Thursday, October 14, 2004

US - Syrian Escalation over Lebanon

Juan Cole discusses the growing pressure on Syria and Iran in his Informed Comment post today. He writes:

As Joshua Landis has cogently argued, there are also strong voices in the administration urging military action against Syria. [See also his column on Thursday]. Aside from the threat of more social turmoil, there is no obvious reason for Bush to leave Damascus alone. An attack on Damascus would make both the Turkish and the Israeli hawks happy. Syria's only patron is Iran, which could do little about it except foment guerrilla resistance. Europe and Russia would complain, but would do nothing. The one brake on such a move might be Egypt and the Arab League, which don't hate Bashar al-Asad the way they hated Saddam and may finally find ways diplomatically to intervene with Washington to stop the Bush demarche.
Washington threw down the gauntlet yesterday when Secretary of State Powell announced that "The U.S. wants to see the disarmament of Hizbullah and Hamas beginning at once along with the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon... "We believe that the time has come for the Lebanese to be able to decide their own future without the presence of the Syrian army, which is operated from Damascus," Powell said in an interview aired by the U.S.-run Al Horra satellite network from Dubai late Tuesday night.

It was headline news in several Beirut dailies Wednesday morning. Powell's tough position coincided with signals from Paris that France would no doubt seek a new Security Council resolution tougher than 1559 if current consultations among the ambassadors of the 15 member-states fail to produce unanimity over a Chairmanship Statement on the issue.

An Nahar's Paris correspondent George Sassin quoted French officials as asserting that President Chirac is adamant about having the process of the Syrian withdrawal and Hizbullah's disarmament be monitored by the U.N., with Secretary-General Kofi Annan making quarterly reports about the progress. The mechanics of the new resolution Washington and Paris have drawn up are explained here.

French officials also shrugged off reports that the United States would seek the withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping force from south Lebanon if Syria fails to begin a time-tabled withdrawal from the rest of the country.

This new resolution, if it should pass, will mean confrontation between Damascus and the US. The fact that Powell issued the ultimatum adds to its import and finality. Damascus has long sought comfort in the institutional infighting in Washington. It has provided Syria considerable wiggle room in the past. When the Vice president's office and Defense have been tough, State and the CIA have often been soft, providing Bashar the hope that he can avoid the worst. Today CIA is disfunctional and State has bowed to the forces of confrontation. This time Damascus has no wiggle room in Washington.

The stakes for Lebanon are high. In a long speech, Bashar defended his nation's role in Lebanon by arguing that if Syria pulled out, the Lebanese would slip back toward civil war. As Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times reported, Bashar implied that forcing a Syrian withdrawal could reignite Lebanon.

"Do they want to throw this region, with no exception, in the heart of lava inside the volcano?" he asked, suggesting that the main lesson that should have been learned from the Sept. 11 attacks is that violence in the region feeds extremism.

Mr. Assad also contended that Syria had done more to stabilize Lebanon than any other country. Although he did not cite the United States and France specifically, he referred to particular low points in the past, like the period when the United States deployed peacekeeping forces here and the United States Navy shelled the country after 241 Americans died in a suicide bombing in 1983.

"What did these forces which have been expressing their attachment to Lebanon do for this country?" Mr. Assad asked, saying the attempt to push through the United Nations resolution was blatant interference in Lebanese affairs.

The United States and its other allies believe that Lebanon is stable enough to stand on its own feet, and that Syrian interference is retarding the emergence of a true Lebanese democracy.

General Aoun, who has been working the halls of the US congress on this issue, is energized by Powell's remarks. In a telephone interview from Paris with The Daily Star Tuesday, he said "It's just a matter of time before I am able to visit a free and sovereign Lebanon."He has been working closely with Lebanese and other neocon groups in Washington to get congress to force the Lebanon issue on government. "The liberation of Lebanon from Syrian hegemony is very near, especially after the United Nations Resolution 1559. UN Resolution 1559 was the second step on the road to freeing Lebanon from any foreign supremacy, namely Syrian, and hopefully this will happen soon," said Aoun.

The Syrian Accountability Act was the first step. "It was not an easy task to get the SAA to be endorsed by the United States," he said. "Although the act evoked sharp protest from the Bush administration, it was eventually passed, and formed the first step on placing Lebanon on the international political map," said Aoun, who testified before congress in order to get it passed.

"The Syrians will have to comply with this international pressure on them to withdraw from Lebanon," said Aoun, who added that he believed the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon will be free from any external interference. "They (the Syrians) will not be able to meddle with the elections because it will be under international supervision," he said.

