Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Lebanon-Syrian Dilemma

Al-Balad, a Lebanese paper, discusses rumors about the impending announcement of a new government in Syria. There is not much new here. Three names for the Prime Minister are mentioned - Deputy prime Minister for Economy, Abdullah Dardari, Finance Minister Muhammad al-Hussein, and ووزير القصر الجمهوري الدكتور غسان اللحام Dr. Ghassan al-Laham, Minister of the Presidential Palace.

There is also speculation about changes at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, where it is widely expected that Walid Mu'alim will take over from Sharaa, and Ministry of Information, where Buthaina Shaaban will take over from Mahdi Dakhlallah, and Interior, where Kanaan will go.

al-Mustaqbal, the Hariri paper, writes that the French and Americans are coordinating their Lebanon-Syria policy ever more carefully; French National Security advisors are in Washington to talk with Condoleezza Rice. The French say they are determined to take the truth wherever it leads. The French Foreign Minister says he will not say whether he will meet with Bashar in New York at the September UN meeting; to do so would decrease the pressure on him.

He also said that France is not the enemy of Syria, but wants the truth to come out and to make sure that Bashar lives up to his word that Syria will cooperate.

Some Lebanese are frightened that they will lose control of their relations with Syria and that France and the US will highjack their foreign policy. Others worry that Syria will take revenge on them and that they may not be safe to remain in the country. French officials said they are not worried about the Lebanese. Everything will be fine. They and the Americans have the situation well in hand.

I read this to mean that France wants to reassure the Lebanese and Syrians that they are not crazy and know how to limit their pressure on Syria, but will insist on pushing the Hariri investigation to its logical conclusions - whatever they are. It is a delicate balancing act.

Here in Syria many people worry that the West doesn't know what it is doing and may replicate the situation it created in Iraq, not by invading, but by turning Asad and his regime into Saddam Hussein, placing stiff economic sanctions on the country, which will hurt the people and not the regime. The result they fear is that Syria will eventually be turned into a waste land because of a pissing match between Asad and the West. They worry that the investigation may eventually point the finger at members of the Asad family, causing a showdown. It is a game of chicken again. What does the West want - to ensure that Syria is really out of Lebanon or to bring down the Syrian regime and strangle Syria? They also don't know how Bashar al-Asad will respond. Will he be stubborn and subject his country to further privations, or will he cooperate, as he says he will? How Bashar responds will largely depend on what the Hariri investigation demands of him. Those I have spoken to do not believe he will surrender a family member to the inquiry. That would seem to be the red-line, dividing the possible from the impossible. No one can answer either of these questions and it creates deep anxiety at every level of society. People fear the West will ask the impossible.

Many Lebanese fear the opposite. They worry that the West will not finish the job. Many Christians and anti-Syrians worry that the West will leave the Asad regime in place to seek revenge on Lebanon and those who speak out against Syria. They want security restored and an end to Syrian meddling in their affairs. They believe Syria is behind the murders and bombings in Lebanon and that these problems will continue so long as the Syrian regime is left on the loose.

How far should the Lebanese and Western powers go in fighting Syrian interference in Lebanon? That is the question the Lebanese cannot answer. They do not know if purging the Lebanese government of all Lebanese who have worked with Syria in the past or who are still suspected of working with Syria today is enough to return relations between the two countries to a semblance of normalcy. Some believe the answer to this question is no; they insist that the Asad regime has to be destroyed.

Is Lebanon's problem essentially Lebanese, or is it Syrian? That is the question that hangs over much of the debate about how to move forward. This question reopens many wounds of the civil war and long years of cooperating with Syrian occupation. The easiest way forward for the Lebanese is to leave such divisive problems in the hands of Paris and Washington, in the hope that they have the wisdom to solve them.

Syrians face their own dilemma. They cling to the security the Asad regime has offered them and distrust their ability to find a happy alternative to the authoritarianism they now live under. The local opposition is divided, immature, and led by personalities and not proper parties, according to the analysis of Syrian opposition figures themselves. They are not prepared to rule and have established few links with the people. They also don't know what they want from the West.

Most Syrians agree with President Asad that the country is not ready for radical change. This is why the Syrians are so quite and submissive. They grumble, but also do as they are told. They complain about the state, but also look to it for solutions. Forty years of dictatorship, preceded by 20 years of coups and instability, have left deep divisions and insecurities among Syrians. It has turned them into sheep, as every Syrian will tell you with a bitter smile. This is largely because they do not trust themselves to find a common acceptable solution to their problems. In the back of every Syrian mind is the fear that their country will follow its Iraqi and Lebanese neighbors on the path to civil war if there is regime-change.

The Syrians have a central government, as defective and abusive as it may be. It still remains an asset in the eyes of most Syrians, and they will give it up with great reluctance. What they don't have is the freedom to find solutions to their individual problems. The Asads have personalized that government to the point that most Syrians cannot distinguish between the two. Getting ride of the Asad dynasty, in the minds of many Syrians, will be tantamount to destroying their government. It is the sheep’s dilemma: get rid of the shepherd and then where are you when the wolves come down from the hills?

The Lebanese have yet to create an effective central government. What they have is the freedom to find individual and communal answers to problems the weak state cannot solve. They are frightened of creating a federal government that will restrict their freedoms. The cultural and political divide between Nasrallah and Geagea is tremendous. They don't want to look like Syria, but the Syrians also do not want to look like Lebanon. That is a big problem. Can the Hariri investigation help solve it? We will see.

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