Thursday, September 02, 2004

Who Will Lose in Lebanon?

Who Will Lose in Lebanon?

The US and Syria are playing a game of chicken in Lebanon, which neither side is likely to win. The US sees a chance to bring Europe to its side against Damascus. This time, it believes it can isolate Syria and possible convince the EU to join the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, if not push it out of Lebanon. For its part, Damascus believes that Washington has few cards to play in the Levant. It sees the sand is running out of the US clock in Iraq. Added to the fact the Arab world hates America, Damascus also believes it can dig in its heals with little risk of being punished.

Bashar has blundered, everyone seems to agree. His father would have found someone beside Lahoud to serve Syria's purposes and prepared a plan B and C to avoid being forced into a confrontation that can bring little benefit to Damascus. Ammar Abdulhamid insists that "we cannot be of two minds about the fact that Syria's decision-making process is flawed; the process is definitely flawed." Damascus has demonstrated that little has changed within the halls of power despite all the language of reform. The top honchos still don't know how to play the game. They don't read, and they don't rub shoulders in Washington.

But this is nothing new. Every one knows that Syria is wedded to its Arabism. Bashar has been consistent in claiming he will not give it up and doesn't believe the region is ready for a political opening. The problem for Washington is that Bashar remains the only voice of reason and stability in Syria no matter how flawed from a liberal western perspective. America has no plan B either when it comes to Syria or Lebanon.

Imad Shuaibi, a Damascus-based analyst, said it best, when he ridiculed the UN draft resolution written up by the French and US, which the Americans say will pass in the security council. He said: "Who can guarantee stability in the region if Syria takes its hand out of the peace solution with Israel, and who guarantees that there will not be 100 Hizbullahs springing up?" He is right. Syria can create havoc if truly pressed to the wall. Lebanon was the site of America's greatest defeat in the Middle East since the Iranian revolution. Why? Because the US sought to isolate Syria. Some argue the presence of US troops in Iraq changes the calculus of 1983 today. It doesn't. If anything it has weakened the US morally and physically.

Even in its international weakness, Syria has a strong domestic hand. The Syrian regime has never had fewer opponents at home. There is no organized domestic opposition. No one in Syria is protesting Bashar's Lebanon action. Ammar Abdulhamid, the liberal director of the Tharwa Project, explained in a recent article how difficult life is becoming for liberal's in Syria as national consensus has fallen in line with the regime, which is convinced that the West is out to get it. He writes that "Arab liberals are currently caught between regimes whose grip on power is still strong and societies where religious extremism is making deep inroads and developing a more "romantic" popular appeal. Arab liberals are indeed under siege, and that's putting it mildly."

Nothing punctuates Abdulhamid's observation better than the recent admission of Aktham Naise's - the Syrian Human rights activist recently released from prison on bail - who said that "only the regime can reform Syria, and we have to bet on this." "There is a reform current within the regime that is working, albeit slowly, and we must encourage it." Naise is the courageous head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights. "I don't see how the opposition can move it forward," he added. Naise, did not elaborate how he might find a political place in the Syrian ruling establishment, but he confessed that he may soon quit his human rights group. He still believes "it is a moral duty to work for human rights," but he will do it at home and in the Syrian way, betting on Bashar.

As Tishreen, one of Damascus' government dailys, editorialized: "No one can believe that the United States can possibly be concerned about Lebanon or any other Arab country. American policies confirm just the opposite and point out that the present US administration relies on a clear method of antagonism to Arabs." Damascus sees it's struggle in broad civilizational terms. It believes that its core values - Arabism, Islam, and anti-imperialism - are under attack by a Washington that is seeking hegemony in the region and is in thrall to Israel's narrow interests.

Most Westerners believe that the Syrian government has manipulated the public into believing its propaganda, which is no doubt true. But it is also true that the public in Syria has been beside itself with rage and indignation since Janin. Many Syrians have turned from watching al-Jazira to watching al-Manar, Hizbullah's station. In many respects, Bashar has been swept along by public opinion and by a deep-seated public belief that Syria must stay true to its "historic" legacy of acting as the torch-bearer of Arab nationalism. For many in the West, this is incomprehensible. But one only need refer to the language of Washington, which insists that "history" has thrust the heavy burden of defending democracy and freedom on its shoulders. Damascus don't buy this and neither do most Syrians. Bashar has stated that the region's tribalism and conservative society does not make it a candidate for democracy. He may be right.

The lesson Damascus learned from Iraq is that when the chips are down, Europe can do little to protect it. European opposition to the US invasion of Iraq did not dissuade the US from taking action in Iraq.

