Monday, September 20, 2004

Will Washington abandon Lebanon for a stable Iraq?

Will Washington abandon Lebanon for a stable Iraqi border with Syria? That is the question raised by Adam Zagorin of Time Magazine in his Sept. 19 article, entitled: "Cozying up to Syria."

President Bush has always made it clear where he stands on the matter of terrorism: "You're either with us or against us." But the Administration is showing a surprisingly nuanced attitude toward one country long designated a state sponsor of terrorism: Syria. Desperate to stop the terrorists, money and weapons that the U.S. says are crossing Syria's border into Iraq and fueling the insurgency there, the U.S. has initiated talks with Syria to join in controlling the frontier.

A senior U.S. official tells Time the talks are aimed at creating a "military-to-military" relationship and that "joint border patrols" involving U.S. and Syrian troops "cannot be ruled out." Senior officials from the State Department and Pentagon met with Syrian President Bashar Assad for several hours in his grand palace in Damascus last week. Assad was "interested in cooperating" with military proposals under study by the U.S. Central Command, a State Department official tells Time, and more talks in Damascus will probably take place in a few weeks. Obtaining Syrian cooperation in stemming the insurgency in Iraq has been a priority for Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who will visit Washington this week and who held his own discussions with Assad on the matter over the summer.

Syria has in the past drawn criticism from the U.S. for everything from human-rights abuses to developing weapons of mass destruction and acting as a conduit for Iranian support of Hizballah, the radical terrorist group. Earlier this year, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Syria, and a few weeks ago it backed a U.N. resolution condemning Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Damascus is looking for U.S. "leniency" on these issues, a senior State Department official says. A deal could depend on whether the U.S. is willing to look the other way in exchange for fuller Syrian cooperation to help stabilize Iraq.

Although friends in Damascus say the US did not give any carrots during the Burns visit. It is hard not to see the request by Burns and his crew for military cooperation on the Syrian border as a carrot. Perhaps, it is not a carrot and only a calling card? Nevertheless, opening a direct dialogue with Washington is something Bashar has been asking for over a year now. The Daily Star editorial today puts it like this:

The United States has directly engaged Syria via the visit to Damascus last week of Assistant Under Secretary of State William Burns and his extensive delegation; they have now been followed up by an American technical team that is in Damascus to promote Syrian-American collaboration on closing the Syrian-Iraqi border to the passage of undesirable men and materials. The Americans are not tourists in Syria; they are testing its commitment to work with the U.S. on important Iraq-related issues.

Syria would seem to be in a tight place, with the U.S., UN, France, EU and others monitoring it closely, even threatening it mildly over its Lebanon policy, Iraq ties and alleged support for terrorism and plans to develop weapons of mass destruction. Damascus also faces pressures on many other fronts, including economics, demographics, political reform, and the stalemated negotiations with Israel. The world's scrutiny that it has generated because of its Lebanon actions adds to the pressure.

Yet, this is also an opportunity for Damascus, which suddenly has legitimate levers and tools that it can use to engage the world and its neighbors, and offer both compliance and trade-offs on issues of common importance. The Syrian leadership must find the ability to move constructively and in a linear manner on Lebanon and all other issues it faces, or else it is likely to suffer long-term pressure, problems and isolation in its increasingly problematic ties with the world.

Syria is making noises that it understands. Emile El-Hokayem of the Stimson Center sent me two bits of encouraging news. Al-Mustaqbal reports that the EU and Syria have agreed "in principle" on the wording of WMD clause that was holding up the Madrid Agreement. Now the EU ministers must vote on it. The second is that Syria's ambassador to the US, Imad Mustafa, insists that Syria will carry out a "major redeployment" of its troops in Lebanon now "that the situation is more secure." He wouldn't give any numbers or explain further.

This sort of troop reshuffling will not impress Washington very much. It wants action on Hizballah and the deployment of Lebanese army troops along the Israeli border, which Lahoud said would not happen. "Lebanon will not ask for a Syrian withdrawal and will not send its army to the Israeli borders," Lahoud insisted, "unless the Arab-Israeli conflict is settled." When several opposition MPs wondered whether Lahoud's presidential extension would disrupt Lebanon's stability for decades to come, Lahoud replied that Lebanon's stability was due to the national and "strategic policies," he has enforced - i.e. close relations with Syria.

Washington cannot afford to drop the Lebanon issue from its agenda, even if Syria is hoping it will do just that and is willing to work effectively with Washington to seal its border with Iraq. It would make a mockery of Resolution 1559.

