Wednesday, March 02, 2005

"Don't Rush on the Road to Damascus" Flynt Leverett

Flynt Leverett of Brookings criticizes the rush to topple the Syrian government encouraged by some in the Bush government. (Article copied below my commentary)(See Michael Young's criticism of the Leverett article in Reason Magazine.)

I doubt that the US has the means or will to topple the Syrian government at this point. It acted unilaterally in Iraq because it could. The army was ready to go. No longer are there troops to spare for the chaos that will ensue in Syria if things go wrong with the toppling plan - and they surely would go wrong.

Pinpoint bombing strikes by Israel or the US will only rally local opinion to the government.

Bush must go multilateral on Lebanon and Syria; America has no choice but to use diplomacy and world pressure. Europe will not place real economic sanctions on Syria, as Washington urges it to, unless Damascus lingers in Lebanon and is so recalcitrant that forces Europe's hand. By declaring to parliament today that Syria would pull out of Lebanon in several months time, Bashar has already placed the possibility of European sanctions in deep freeze where they belong.

Most importantly, Bashar's government is much stronger than many think. There has been great speculation abroad -- and in Syria -- that the wheels are about to go flying off the regime, that the President is not really in charge, or even more darkly, that a shadowy subterranean power-struggle is taking place within the top ranks of the government, presaging a coup or possible collapse.

Yes, Syrians have been intensely worried for the last two weeks. The chilling silence that came from the Palace during the two weeks following the Hariri assassination led many to suspect the worst and to much nail biting.

Nevertheless, the pressure has been much relieved in the last two days. Bashar is back at the helm, giving interviews and taking a positive line on Lebanon. The decision making process is painfully slow here, like most things. What is more, the president should hire top flight image consultants and get a press-release team who know what they are doing.

Certainly, there are heated debates over who should be making policy and what it should be. We have seen the President’s family consolidating its power over the intelligence agencies, Lebanon and internal affairs. The old-guard Sunni triumvirate of Tlass at defense, Khaddam (V.P) with control over Lebanon and the Iranian connect, and Shara’a at the Foreign Minister has been seriously whittled down. Shara’a is the only one still head-lining and there are whispers that he should be a victim of the Lebanon fiasco.

Kanaan was given the Ministry of Interior some months ago with a mandate to consolidate internal affairs, Walid Mualem has officially taken over the Lebanon portfolio and Shawkat heads intelligence. This shift in power has taken place in tandum with the Lebanon events, but the exact meaning of this coincidence in timing has yet to reveal itself. (See my earlier article here.) There is much talk about moneyed interests and the clash between Lahoud and Hariri somehow being connected to this shift in power in Damascus, but this is all merely speculation and this point.

The President’s conciliatory gestures both to the Lebanese and West have been welcome and reassuring here in Damascus. He did not insist on a vote of confidence in the Lebanese parliament Tuesday – which most Lebanese analysts believed the government would have won. Karami resigned rather than escalate the clash between the opposition and pro-Syrian elements in Lebanon. Syria still has considerable clout in Lebanon, and it does not all derive from intimidation as the opposition would have us believe. The fact is Lebanon remains a divided country and many do not want to see Syria driven out ignominiously.

Don't Rush on the Road to Damascus
Published: March 2, 2005

THE assassination last month of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, has given new life to an old idea: using the issue of Lebanese independence to undermine Syria's strategic position. Drawing on the language of a United Nations Security Council resolution passed last summer, President Bush and senior officials are now calling on "the Syrian regime" to remove its military and intelligence personnel from Lebanon and cede any political role there.

Administration hawks like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who, as President Reagan's Middle East envoy, oversaw the collapse of America's foray into Lebanon's civil war) and the National Security Council's Elliott Abrams (whose previous involvement in Lebanon policy helped generate the Iran-contra scandal) believe that such a course would allow the establishment of a pro-Western government in Beirut that would accommodate Israel and help to project American influence. They also believe that it would set the stage for the Syrian regime's collapse, removing another Baathist "rogue state."

The turmoil unleashed in Lebanon by the Hariri assassination - which reached a high point this week with the resignation of the Syrian-backed prime minister, Omar Karami - may indeed represent a strategic opening, but not for the risky maximalist course that some in the administration seem intent on pursuing.

For starters, any effort to engineer a pro-Western Lebanese government would be resisted by Hezbollah, the largest party in Lebanon's Parliament, which because of its record of fighting Israel is at least as legitimate in Lebanese eyes as the anti-Syrian opposition. In the face of such resistance, efforts to establish a pro-Western government would fail, creating more instability in the region when the United States can ill afford it.

Does the Bush administration understand that for the foreseeable future, any political order in Lebanon that reflects, as the White House put it, the "country's diversity," will include an important role for Hezbollah? Does the administration feel confident about containing Hezbollah without on-the-ground Syrian management and with the group's sole external guide an increasingly hard-line Iran? Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's national security adviser recently said that an overly precipitous Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could pose a threat to Israel.