Sectarian tensions in Lebanon have already begun to rise because of the growing fight between Washington and Damascus over Beirut. The BBC reports on the increased tensions between the pro- and anti-Syrian factions in Beirut. Even Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader who resigned his cabinet post after the Lahood affair in protest against Syria's meddling is warry of the latest escalation. "The withdrawal of Syrian troops should be discussed between Syria and Lebanon," said Walid Jumblatt, "We went through a civil war, we don't want to risk that again."

For the past 15 years, the US has been content to let Syria do what it wants in Lebanon, figuring it would ultimately get ironed out in any final Middle East settlement. But in a post-Sept. 11 world and with the development of the Bush administration's Forward Policy on Democracy in the Middle East, it has reversed that stand. No longer does Washington seem to count on a Syrian-Israeli peace. By accepting Sharon's Gaza plan and his refusal to reopen the Golan issue despite Syria's pleading, Washington has signaled that it no longer counts on getting the Golan back for Syria. Thus it will no longer accept the tacit agreement that Syria can hold Lebanon as a card to force Israel to the bargaining table. Washington, in effect, is announcing that it is taking both Lebanon and the Golan out of play. Should Washington succeed in Lebanon, Damascus will have to kiss the Golan good bye as well.

So the stakes are very high for both the Syrians and Lebanese. Syria will not withdraw from Lebanon without driving the issue to the limit. Hafiz al-Asad snatched Lebanon from Israel's and America's grasp following the 1982 invasion at great cost to Syria. Should Bashar lose it without a Golan deal, his presidency would never recover. He won't let it happen; neither will the generals that surround him who are past masters at playing the Lebanese against each other.

Washington must know this. But according to Jim Lobe, the Neocons are Stoking the Future Fires of confrontation never the less. He believes they are hell bent on a confrontation, perhaps even military confrontation for ideological reasons. Rami Khouri of the Daily Star is not so pessimistic. He notes that Cooperation and pressure define US-Syrian ties. And writes that sources say the UN resolution last month was not aimed at preventing the extension of President Emile Lahoud's term, but rather starting a process of pressuring Syria and Lebanon to hold a more credible parliamentary election in spring 2005.

Bashar insists that the Americans don't give one wit for Democracy in Lebanon. He believes they are being led down the garden path by Israel and its supporters in the US. It's all about developing a bigger stick to use against Syria, he worries.

The Washington Post is jubilant about the brinksmanship and the bigger stick. It councils Bush to really whack that "rogue state" that is Syria. On the editorial page, it announces: "Syrian security forces are trying to appease Washington, promising better controls on the border and acting against some of the organizers of Iraqi resistance operating in Lebanon."

This, of course, is not enough: It merely demonstrates that concerted outside pressure can bring about changes in Syrian behavior. That pressure should be stepped up. The Security Council should renew its demand that Syria withdraw from Lebanon, and accompany it with the threat of sanctions. Arab states, which for decades have insisted on the sanctity of U.N. resolutions about Israel, should be pressed to take a public position on this one. The Bush administration and Iraqi leaders should make it clear that continued infiltration of insurgents and terrorists into Iraq will be considered a hostile act by Syria and subject to the responses usually given an enemy, from the breaking off of relations to -- in the last resort -- military retaliation. There are no reasons for continued toleration of Syria's rogue behavior; instead, there is an opportunity for insisting on change in the Arab state where it is most needed.
Syria is stuck. If it makes concessions, Washington will read this as weakness and demand ever more. If it doesn't make concessions, Washington will threaten military force. According to the Post's formula, it doesn't really matter how Syria behaves. It is going to get beat with a stick. If it it is nice, Washington should beat it. If it isn't nice, Washington should beat it. There is no knowing what Washington really wants or where it's demands will end. Damascus cannot expect Washington to stop the escalation short of regime change. That is what the neocons are demanding, and what the President has endorsed, in effect. Because of Washington's limitless ambitions, Bashar will be forced to put his foot down sooner than later.

This, of course, will have dire consequences for the Syrian economy and the well-being of both the Syrian and Lebanese peoples. Of course Washington may succeed where local governments have failed. US statesmen may have a better knowledge of the Lebanon and Syria than local politicians do. They may succeed in introducing the sort of robust sense of national brotherhood among Lebanese and Syrians that has been so absent in the past. They may awaken the long submerged respect for democratic institutions and practice that both Lebanese and Syrians cherish and have burried in their hearts. Who knows?

