Syria prepares for a Lebanese vacation


You have to wonder if, during their talks last week in Damascus, the acting US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, and the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Moallem, mentioned Hawaii. Why Hawaii? Because in April 2007, at another meeting in Damascus, this one between the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, and the secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, Moallem accused the United States and France of playing a “destructive” role in Lebanon. He said he wanted Feltman (who was then the US ambassador in Beirut) out of the country, and he offered to pay for a vacation in Hawaii.

That meeting was more sinister for being the venue in which Assad threatened to destabilize Lebanon if the Hariri tribunal were passed under Chapter VII authority by the UN. The president told Ban that Lebanon’s “most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability.” The exchange was later leaked to the French daily Le Monde, perhaps because Assad’s reaction to the tribunal made rather less convincing his assurances that Syria was innocent in Rafik Hariri’s assassination.

When the Syrian regime offers vacations, they usually are the kind that one doesn’t come back from. However, Feltman, in his final days as ambassador to Lebanon, also earned a goodbye present from Syria and its local allies. In January 2008, a US Embassy vehicle was damaged in a bomb attack that killed three people, on the same day that the ambassador was to hold a going-away reception at the Phoenicia Hotel.

In politics, such pages are made to be turned. However, the decision of the Obama administration to start a dialogue with the Assad regime by sending Feltman to Syria, along with Daniel Shapiro of the National Security Council, seems neither a page turned nor one unturned – at least not yet. If anyone must deal with Syria on Washington’s behalf, then Feltman is the man, and it must have irritated the Syrians to no end that his being handed their portfolio probably means he will officially be confirmed in the assistant secretary post. Feltman is cynical, or the operative word these days is “realistic”, about Syria, and he really is persuaded that turning Lebanon into a Syrian meal is not the way to move ahead with Assad. However, with the containment of Iran now the name of the game in the Arab world, Syria sees new possibilities looming ahead.

It wasn’t surprising, in that case, to hear what Assad had to say to the Al-Khaleej newspaper several days ago. The president is unable to utter a phrase on Lebanon without decorating it with words of intimidation, and this was no exception. He echoed, sort of, what he had told Ban two years ago, namely that if the Hariri tribunal were politicized, “Lebanon would be the first to pay the price.” When Assad uses the word “politicized,” he means that the tribunal should not accuse Syrians – a promise he hopes to elicit from the US in exchange for a better relationship. And if the Americans don’t go along with this, then the Lebanese may feel the rod.

However, Arab containment of Iran adds a dimension to the current diplomacy that didn’t exist a few years ago. Yesterday, Assad was received in Riyadh by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, and there he was “reconciled” with Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. The Syrians still very much view an improvement of ties with the Arab states and the West as a chance to reimpose their writ in Lebanon. They understand that it is more difficult to drive their tanks into Beirut than it used to be (though they haven’t lost hope), but Assad is looking for a mechanism allowing him to dominate Lebanon from across the border, through which his local allies, notably Hizbullah, can be called upon to maintain order when needed.

There are two variables here, though, that the Syrians will need to consider. The first is that the Saudis, and now the Egyptians, in exchange for patching things up with Syria, will demand that Assad take a clearer position with regard to Iran, as well as to Hizbullah and Hamas. The Syrian intention, however, is to maintain thorough ambiguity on this front. Assad has no desire to distance himself from Tehran, because that would mean surrendering a very good reason for why everyone is talking to Syria. On the other hand, if he simply does nothing, that may jeopardize Syria’s normalization process with the Saudis and Egyptians, which risks marginalizing Syrian regional influence down the road.

One way out of this dilemma for Assad may be a second variable, which he will have to be careful in manipulating: a reshaping of the nature of Syria’s connection with Hizbullah. There should be no illusions about what this means. The Syrians will not disarm Hizbullah, nor are they capable of doing so; and they see no advantages whatsoever in a decisive break with the party. After all, Hizbullah plays the role of Syrian enforcer in Lebanon. But where the Syrians very probably do want to adjust things is in forcing Hizbullah once again to take on Syria’s agenda as its priority, just as it was in the days when Syrian soldiers were still deployed in Lebanon. Since their withdrawal in April 2005, with Hizbullah having gained wider latitude to act on the ground and Syria more dependent than ever on the party to defend its Lebanese stakes, it has become increasingly apparent that Iran is the one primarily calling Hizbullah’s shots.

This bothers Assad, but it also provides him with an opportunity. If containment of Iran is everyone’s chief concern, the Arab states’ and the Obama administration’s above all, then any Syrian effort to raise the heat on Hizbullah could serve three simultaneous purposes: it could force the party to embrace Syrian interests more heartily; it could bring Syria plaudits from all those states delighted to see an Iranian surrogate put under pressure; and it could permit Assad to reimpose a measure of the hegemony over Lebanon that he lost in 2005. The end result would be a compromise. As Syrian power in Lebanon increases, Iran, and with it Hizbullah, would have no choice but to bend to Assad’s conditions, as that would at least guarantee Hizbullah’s political and military survival.

However, are things likely to be as clear-cut? Would Hizbullah go along so quietly, and would Iran sign off on this? Would the United States and the Arabs be so easily gulled? And would the Lebanese agree, years after managing to get out from under Syria’s thumb? The Syrians sometimes presume too much of their capacities, imagining that a bomb can substitute for a vacation. They might remember that a particularly large bomb on February 14, 2005, is what ended their long Lebanese interregnum.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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