Moreover, the sudden end of the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad would not necessarily advance American interests. Syrian society is at least as fractious as Iraq's or Lebanon's. The most likely near-term consequence of Mr. Assad's departure would be chaos; the most likely political order to emerge from that chaos would be heavily Islamist. In the end, the most promising (if gradual) course for promoting reform in Syria is to engage and empower Mr. Assad, not to isolate and overthrow him.

To exploit the current moment wisely, the Bush administration must abandon ideological attachments to a bygone era when Maronite Christian leaders dominated Lebanon or fantasies of a strategically neutered democratic state emerging in Syria over the next few months. We have been down this road before, during Lebanon's civil war; it ends with Americans killed or taken hostage in terrorist attacks, and our credibility damaged by our inability to undergird rhetoric with sustainable policy.

It's smart to take advantage of the current focus on Syria's position in Lebanon to obtain concrete improvements in Lebanon's political environment. With help from international partners and key Arab states, it should be possible to win the redeployment of the last Syrian troops in Lebanese cities either to Syria or to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, in accordance with the 1989 Taif accord that ended Lebanon's civil war. Mr. Assad's recent statements make clear that it should also be possible to induce the Lebanese and Syrian governments to negotiate a timetable for withdrawing all Syrian forces. During his four and a half years as president, Mr. Assad has already cut the number of Syrian troops in half, setting precedents for further reductions.

By taking up Mr. Assad's call for bilateral dialogue, the administration could also negotiate a freer Lebanese electoral process, monitored by international observers. The United States, however, should recognize that an expansion of political openness will unfold over years, rather than weeks or months; it will need to proceed cautiously to avoid a re-emergence of sectarian violence.

As Syria retrenches in Lebanon, the United States should use the issue to leverage improved Syrian behavior on issues that arguably matter more to American interests in the region, like Syrian support for insurgents in Iraq and for terrorist activity against Israel. Syria's decision to effect the turnover of Saddam Hussein's half brother and other Iraqi Baathists did not come primarily in response to American jawboning over Iraq. Rather, it was prompted by Syria's interest in deflecting the mounting criticism of its role in Lebanon.

The Bush administration can elicit more sustained improvements in Syrian behavior on Iraq and terrorism by using the threat of intensified criticism of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon - including Security Council action - as a badly needed stick in the repertoire of policy options toward Syria. Washington should also not be afraid to spell out for Mr. Assad the carrots it would offer in return for greater cooperation. In so doing, President Bush could more effectively pursue some of his most important objectives for the region while tangibly improving the lives of ordinary Lebanese.

Flynt Leverett, former senior director for Middle Eastern affairs at the National Security Council, issenior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy and author of the forthcoming "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."


At 3/03/2005 07:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Leverett has an interesting CV! , Looking forward for his forthcoming book.

At 3/03/2005 09:26:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Someone with common sense.

The "carrots" could be provided by the Europeans rather than by the US.

At 3/03/2005 11:16:00 AM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

If you think that was "common sense" then you're hopelessly out of it.

At 3/03/2005 11:33:00 AM, Blogger johnplikethepope said...

I beg to differ. I do not see military intervention by the U.S. as a plausible course at this point in time. And sanctions will likely backfire, as they did in Iraq.
Assad has pulled back troops and is committing to quit Lebanon. That is enough for now. Rewarding real political reform and cooperation on other issues seems the wisest course, for now.

At 3/03/2005 12:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with johnplikethepope and cannot understand Tony's systematic hostility towards Syria.

At 3/03/2005 02:13:00 PM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

Blind men who cannot see the truth better open up their ears:

"Are you hearing the Lebanese crowds chanting for freedom?"

Those of you who believe that "many" in Lebanon do not want to see the Syrian army retreat humiliated are correct; in fact few want that because WE have matured.

WE are ready to forgive (but not forget) the countless years of hostility that Syria practiced in Lebanon.

WE are ready to forgive how it had entered Lebanon supposedly to "save" the Christians while allying with and fighting against practically every major community in Lebanon... Will you please wake up to the truth...

Will you please stop commenting on Lebanon and Lebanese while you have not tasted the bitter taste of a Syrian Machine Gun or a Syrian Cannon aimed and firing at your house?

Will you please stop commenting while you have not witnessed the humiliating Syrian check points in Beirut, the way the Syrian army treated Lebanese citizens as if they were 2nd category people? As if they were not in their OWN country?

How long will we keep on supporting the continuous Syrian insults concerning the Sovereignty of Lebanon? MONACO? They dare compare Lebanon to Syria as in Monaco to France? I even wish they would respect us that much!!!! Even the reigning princes of Monaco have more power and independence over their country than the Lebanese have under the Syrian Shadowy but very OPPRESSING occupation!!!!