Washington hopes to add yet more sanctions to those already imposed on Syria. It is also fixing pro-Syria politicians in Lebanon in its cross-hairs. The same US congressmen from Florida and New York that authored and lobbied for the SSA are now pressuring Bush to up the anti. reports,

U.S. Congress members are urging President Bush to 'freeze the assets and economic interests" in the United States of Beirut government officials "who collaborated scandalously and unblushingly with the Syrian regime to safeguard its tutelage over Lebanon," As Safir reported on Monday.

No specific names were mentioned in the letter urging the freeze from Democrat Congressman Eliot Engel and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, which was separately seconded by Republican Senator Rick Santorum. But As Safir's Washington correspondent Hisham Milhem spoke of "large investments and vast financial and economic interests for many prominent Lebanese politicians."

It goes without saying that Lebanese officials with the biggest economic investments and financial interests in the United States are Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Vice Premier Issam Fares.

"You can freeze the assets of anyone found guilty of contributing to the continuity of Syria's occupation of Lebanon or supporting terrorism," the two congressmen said. "Those Lebanese officials have turned once-democratic Lebanon into a police state and have provided official Lebanese government support and shelter for terrorist Hizbullah, which is backed by Syria," the letter charged.

"We believe this will be the most effective step to stop those persons from continuing to provide shelter for Syrian-backed terrorists and from providing quasi legitimacy to Syria's illegitimate occupation of Lebanon," the letter said.

During Assistant Secretary of State William Burns' talks in Damascus last month, Washington bluntly said Syrian non-compliance on the money-laundering issue would compel the U.S. to apply section 3-11 of the Patriot Act. This would totally cut off the Syrian banking system from any U.S. contacts, which would have a negative multiplier effect by dampening other foreign investments and transactions with Syria. Washington says Syria is hiding 3 billion dollars worth of Iraqi funds in its banks. Damascus says there are only 300,000.

There are plenty outside the region, who don't like where this is leading. The EU just granted Syria 80 million euros for 2004-2005 for the development of commerce, water, higher education, and the civil society sectors in Syria.

The British Ambassador in Beirut James Watt said on Wednesday that his country always seeks to have positive and constructive relations with Syria."There is a serious dialogue between Britain and Syria," he said, expressing hope that the Syrian-EU Association will come for the interest of both Syria and Britain. On Lebanon, Watt said no one has interests to hit stability in Lebanon.

In Israel, the Jaffe Center just issued its annual report that declared that Israel had shot itself in the foot by ignoring Syria's peace offer. Israel missed a chance to score strategic gains by passing up on the opportunity of holding peace talks with Syria last year, it said.


At 10/15/2004 02:28:00 PM, Blogger Alex said...

Thank you for the post - very informative. I wondered if you saw this story from the AP about reports of shells being fired at US troops in Iraq from Syria. I am fearful that it may be the start of a renewed campaign to paint Syria as a threat to American lives, justification that Syria doesn't just pose a threat to Israel or democracy in Lebanon, or aid terrorism in the Middle East, but rather poses a real and present threat to US soldiers. Even if US troops cross the Syrian border, ostensibly only to neutralize these positions from which they are being fired on, things could collapse quickly from there.

At 10/15/2004 04:37:00 PM, Blogger Joshua Landis said...

Thanks Alex, Yes, this is an important new turn of events. If Iraqi insurgents begin hitting at Americans from the Syiran side of the border, things could get nasty quickly.

I believe the US military will be very slow to tangle with Syria over this, prefering to get it straightened out through the new Syrian-Iraqi border committees they are establishing.

Asad will also be quick to clamp down on Iraqis and others who try to drag Syria into the conflict. Hafiz never let the Palestinians do this to Syria in contrast to King Hussein and the Lebanese, who were too weak to put an immediate stop to such behavior. He knows that this would just set the regime-changers in Washington to salivating.

At 10/30/2004 02:21:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...


Thank you for your informed writing about Syria. I lived a few hours north west of Syria on the Turkish Mediteranean and your blog helps my knowledge of the region. If it's okay, I'll add a link to your blog on mine.