There is every sign that Syria has actually turned the corner in its Iraq policy. After the US invasion, Syria saw its interests to be aligned with the Iraqi resistance. Damascus wanted, at the very least, to contain the US military field of action to Iraq. At most, it hope for to see the US withdraw from the region without a permanent presence in Iraq or permanent base rights. But now that the US seems to have given up its more expansive ambitions in Baghdad and merely seeks to stabilize the situation, Syria is inclined to lend a hand. Al-Hayat newspaper reported in early September that Damascus played a role in helping end the fighting in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf in which the Mahdi Army of maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with US and Iraqi forces. There can be little doubt that Syria shares a common interest with the US in keeping Iraq from descending into chaos. Should the Iraqi situation deteriorate further, Syria will be first in line to be hit by Jihadist blow back, not to mention a refugee problem that will overwhelm its exhausted economy.

Syria needs a vital and economically viable Iraq more than the US does. Recent studies demonstrate that Syria needs $50 billion in investment over the next 10 years in order to jump start its economy and soak up growing unemployment. Updated studies show that 4 million of those able to work in Syria do not have productive employment. This is 45 percent of Syria's manpower. The estimated value of investments made since 1991 under law No. 10 amount to a paltry 30 percent of the $8 billion, which was anticipated. If Iraq should implode, Syria's economic goose will be cooked. Damascus has been counting on expanding trade with Iraq to entice much of that $50 billion into the country.

The question of who would disarm Hizballah and the Palestinian militias in Southern Lebanon, if Syria were to withdraw, is explored by Timur Goksel, who was senior adviser and spokesman of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon for 24 years. He writes:

Resolution 1559 calls for the "disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," without saying who would be doing this. Translated, it means disarming Hizbullah and Palestinian militias. The resolution also seeks the "extension of the control of the Government of Lebanon over all Lebanese territory." That means the Lebanese Army must replace Hizbullah along the border with Israel. The reaction of Syria's envoy to the UN, who reportedly asked: "Who would disband Hizbullah? Who would send the Lebanese governmental forces to the South?" sums up the complexity of the issue.

The thorny matter of disarmament also has regional implications. Today, the Lebanese Army, if given political backing, is capable of disarming the Palestinian militias. Militarily, those gunmen who are not in the refugee camps can be handled with relative ease. But they are a minority. The bulk of Palestinian armed groups are in densely populated refugee camps, and this is not limited to the largest camp of Ain al-Hilweh in Sidon. Any large-scale operation by the Lebanese would mean not only heavy casualties among combatants on both sides, but also many civilian deaths. Can Lebanon today afford a bloodbath that would be universally condemned and, worse, that would put Lebanon in the same column as Israel?

Nicholas Blanford carefully and judiciously examines Hizballah's recent strategy and posturing in an excellent report on the group. He assesses the claims of both Hizballah's detractors, who claim it is the "A" Team of international terrorists, and its apologists, who claim that the organization has abandoned its anti-Western militancy of the 1980s, having evolved into a pragmatic mainstream Lebanese political party beholden to the interests of its Shiite constituency.

He also explains the strategy Syria may follow in trying to finess the Hizballah issue with the United States. He writes:

Damascus appears to be planning countermeasures prior to the planned convention of the Security Council at the close of September to consider its degree of compliance with Resolution 1559. One includes a limited redeployment of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Another, according to the September 3 edition of Lebanon's al-Safir newspaper, is for the Lebanese government to formally incorporate Hizballah's military wing into the national defense structure.

Nasrallah addressed this theme the same day. "Today, in Lebanon there is an official
Lebanese institution called the Lebanese army and a popular resistance organization called the resistance," he said in a speech aired on the party's al-Manar television station. "Within one strategy, these two complement each other. They cooperate and share the roles in protecting and forming a fence around the homeland." Establishing Hizballah formally, if not practically, as an adjunct of the Lebanese army would be an attempt to deflect the repeated calls of the US and UN Security Council for Beirut to deploy Lebanese troops along the border with Israel. It could also help to mollify Arab chanceries while allowing Syria and Hizballah to retain credibility as keepers of the Arabist flame in public opinion.

This would clearly be an elegant solution to Damascus' problem, but it is hard to imagine how it would be welcomed by either the Lebanese army or public. The best way to test Damascus' seriousness about withdrawing from Lebanon would be to pressure Israel to negotiate a Golan resolution. Such negotiations are unlikely, however, so long as Sharron remains Prime Minister and the Gaza issue preoccupies Israel's political agenda. As Sharron stated recently. There is "no possibility" of talks anytime soon. In the meantime, Washington must stabilize Iraq, which may require fudging its message in Lebanon for the time being.


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