Emile El-Hokayem, a smart analyst at the Stimpson Center in Washington, says the Europeans are furious at Bashar for stiffing them in Lebanon and seriously contemplating imposing some sort of sanctions on Syria. France has been embarrased by Iran and

"some in Paris are ready to examine more hawkish options. In my opinion, the Elysee itself is more prone to believing that the Iranians are just buying time and are not serious about stopping their nuclear program. However, the French are tied up by what the IAEA report will say - and the leaks seem to suggest that no clear-cut evidence emerges from what the inspectors have collected.
Will France become more hawkish on Syria too? Having been embarrassed by Iran and Syria, France finds itself in a fix and must question its present policy. El-Hokayem says:
France's huge political capital in the Middle East requires France to be a positive force in the region in terms of development and political reforms. The problem for the French is that they are closing their eyes on Tunisia while pressuring Assad. They have yet to develop a consistent policy, and this is rendered more difficult because pushing for change will diminish their capital, as they might be seen to be siding with the US.

This episode illustrates how the US and the EU can work together, but also the limitations of this approach. The EU has good relations with most Arab countries and does not believe in regime change. But to be proven right, they have to deliver, and what better place to do so than Lebanon, at least for the French?

I think that the French were a driving force behind the resolution. It is this coalition of interests that is the real story, not the US willingness to increase the pressure on Syria. That has been the case for a long time: Lebanese American organizations have been very effective in their advocacy efforts, some in the administration were waiting for a pretext to move on Syria. Ultimately, the unanimous European endorsement of the resolution is the most significant element of the story.

This is Bashar's blunder. He has depended in the past on dividing Europe and America. US sanctions on Syria earlier this year had few teeth because the EU was unwilling to join the US. From 1990 and the fall of the Soviet Union to 2001, the EU's share of Syrian exports grew from 30% to approximately 60%. In terms of bilateral assistance, Japan, Germany and France provide the bulk of Syria's grants and loans. Should Europe lower the boom on Syria, it could hurt it badly. Any hopes Bashar has of increasing trade and growing its way out of Syria's deepening economic crisis will be dashed.

But no one in Washington should be smug about Bashar's ham fisted diplomacy. I don't believe France will really side with the US. Yes, it is coauthoring this ambiguous resolution. But it will not cooperate with Holland and Britain to impose sanctions. If it does, Paris will be Washington's hostage. Once France joins the US in imposing sanctions on Syria, it will not be able to lift them, unless Washington says it can. Moreover, Paris doesn't trust Washington enough to have Bush making its foreign policy toward the Levant. Look what happened to Tony Blair. Paris will not abandon its independent Middle East foreign policy.

The neocon authors of confrontation may be on the outs right now in Washington and have plenty of mud on their faces, but the logic of their confrontational policy rules. There are a hundred analysts now speaking in the idiom of the president's "Forward Strategy of Freedom in the Middle East." They have embraced the notion that the US must confront the fascist ideology of Arab nationalism and terrorist-supporting states. As Tishriin stated: "the present US administration relies on a clear method of antagonism to Arabs." Syria has decided that it has no choice but to oppose American demands, which it is convinced are unreasonable and designed to be unattainable.

Can Lebanon win from this confrontation? Two views are prevalent in Lebanon. Michael Young argues that the Lebanese will find unity in the face of Syria's blundering diplomacy, which is no diplomacy at all. He takes heart from the union of Franco-American policy to write: "One can now imagine Syria blundering its way into an eventual pullout from Lebanon. That may take much time, but any regime that makes so flagrant the mistakes that Syria did in recent weeks isn't long for this country." Chibli Mallat, a Beirut lawyer and human rights activist who has been largely supportive of American aims in the region, writing in An-Nahar and also the Daily Star shares none of Young's optimism. He writes:

With Syria put on notice...we shall be entering a fight to the end which will rip the fabric of Lebanon apart, undermine any hope of gradual and non-violent reform within Syria, and end with an increase of Syria's isolation internationally, as well as regionally... Even more gravely, the UN Security Council Resolution will poise the Lebanese communities against each other...[and prompt] calls of extremism from the worst fringes of Lebanese society.

(I have stolen this quote from Tim Cavanaugh's insightful article on this issue in Reason Magazine, which Tony Badran brought to my attention.)

Mallat still hopes that reason can prevail, and that Bashar can head off this confrontation by asking Lahoud to withdraw from the presidential contest. He ends his article with an appeal:

Decent Lebanese democrats, who wish to avoid more blood being shed in the Middle East, can help devise an alternative resolution if Lebanon's constitutional process is reinstated. Bashar Assad must change direction and persuade Lahoud, at this strategically key moment for Syria and Lebanon, to stop his unconstitutional, undemocratic bid for an extended mandate.

There is little chance that Bashar will back down now. It would undermine his za'ama. and, like Bush, he wants very much for his people to see him as a man who means what he says and sticks to his policies, no mater how damaging.

Washington really has no choice but to live with Bashar and his antiquated regime, just as Lebanon must live with it. Isolation did not work in the past. It is less likely to work today. The US is more vulnerable and exposed in Iraq today than it was in Lebanon in 1983. Lebanon is a deeply divided country even though it enjoys a degree of liberty far beyond that of other Arab countries. It is a thin reed on which to build a strategy of confrontation. What is more, Damascus is not so bad. It has curtailed Hizbullah, kept its rhetoric in check, build solid relations with most of its neighbors and tried to keep its head down in the face of American threats. It is not the ally American wants, but it is also not the enemy Washington could have, not unless Washington pushes it to the wall.


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