At 11/07/2004 06:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only precious thing preserved from Hafez Assad's era is "independency" which let us survive from the 1980s fundamental Islamic terrorism and keep us alive far away from any foreign aid.
We, as Syrians, are self-proud because we eat from what we plant and we wear from what we fabricate in spite of our limited resources, but not potentials.
This "independency" was obtained through sacrifices and pains for the last three decades. We have faced a similar wave of terrorism that you are facing now. Our democracy and human rights were eliminated for the seek of a greater principle "preserving our homeland and identity as Syrian" in the same manner that you will dealing with what so-called "patriot act".
Do we hate USA? Definitely NO, because we are sharing the same principles. We both want to enjoy our freedom.
Do we hate Israel? It is difficult to love our enemy as instructed by Jesus, but we love peace and we want our occupied territories to be liberated as stated in the UN resolutions. It is a human right for each refugee to have the option to return back to his homeland.
My Syria is changing. Democracy wind is blowing back over Syria!
Whispers are becoming louder. Newspapers are offensively criticizing the government. Civil society is growing and participating in the national development.
Unfortunately, this good soil is suitable for growing harmful plants too, such as fundamentalism and radicalism.
Does it worth to enjoy this growing "democracy" under this "green threat"? Frankly, I do not know.
Syrian economy is being strengthened. The President openly declared that the free market economy is our target instead of the social one. Syria Stock Market will be reopened in the beginning of 2005 after an absence for more than 40 years. Private banks are established and some of them are working now.
2005 is a very critical year for Syria. Syria's pregnancy lasted 5 years and I think it will give a birth of prosperity unless She is aborted by foreign rude interference.
The situation in Lebanon has to be discussed taking into account these major considerations:
Lebanon is the last standing wing for Syria. Syria is surrounded by USA aligned states that includes Israel, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan. Losing the Lebanese wing simply means "checkmate" for Syria!
Syrian society is very sensitive to any turbulence in Lebanon. We have to recognize that Beirut is closer to Damascus more than any Syrian city, and it is the same situation between Tripoli and Homs; we are talking not about topographic distances only but also about social relations. Thus, it is very obvious that Syria has a great interest to control the stability of the paradoxical Lebanon to preserve its own stability.
Furthermore, Syria is concerned about the strength of Lebanon to resist any Israeli attack or occupation as it was done in the last quarter of the 20th century. Lebanon is the first defensive line for Syria; breaking this line will allow the Israeli forces to turn over to surround Damascus. Lebanon represents a strategic militant depth for Syria which is forbidden to give up easily. This is why Syria has worked hard in the last 15 years to rebuild, unify and strengthen the Lebanese army who, indeed, belongs to the nation not to militias.
In the other hand, Lebanon's free economy is a heaven for the corrupted Syrians to launder their monies. Secret banking and close investment are very attractive for the influencing Syrians who have built a strong relations with the Lebanese politicans based on their mutual financial interests.
From my point of view, the change wind over Syria has triggered 1559 resolution.
This change is affecting Abulhalim Khaddam's influence over Syria and his interests in Lebanon. The Syrian vice-president (old guard) has used Lebanon as warning message against Bashar Assad's team trials for change.
Khaddam's strong statement against the calls (seem to be inspired by Assad's team) for modifying the Syrian constitution to release Syria from Al-Baath party control (in fact, the old guard control) just prior to the Lebanese problem amplification (compared with a similar precedence in 1990s) has to be seen in depth as Khaddam's "fear" from the coming threat.
Khaddam, which was used to be called as the Supreme Commissioner in Lebanon, has lost this position for the sake of Bashar Assad after the death of Basel Assad. However, his direct influence over Lebanon which lasted more than 15 years has enabled him to build his corrupted empire in cooperation with his Lebanese partners, of which Rafik Hariri is the loyalist and the most benefited.
Eliminating Khaddam's influence over Lebanon has been compensated with under-the-table multi US$ billions projects in Lebanon such as the cellular monopoly. Khaddam and his sons corrupted empire used to be protected by Khaddam's influence as a Syrian vice-president and by his loyal friend and partner Rafik Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon.
Khaddam is not ready to give up of his "own" last standing influence which will make him quite naked. Thus, he used Rafik Hariri's strong relations with the French president to escalate the Lebanese problem to a higher level that demonstrates the real power of the joined coalition between Khaddam and Hariri.
It is very interesting to follow up the decelerations of Khaddam and Hariri in the escalation period prior to UN resolution. Khaddam's declaration was humiliating for the Lebanese when he said "We will not allow any modification in the Syrian constitution .. We do not mind the modification of the Lebanese constitution by the legal institutions .. France and USA are interfering in a Lebanese internal affair."
Hariri's declarations show him as a powerless PM when he said "I will cut my hand before signing any constitutional modification request."
In fact, They were playing the escalation game in a harmony credited with an intended misuse of the traditional diplomatic language.

Syrian Citizen


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