Where do you even see people attacking Syria as a State or Sovereign regime? WE ARE ONLY attacking the SYRIAN OCCUPATION OF LEBANON, THIS DOES NOT MEAN WE ARE ATTACKING SYRIA.

Amen to that, May Allah always give our loyal and national compatriots all the strength to keep on chanting: Freedom, Freedom, Freedom.

At 3/03/2005 02:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"you have not witnessed the humiliating Syrian check points in Beirut"

Lebanese were murdering each other and Syrians on check points (based on their IDs!) long before Syrian army entered Lebanon. In fact this ethnic & sectarian cleansing criteria was created by Lebanese warlords (today's opposition).
At the end, weather you admit it or not, it was the Syrians who paid highly and preciously to bring your filthy war to an end and is paying till today.

At 3/03/2005 02:55:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

reply to Ibrahim,
Please speak for yourself, not all Lebanese consider Syrian army occupation. When Hasan NassarAllah called for national referendum on the presence of Syrian army, the opposition went nuts gave stupid excuses (Lebanese democracy is a sectarian democracy!!) what does that suppose to mean? some sects can decide on the behalf of others, even if they are minorities!!

At 3/03/2005 03:02:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think you are on the wrong thread. Monaco was mentioned in "The Special Relationship with Lebanon ". This is "Don't Rush on the Road to Damascus."

At 3/03/2005 03:24:00 PM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

Oh, I am on the wrong thread, well excuse me while my country is being invaded by occupational forces!

And Mr. Nasrallah is an ally of Syria, why? Ummmm, Iran has backed Hezbullah for so many years through Syria, Syria has circulated the guns and ammunitions to Hezbullah, Syria has allowed Hezbullah to grow both as a military and political party, so I wouldn't for a single second believe that Mr. Nasrallah would put Lebanon's interests before Iran's and Syria's, no sir. But let it come the moment when Syria has had enough of Hezbullah and wants to curb its influence because it would be gaining ground on Syria's interests in Lebanon? Then it would be a whole different story, or have you forgotten how Syria has FOUGHT on a successive basis the PLO, Kataeb, Lebanese Forces, weakening for times the Leftist muslim coalitions so that they do not grow to outstrong her in the Land of the Cedars and at other times attacking the Christian right so that those poor sods also do not have a claim to fame?

At 3/03/2005 03:50:00 PM, Anonymous Kafka said...

I like Syrians, I really do. I am worried for them.
Having read the different news dispatch of the day, everyone but everyone (Lebanese opposition, Russia, Saudi, Egypt, the Arab League, Yemen even Mauritania, USA, France, Britain, Germany, EU) is telling Syria to cut its diplomatic losses, and pull its troops and intelligence apparatus out of Lebanon.
If the Syrian administration doesn't do this, Syria stands to lose even more.
I cannot for the life of me understand the attitude of President Bachar Al-Assad. They really think that temporising is still a strategy! Good God why doesn’t someone tell him what he should do.

At 3/03/2005 04:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You didnt reply to the selective democracy point were only elite sects have genuine "votes" that could be counted and the others are inferiors. I wont comment on your accusations of Mr. NasraAllah's patriotism but better than putting France's & American's interests before Lebanon (I wont dare to say Israel's interests because according to people like you, Israel has only good will for Lebanon)

At 3/03/2005 04:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your country is being invaded!!
Who are you talking to? You reminded me of a German lawyer friend who was concerned that Christians are under religious cleansing! when I asked her where did you get this funny information, she said from a Lebanese asylum seeker. Yes, you people will lie; invent stories and cheat to prove your false cases

At 3/03/2005 04:51:00 PM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

Huh? selective democracy? and elite sects? where do you see elite sects in lebanon my good sir? The only elite votes are those of the Elite forces of the occupation Syrian forces?

And patriotism? hehe, well everyone seems to be a patriot these days eh?

Then again, I won't reply to your melodramatic defense of Sayyed Hassan... I am sure he doesn't need it; what you need to know that I personally couldn't care less about Syria's, America's, France's, Iran's or Israel's interests in Lebanon.... What I care about is a free sovereign country free of any foreign interference, including ALL of the above mentioned countries... Sadly Hizbullah represents Iran to a great extent and the Islamic Revolution, which Lebanon does not really need, unless this is what you would like to see happening...

I personally consider all of the above countries to be of danger to Lebanon since all of them have their hidden (or unhidden) agendas in it.

Then again, why would Sayyed Hassan want a referendum for the presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon, he is -for now at least- a reliable ally of the Syrians in Lebanon, the people that will vote for the Syrian presence will only do so because Hezbullah says so...

