Saturday, February 19, 2005

Syria Must have a place in the "New Middle East

Scott Wilson has again written a very smart article on Syria's position in the region. Some see the Hariri assassination as a reason to completely isolate Syria. The call of the Syrian opposition in Washington, led by Farid Ghadry, for "regime change," is finding new adherents. This is a dangerous game, however, which will lead to America over-reaching in the region.

European Ambassadors in Damascus still believe that Damascus needs to be given a stake in the "New Middle East" that Washington and others are trying to build. It was be cut into peace deals with Israel and the Syrian track needs to be restarted. Even if Syria is temporarily isolated, they note, its interests will not go away. It is better to accommodate Syria and draw it into regional plans, rather than put it to the wall.

Syria Likely to Defy Calls For Pullout From Lebanon
Reaction to Bombing Underlines Strategic Interest in Neighbor
By Scott WilsonWashington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page A19

DAMASCUS, Syria, Feb. 18 -- The Syrian government has reacted defiantly to accusations that it had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, underscoring a strategic interest in Lebanon that makes it unlikely international pressure will force Syria to withdraw forces from its smaller neighbor.

The rage and grief over Hariri's death Monday in an apparent car bombing in Beirut have angered the government of President Bashar Assad, which has denied any involvement in the slaying and refused calls by Lebanese leaders and the Bush administration to remove its 15,000 troops in Lebanon.

Syrian officials have accused Lebanese opposition leaders, now preparing for parliamentary elections that are shaping up as a referendum on Syria's presence in their country, of taking advantage of Hariri's killing to further their own political agenda. But the bombing also appears to serve Syria's own goals at a time when Hariri and other Lebanese leaders were posing a growing threat to its influence in the country and to Assad's leadership.

"If the opposition wins a majority in parliament, it could spell not only the end of the Syrian presence in Lebanon but the regime's hold on power," said Peter Ford, the British ambassador to Syria.

Ford said the uncertainty surrounding the bombing left him unconvinced that Damascus had a hand in it: "The objective would have been to administer shock and awe, Syrian style, to sow fear within the Lebanese political classes that had been crossing some of Syria's red lines."
The killing has reminded the region that Syria, whether responsible or not, has reasons for wanting to maintain its decisive influence in Lebanon. Western diplomats here say the Syrian government, which first sent troops to Lebanon in 1975 at the request of the embattled Christian-led government, has always feared a cohesive Lebanese opposition movement far more than international pressure.

As an increasingly important voice against Syrian influence, Hariri threatened Assad's control over Syria's ruling Baath Party, whose senior members have substantial economic and political interests in Lebanon. Many of the officials with the most to lose from a withdrawal belong to Syria's security and intelligence services, which have a history of acting without orders. An attempt in the 1980s by Syrian intelligence agents to down an Israeli airliner in London was thwarted by Israeli intelligence. The plot was never revealed to Hafez Assad, the current president's father, who died in June 2000.

Syrian officials say Hariri's assassination has worked against their interests by uniting Lebanon's Christian, Druze and Sunni parties, some of which battled one another during years of sectarian strife. The opposition does not control a majority in Lebanon's parliament, but the fresh surge of anger over Syria's presence has strengthened its position heading into elections scheduled to be held as early as April.

"We had everything to gain by working with Hariri, and everything to lose by his death," said Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria's minister for expatriates and a noted political writer. "Hariri was a bridge. The one who carried out his killing is the one trying to escalate the tensions and instability in this region."

The Lebanese opposition has been coalescing at a time when Assad is surrounded by potentially destabilizing political change, Western diplomats here say. The ethnic Kurds' success in Iraq's elections last month has complicated the Syrian government's relations with its own restive Kurdish minority. About 50 Kurdish prisoners have begun a hunger strike to protest conditions.
At the same time, Hariri's death has revived diplomatic threats to Syria that had languished for months.

The U.S. and French governments have renewed calls that Syria comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution approved last year that calls on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and disarm Hezbollah, the armed Shiite Muslim movement on Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Syria announced this week that it would form a "common front" with Iran against mutual threats, an agreement Shaaban said did not include military cooperation.

"If all the Lebanese would gather now and ask us to leave, we will get out," said Baha Din Hassan, an independent member of Syria's parliament. "But we won't get out just because of the small minority we see calling for it now."

Under the terms of the 1989 peace agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war, Syria was supposed to have pulled all of its troops back at least to the Syrian frontier more than a decade ago.

On Friday in Beirut, opposition leaders declared what they called "an independence revolution" that would entail peaceful demonstrations until the Lebanese government resigns, Syria withdraws its troops and an international committee is named to investigate Hariri's assassination. Lebanon's minister of tourism, Farid Khazen, a Maronite Christian, resigned, becoming the first cabinet member to do so. He said the government was unable to "remedy the dangerous situation in the country."

Last year, the Bush administration applied sanctions that prohibited nearly all U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine and banned Syrian flights to and from the United States. The sanctions also forced American financial institutions to sever relationships with the Commercial Bank of Syria.

Western diplomats here say sanctions could be extended to include a ban on Syrian exports to the United States, mostly textiles and agricultural products that account for a small percentage of Syria's economy.

Samer Debs, president of the Chamber of Industries of Damascus, said that the chamber's 14,000 members trade more with Europe and Arab countries than the United States but that new U.S. sanctions on Syrian textiles, olive oil and clothes would hurt a little.

