; nevertheless, it demonstrated to the US that Syria will not buckle under. It is brave enough and strong enough in Lebanon to thumb its nose at Washington. There is no effective Christian opposition on which Washington can build a counter attack. The Muslim politicians all went along with Bashar, despite many misgivings. Only Walid Jumblatt made a stand and ordered his party's ministers to resign - a small inconvenience to Damascus and Harriri.

Bashar knows that France cannot help with Washington. It couldn't stop Bush from attacking Iraq and it won't be able to deliver in Syria. It is a good ally, but no substitute for serious dialogue with the US. He was willing to sacrifice warm relations with Chirac in order to gain the respect of President Bush. This is not necessarily stupid. France will join the US for a gentle reprimand of Damascus in the UN. But it will never side with Washington on a policy of confrontation and regime change. France has based its foreign policy in the region on working with the present leaders, not overthrowing them or bullying them. This has been an effective policy for France. It is much loved by Arabs today. It will not bring rapid reform to Syria, however. At least France is in the thick of things in Damascus rather than completely marginalized.

The second parallel between Bashar's use of force in Lebanon and Sadat's use of force in 1973 is the post-war posturing of both sides. Sadat turned to America after the war, prepared to reverse many of Egypt's Nasserist policies. He understood that only the United States could get him the Sinai back and he was willing to pay a high price for it.

Bashar also turned to the United States following the Lebanon episode demanding real negotiations. It has made a number of peace offerings.

  • Assad made clear this desire for dialogue on Saturday, Sept. 5 while receiving visiting US Congressman Darel Issa and two US scholars. Edward Gabriel, vice chairman of the American Task Force for Lebanon and a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco, and Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, a former US ambassador to Israel and an assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs in the administration of Bill Clinton, met with Asad. They confirmed that Assad expressed willingness to resume unconditional peace negotiations with Israel. "President Assad was clear in stating his desire to pursue peace negotiations with Israel, without preconditions, although he was firm in stating that two requirements for negotiations were essential," Gabriel said.

    Assad required "U.S. leadership, facilitation and involvement" as well as an "understanding of where such negotiations would lead," he said.

    "In other words, not preconditions per se, but rather assurances - or an expectation - that such an effort would be serious and lead to a land-for-peace deal that included Syrian sovereignty to the 1967 border," Gabriel said, referring to the existing frontier before Israel launched its attacks on Egypt, Jordan and Syria on June 5, 1967.

    Assad first signaled a desire to resume negotiations with Israel in an interview with the New York Times in December last year. A month later Assad told a visiting US senator that he was ready for peace talks without preconditions. Having met with Assad five times in the past two years, Gabriel said there was a "genuine consistency" in the Syrian president's offers to restart talks.

    "Martin (Indyk) and I are convinced that this is a serious attempt ... He (Assad) sees it in his interest to settle many issues that are of concern to America once and for all, and the peace process will address a number of issues of concern to the United States as well," Gabriel said.

  • In a major charm offensive directed at Israel, Syria offered to resume peace talks with it, “if Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is prepared to do so,” the Al-Hayat newspaper quoted President Bashar Assad as telling U.S. officials.

Sharon responded by rejecting Asad's reported peace overtures on Wednesday, saying Syria had to crack down on Islamic militant groups under its control before negotiations that stalled in 2000 could resume.

  • Israel's Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom responded that "if Syria changes its policy and stops providing shelter for terror organizations and for the transfer of weapons and ammunition from Iran to Hizbullah, we can renew negotiations with it." Others said Syria was just trying to avoid a blow from Israel.

  • Israel and Syria swap peace barbs: Both sides accused the other of not really being serious about peace.

  • Damascus responded immediately to Sharon's demands by expelling two important Hamas leaders, political bureau chief Khaled Mishaal and his deputy Dr. Mousa Abu Marzouq, from Damascus. They left to an as yet unknown destination.

  • United Nations special envoy Terje-Roed Larsen said that Syria was "genuinely" interested in resuming peace talks with Israel, and urged both sides to explore ways to return to the negotiating table.

Damascus has reached out for support from surrounding heads of State in its efforts to woo Washington.

  • Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and counterpart Farouk al-Sharaa and said: "I found a complete Syrian understanding for Egyptian efforts with all Palestinian factions."

  • Iraqi Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib announced after a visit to Syria on Thursday that Syria and Iraq have achieved progress in efforts to tighten security along their common border: "We are constantly coordinating with our Syrian brothers (on security)," Naqib said. "We are in agreement on all issues, and a very positive development recently took place." Iraqi leaders have also temporarily down-played Syria's support for Jihadists. On several occasions, I have heard Iraqi ministers list the nationality of foreign fighters in Iraq this week. They neglected to blame Syria. Interesting.

  • Syria turned over a senior Kurdish militant and six other rebels to Turkey on Friday in a sign of closer security cooperation between the former rivals. Syrian police detained the PKK's Hamili Yildirim, who has evaded capture since 1996, and the others in July as they tried to cross into Turkey from Syria, a police official said.

  • Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Syria and said "we share similar views on regional issues." He added that Lebanon was able to run its own internal affairs in an independent way and the Lebanese-Syrian relations were well defined by bilateral agreements. He condemned the Franco-US resolution.

Syria's show of force in Lebanon followed by its charm offensive has gotten results from Washington - even if on a small scale.

The pay off?
Today, Sept. 12, William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said that American military experts might work alongside Syrians to stop militants crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border to fight coalition forces. Burns said Washington has suggested establishing "mechanisms that in practical terms might help Iraqis and Syrians with American military experts (to) see if we can make progress with regard to some of those border security concerns."

In Damascus, Syrian Information Minister Ahmad al-Hassan described Burns' visit as a positive development and said Syria is ready to help any committee of US and Syrian experts to monitor the Syrian-Iraqi border and prevent militants from entering Iraq.

"Dialogue as a substitute for baseless accusations helps clarify positions and the required mechanisms for implementing" agreements, al-Hassan told reporters.

Syria is serious about dialogue with the United States. Martin Indik and the others are right. Force will only go so far with Syria. At a certain point all it will elicit from Damascus is more "rope a dope:" compliant words but no action. Bashar cannot afford to give into force. He must bring a modicum of justice to his people in order to cut a deal with the US or with Israel. Justice means the Golan. Bashar has said that the Golan is his main goal in opening talks with Israel. He has made clear that he considers Syria's presence in Lebanon a card - something that will go on the negotiating table if Golan is brought back into play. The US must take him at his word and find out if he is sincere. It has no other good option unless it is willing to invade Syria as it did Iraq, and that is not on. Bashar knows that the balance of power between the US and Syria is slowly shifting in his favor. Washington used to boast that its profile and threat had increased immeasurably because of its occupation of Iraq. Now it is Iraq that is occupying the US.

For over a year, Bashar has been asking Washington to coordinate on the Syrian-Iraqi border, but Washington, believing it had the upper hand, refused. Now that the US is getting sucked into the black hole of Baghdad, Washington is changing its tune and sucking up its pride. Syria knows that if it can have American military officers and intelligence working hand in hand with Syrian security to coordinate border patrols and the like, it has opened a visible and potent avenue of dialogue. This is just what the neocons were trying to avoid. With Syria, they believed they could be purists in their claim that Washington no longer accommodated dictators. That misguided policy is now deep-sixed. Bashar has his dialogue - even if it will be small. The CIA channel, shut down last year, has been replaced by a Defense Department channel. That is much better for Bashar, seeing that this Washington administration treats the CIA like a dish rag. Not so the DOD.

As a za`im, Bashar is perfectly capable of moderating his ways. He is not particularly ideological, but he needs respect and he needs to bring the lamb home to his people, just as every other za`im in the Middle East does. There is no reason for Washington to deny him this. Only ideology stands in the way. Bashar has made it very clear that he does not want to use the kind of force and fear that his father did in Hama. The notion that he will only respond to force and humiliation is absurd. He has bent over backwards to accommodate his opponents in Syria. His wife has been very active in reaching out to all kinds of people. He has befriended every one of his neighbors or is ready to. Bashar is not a heartless thug. Neither is he inconsequential. Washington should try taking him at his word. It has nothing to lose and much to gain.


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