The real question here should be as follows: When will Hezbullah finally return his arms to the Lebanese authorities and work strictly as a political party? I couldn't care less if it serves Israel's interests or not... Egypt is at peace with Israel, Jordan is also at peace, the Palestinians have been in active negotiation with the Israelis for God knows when...

Start thinking for your country for once my friend, your country, forget about everybody else, because everybody else is considering you as a minor interest. Syria would love to make peace with Israel as soon as the Jewish State retreats from the Golan (if they ever do so), I wonder how much that fits with Hizbullah's policy?

At 3/03/2005 04:55:00 PM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

Anonymous at 4.37, you'd better apply for a Syrian citizenship, you'd make the Moukhabarat proud ;)

At 3/03/2005 05:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you would save us you rhetoric, long boring and repetitive comments, then maybe we would have a chance to discuss Syrian affairs.

At 3/03/2005 08:20:00 PM, Blogger johnplikethepope said...

Ibrahim has a point about Hizbullah. When are they going to hand in their arms? The opposition wants them in their government, but under what terms? If Syria has to leave, then how can an Iranian proxy be allowed to remain?

At 3/03/2005 11:12:00 PM, Anonymous Kafka said...

In response to Ibrahim and Anonymous at 2:55 pm and 4:30 pm
Instead of exchanging hard language, wouldn't it be more constructive for you to discuss the role of Hezbollah after the Syrian withdrawal, and help Hezbollah (on the air so to speak) reach a new social and political equilibrium in Lebanon.
Yes Hezbollah did play the role of the faithful ally for Syria and Iran in Lebanon, yes Hezbollah was armed and trained by Iran and Syrian intelligence. But it is time to help this political formation to lay down the arms like all other militias in Lebanon did, and to pursue its life and history otherwise. When Hezbollah does this, to me it will be the end of the civil war.
Remember that Hezbollah represents a majority of poor Shiites in Lebanon, also that the “Islamic colour” of its political ideology is intimately related to its belief in Islam as a force for social reform, as at the time of the Prophet Mohammad. The problem is that “Islamic thought” and I insist on the word “thought” at the time of the Prophet is one thing whereas “Islamic practice and interpretation” today is another.
Somehow people of good will must try to explain to Hezbollah that the “Islamic vector” is neither the only vector for social and democratic reform nor is it the ideal tool in the twenty first century to bring about such reforms.
There is no doubt in my mind that Hezbollah will undergo a serious transformation after the Syrian withdrawal and will hand its heavy arms. Let us all help it do that.

At 3/03/2005 11:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

<<< Ibrahim says: I am sure he doesn't need it; what you need to know that I personally couldn't care less about Syria's, America's, France's, Iran's or Israel's interests in Lebanon.... What I care about is a free sovereign country free of any foreign interference, including ALL of the above mentioned countries... >>>

So he doesn't care about their interests but he does? Strange. Also, Ibrahim, what you should be concerned about is NOT your own selfish ideals, but rather what benefits all Muslims and Arabs such as yourself, as well as what benefits all of human kind. I don't agree much with instigators.

At 3/04/2005 04:21:00 AM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

Kafka, thanks for putting in fine words what my emotions and relative lack in english profficiency prevented me from doing. Your last post apptoaches 99% of what I have in mind.

Anonymous at 11.58 pm, "including ALL of the above" means a country free of all the above interferences

At 3/04/2005 05:36:00 AM, Anonymous Ibrahim said...

"Lebanese were murdering each other and Syrians on check points (based on their IDs!) long before Syrian army entered Lebanon. In fact this ethnic & sectarian cleansing criteria was created by Lebanese warlords (today's opposition).
At the end, weather you admit it or not, it was the Syrians who paid highly and preciously to bring your filthy war to an end and is paying till today."

While you are simplifying what really happened, allow me to breif you on the actual events:

Soon after being defeated by King Hussein in 1970, the Palestinian Fedaiyeen were given a safe haven in Syria, and by small groups, they have been allowed to cross into Lebanon with the help and blessing of the Syrian authorities.

While the PLO has always been a cause for concern in the late sixties in Lebanon, the number of fighters and the amount of weapons have never reached an extent that could destabilize the Lebanese Government.

However in 1975, and after offering the Palestinians all the financial, political and logistical support; the Syrian regime allowed all the Palestinian brigades to come to Lebanon in transit through their territory, namely, Al-Saika, Palestine Liberation Army, Ain Jalout Brigade, Al-Qadisiyya Brigade... in support of the Organizations that were already active in Lebanon.

They sent, in conjunction with Libya, Iraq and others, thousands of Arab mercenaries to support the Palestinians; adding fuel on fire.

Obviously, with a delicate environment such as Lebanon;'s, it was only a matter of time before war started.

The Syrian regime succeeded at becoming a role player in Lebanese affairs, gaining enough ground later on to develop into the major broker.


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