Debs, who graduated from the American University of Beirut, said U.S. sanctions have damaged Syria's emerging private sector, which now accounts for 60 percent of Syria's non-oil revenue in an economy traditionally controlled by the ruling party. "Sanctions are not going to solve this problem," Debs said.

For Assad, an ophthalmologist by training, remaining in Lebanon has become a political test. Hard-liners in his government, many of them septuagenarian carryovers from his father's time who have resisted even his limited efforts to open up the state-run economy and shrink the Baath Party's influence, could blame him for the loss of regional influence that would result from a retreat from Lebanon.

Most important in political terms, Lebanon serves as leverage for Syria in its negotiations with Israel.

Assad has tried unsuccessfully to revive the dormant peace process with Israel, known as the "Syrian track," in recent months. At the same time, Lebanese opposition leaders have suggested that Lebanon pursue its own peace talks with Israel. But Hezbollah -- with its guns and 12 seats in parliament -- ensures that Lebanon will not make a separate peace agreement with Israel that does not include a settlement of decades-old Syrian-Israeli territorial disputes.

To influence Syria, said Ford, the British ambassador, foreign countries must give it "a stake in the process taking place in the region, something to lose for its actions. The one thing they really want, and I dare say deserve, is support for resuming the Syrian track. Then this would be the stick: a rupture of the peace process if they behave badly."


At 2/19/2005 03:54:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

US wants cooperation without giving anything in return. Syria cooperated with the US in the war against terror and saved American lives and what did it get in return: Nothing, not even a public gratitude from American authorities.

At 2/19/2005 04:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Josh,
Your article of "Disarray in Syrian Ranks Leads to Crisis" is taken off or has a bad link. Is it because of linking Hariri's death to Rami Makhlouf? It is, afterall, the only taboo subject we have in todays' Syria. We can criticize Bashar but Rami Makhlouf is off limit. This gangester is to Blame for evry evil thing in Syria and Lebanon. Please fix this link to the most daring article I have read in a long time and expose this asshole to the world.

At 2/19/2005 07:51:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article is a little odd. The first problem is that it starts with the premise that this regime has "interests"--it doesn't have interests, it has self-preservation instincts. This is obvious, even to the interesting people who maintain there is an "old guard." Maybe the British Ambassador to Syria should keep this in mind when he bafflingly proposes that the "stick" should be disengagement from a peace process that Syria wants to use to deflect attention away from the other issues people have with it. So Peter Ford thinks that we ought to through B'rer Rabbit in the b'rer patch? Brilliant! Either this chap should use a helmet when he plays rugby, or he ought to be posted to a country like Belgium which really does operate the way he imagines Arab regimes work.

At 2/19/2005 09:05:00 PM, Blogger johnplikethepope said...

The U.S. is paying full freight for Iraq, and they feel no debt of gratitued to Syria. I am not sure how the U.S. will play a role should Lebanon ask Syria to leave and Syria refuse, but expect efforts to cleave off Lebanon from Syria to receive U.S. support.
U.S. policy looks at Syria as an opponent to its vision to democratize the MidEast. The "Syrian Track" leads nowhere because the U.S. sees Syria's authoritarian state as antique and unhelpful to any peace process.

At 2/20/2005 02:57:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Josh,
I agree with the earlier comment asking to re-establish the link to the article "Disarray in Syrian Ranks Leads to Crisis". I think this was a brilliant analysis. The link to Maher Assad and Rami Makhlouf is very convincing. By the way, have you seen the front page article in Al-Syassah (19 Feb.), Kuwait's main daily, naming Assef Shawakat, Bahij Soleiman and Jameel el-Sayyed as the main plotters for the assassination of Hariri?.. I think this is highly unlikely since this means that Bashar himself gave the orders. Most people agree that it is hihgly unlikely. I think the Al-Syassah article could have 2 possible aims: (1) a leak from Maher/Rami to deflect the attention from their role; or (2) the beginning of a US-led campaign to smear Bashar by linking him directly (through Assef) to the Hariri assissination. I hope that the appointpoment of Assef as Chief of Military Security implies that Bashar has finally decided to reign in his brother and cousin (Wouldn't be ironic to have a reapeat of the Hafez/Rifaat crisis almost 20 years later!!). Even if Maher and Rami are brought under control, wouldn't that be too little too late?!!!!!!

P.S. where does Ghazi Kanaan stand in this equation?

At 2/20/2005 03:49:00 AM, Blogger Robert Lindsay said...

Sir, Al-Siyassah is one of the worst traitor papers in the entire Arab World, even in the treasonous, traitor, America-loving idiot state called Kuwait. It is run by the most pro-Zionist, pro-US idiots in the Arab World. Traitor is too mild a word. At the start of the Iraq War there were a couple of attempts to kill their traitor editor with letter bombs by Arab patriots. I would not believe one word these dirty lowlifes say. Hariri was an Arab through and through,a pan-Arabist who loved his people and his land. He hated the Zionist enemy like any real Arab man would (not a sellout wussy Zionist-loving Arab traitor WOman) a real man, an Arab man, a man who believes in his people and his country. Don't believe anything from the Al-Siyassha traitors who collaborate with the Arabs' deadliest enemies. Like the Vichys and Quislings of another era, those who sell out their people are marked men. I don't know who did this, but the notion that Syria did it implies that the Syrian regime is insane, stupid and suicidal. Perhaps it is, but I find that dubious.

At 2/23/2005 06:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Lindsay:
I happen to mostly agree with you. Bashar Assad is not behind the Hariri blast (also, read the editorial in the LA Times "The devil you know..." from last week. But, who are you suspecting?


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