Sunday, March 26, 2006

Can Lebanon fight Syria?

Arab foreign ministers to discuss resolution supporting Syria at Khartoum
25 March 2006: (DPA)

DAMASCUS - Syria’s foreign minister said on Saturday that the Arab ministerial preparatory meeting in Khartoum is to discuss a draft resolution to be adopted by the Arab League Summit which would ”condemn” sanctions against Syria and call on Washington to lift them, Syria’s official news agency SANA reported.

Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told SANA in Khartoum, where he was attending the ministerial preparatory meeting ahead of the Arab Summit beginning March 28, that the ministers will send the summit a draft resolution which “condemns the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US administration and asks it (Washington) for constructive dialogue (with Syria) and to lift these sanctions.”

The resolution stresses “full Arab solidarity with Syria,” Moallem said.
Naharnet is less sanguine about the Khartoum Summit. It writes that, "While the tension between Lebanon and Syria is on the summit agenda, it appears that the leaders will avoid any statement which could be seen as taking sides in the dispute." Here is a bit of the article:
The situation is very dangerous and sensitive," Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa told reporters Friday while speaking of the overall agenda. "But we in the Arab world have enough awareness to behave and react to face all the big and dangerous problems."

The foreign ministers of 21 Arab states and the Palestinian Authority begin a two-day meeting Saturday that is supposed to do the bulk of the hard work for the summit -- reach consensus positions on Iraq, Iran, Israel-Palestine as well as the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region and the tension between Syria and Lebanon.

Five heads of state -- those of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia -- have given notice they will not be attending the summit that starts Monday and is due to end Tuesday, diplomats said.

"We are facing very crucial weeks in the history of the region because of several issues," the United Nations' envoy for the Middle East, Terje Roed Larsen, said earlier this week, referring to Iraq, Iran's nuclear program, Lebanese-Syrian relations and the Palestinian territories.

Most Arabs worry that Iraq is drifting toward civil war.
It is not only the Arabs that worry about Iraq slipping into civil war. The Europeans clearly expect things to get worse in Iraq as well. Volker Pertes, who often comments on Syrian matters, writes in Qantara: "Three Years after the Fall of Saddam Hussein: The Federal Republic of Iraq." His article begins, "After the departure of the USA, Iraq could develop into a federation – with the aid of Europe." But this cheerful first line is followed by more disconcerting analysis. Volker continues:
The USA, the self-appointed engineer of the Iraqi situation, finds itself caught in a dangerous dilemma, which poses difficulties for Europe as well. Should what is effectively an occupation force remain, then resistance and terror will continue. If the Americans and coalition troops decide to leave, then civil war and division would be imminent.

The longer violence and insecurity prevail in central Iraq, the greater the tendency for the Shiites in the south to build up their own structures and the Kurds in the north to push for independence. Separation and civil war will further increase the readiness of neighboring countries to interfere in Iraqi affairs.
"By constructing its policy in the Middle East on Iraq and Lebanon, the US is building on quicksand." This conclusion was repeated to me by a number of highly placed Syrians and become a nostrum of Syrian politics. The political elite used this notion to reassure itself and others that it knew what it was doing; Syria would be OK if it just held firm to its anti-American policy and stuck with Arabism. America’s two allies, Iraq and Lebanon, were unstable. The Syrians believed they were weak reeds on which to build a policy. "They are not nations," I was told. "The American project will collapse on its own. Give it time." Syrians were little convinced of the long-term viability of US policy. By unleashing the forces of sectarianism and, even worse, by counting on religious communalism to form the foundation stone of democratic consensus and resurgent national strength in the region, the US was setting out on a fool’s errand, I was assured.

Today, as both the Iraqi and Lebanese governments remain mired in crisis, neither of which has much prospect of ending soon, Syrian smugness seems less like whistling past the graveyard. Iraq has a president and designated Prime Minister, but cannot settle on a government for fear of ceding the Shiites and Iran too much power. Lebanon has a government and Prime Minister but cannot decide on how to replace its president, Emile Lahoud, for fear of ceding the Shiites and Syria too much power. The Shiites have said they will accept General Aoun as a replacement for Lahoud, but Hariri's people refuse Aoun, considering him too close to Syria and the Shiites. Many would prefer a weak Lahoud to a strong Aoun. They have yet to put forward a candidate of their own. There is no point in entering such a divisive battle until Hariri's people can ensure they will have the two-thirds majority necessary to impeach Lahoud. How they will get that is anyone's guess.

In the meantime, Hariri is accusing the Hizbullah and Aoun's movement of wanting to prolong Lahoud's presidency. U.N. envoy to Lebanon Terje Roed-Larsen tried to help Hariri by insisting on Sunday that Lebanon must try to merge Hizbullah's military wing into its army. A top Hizbullah official, however, was having none of it. He said Roed-Larsen is wasting his time. The US also took another step to weaken Hizbullah. The Treasury Department decided on Thursday to act against al-Manar, a satellite TV operator, al-Nour Radio and their parent company, the Lebanese Media Group. Any assets found in the United States belonging to these three outlets will be frozen and Americans are forbidden from doing business with them. The department alleges that al-Manar and al-Nour Radio are the "media arms" of Hizbullah that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy took credit for the Treasury Department action. The next step will be to freeze the assets of top Hizbullah members. The US State Department also warned Syria to worry more about the Hariri investigation. "If I were sitting in Damascus and looking at the course of this investigation, I would be worried about where it would head in the future," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch said. There is no let up in American pressure on Syria in sight. Italy, Greece and Spain, however, are making noises about signing the EU trade agreement with Syria, which cannot please Washington.

The Syrian government is continuing its crackdown on and harassment of opposition leaders who have traveled to the West. Samir Nashar, leader of the Free National Party, was arrested yesterday, IRIN news reports:
Agents of the military secret service detained Samir Nashar, 60, at his office at 9 pm local time without giving reasons for the arrest, a spokesperson for the Syrian Human Rights Organisation (SHRO) said.

"We're calling for the immediate release of Mr. Samir Nashar, who has a serious heart condition," said Bassam Ishaik of the SHRO. "We're also demanding that the campaign of pressuring opposition figures stop."

The government gave no comment on the reported arrest.

Nashar, the spokesman of the Syrian Free National Party, a small opposition party established a year ago, recently returned from a meeting of exiled opposition figures in Washington, DC.
Sami Moubayed gives his read of the "Brammertz Report". It is also worth reading his article "What the future holds for Syria" to get a sense of how Syrians are thinking about their country's future. Sami explains how much Syria is counting on Egypt and Saudi assistance.

Speaking of which, Prince al-Walid Ben Talal has given Syria a vote of confidence and the Lebanese opponents of Syria a dressing down. He was quoted by L'oreint-Le jour as saying that the Saudis support Syria: « les Syriens constituent la force des Libanais et nous les soutenons ». "Those who are working to sanction the Syrians will fail," he added. Here is the article:

À partir de Damas, l’émir al-Walid ben Talal critique la majorité
L’émir al-Walid ben Talal s’en est vivement pris, à partir de Damas, aux membres de la majorité au Liban, les apostrophant en ces termes : « Vous qui retournez vos vestes, vous serez les seuls à partir (quitter le pouvoir). » « Ceux qui œuvrent à sanctionner la Syrie ne parviendront pas à leurs fins car ils ne peuvent pas aller à l’encontre de l’histoire, de la géographie et des valeurs culturelles », a-t-il affirmé, soulignant que « les Syriens constituent la force des Libanais et nous les soutenons ».
L’émir al-Walid ben Talal a également affirmé que « les relations syro-saoudiennes sont intouchables et constituent une ligne rouge ». S’adressant au président syrien Bachar el-Assad, il a indiqué que « le roi Abdallah ben Abdel Aziz était et restera avec vous car il est un homme de principe ».


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