Syria’s impatience is leading to mistakes


A demoralizing aspect of much international political behavior, commentary, or policy counsel on Syria in the past two years has been the extent to which it has fed off amnesia. Almost nobody, it seems, recalls that the Syrian-Lebanese crisis took a nasty turn following a botched murder attempt in 2004 against Marwan Hamadeh, and reached a point of no return after the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri. The killings have continued, Syria’s efforts to return to Lebanon have escalated, and yet fewer and fewer countries hold this against the Syrian regime anymore.

International relations are often determined by a short attention span that can morph into self-interested indifference; and by self-delusion. With the world’s attention elsewhere on most days, Syria has slowly clawed its way back into Lebanon; and it has profited from the illusion that it is striving to be different, that it really wants to change its behavior on Lebanese sovereignty and toward Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah – when that behavior has been successful, so that Syria has no reason to change anything.

The Syrian regime’s policies are an endless return to templates created by the late Hafez Assad. What are these? Absolute control over Lebanon, preferably military control, to give Syria regional relevance and leverage in war and peace over Israel; a taste for counterpoint in regional crises, whereby Syria will play both sides in order to place itself at the center of any resolution; a strategy of exporting conflict to ward away domestic threats to the Syrian regime; a desire to impose Syria as an obligatory regional partner of the United States; and a willingness to use violence.

Bashar Assad has been less adept than his father in balancing all these. The Syrian regime’s too-frequent resort to violence since 2003, in Lebanon and elsewhere, has alienated Washington while convincing Syria’s Lebanese foes that no reconciliation with Damascus is possible. Assad’s alliance with Iran has damaged relations with the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. And Syria’s export of violence remains an obstacle to any serious negotiations with Israel, and has badly backfired in Iraq, where the Sunnis have turned against Al-Qaeda.

While Syria continues to make strides in Lebanon, its clumsiness has created openings for those who want to prevent a Syrian return.

As a starter, Assad has played the French card all wrong. It may take more time for the Sarkozy administration to finally break free of its fondness for masochism and realize that Syria is uninterested in resolving the Lebanese presidential crisis in exchange for improved relations with Paris. The French have displayed astonishing amateurism in their dealings with Damascus in the past two months, reflecting a more general breakdown of their policy-making process. President Nicolas Sarkozy has put his most senior adviser, Claude Gueant, on the Syria case, though Gueant knows little about Syrian affairs. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has failed repeatedly to make any headway with the Assad regime on Lebanon, and finds himself isolated both from his president and from his own Foreign Ministry bureaucracy. Even Kouchner’s main Middle East hand, Jean-Claude Cousseran, is not a Kouchner man, and retains ties to the French foreign intelligence service that he once headed.

This cacophony of voices, much like Sarkozy’s reluctance to admit that his Syrian policy is dysfunctional, has delayed a full rapprochement with the Bush administration on Syria. However, unless Damascus gives the French something meatier on Lebanon in the coming months, the US and France will move decisively closer, particularly if Syria remains estranged from Saudi Arabia. Syrian hardball could revive the 2004 partnership that led to passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 (which the French effectively undercut during their recent talks with Syria). If so, Assad might come to regret his gratuitous humiliation of France.

A second mistake is that the Syrians have burned virtually all their Lebanese allies. Hizbullah is strong militarily, but outside the Shiite community its national appeal is at subterranean levels. The party is perceived by most Sunnis, Druze and Christians as a fifth column working on behalf of Iran and Syria. This has severed the broader connections with Lebanese society that Hizbullah worked for years to set up. Similarly, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is no longer viewed by the majority as credible. He has closed Parliament down on spurious grounds and made promises to Saad Hariri on the presidency that he was later forced by Syria to revoke. Berri is a mailbox for Hizbullah, but worse for the speaker, he probably can only survive politically by remaining so.

Syria’s other allies, such as Omar Karami, Suleiman Franjieh, Wiam Wahhab, Abdel-Rahim Mrad, Elie Firzli, and Nasser Qandil, are much more a substantiation of Syrian shortcomings in Lebanon than of Syrian strengths. Proof of this is that Damascus wasn’t able to establish a second government using them that would have been taken seriously by the outside world. As for Michel Aoun, Syrian Vice President Farouk Sharaa recently referred to him as a Syrian ally; but even if he isn’t one, the general is so polarizing a figure in the context of Syria’s counterattack against the 2005 Cedar Revolution that he remains unelectable.

A third mistake is that Syria has utterly failed in its Sunni policy. The Sunni community is the major obstacle to any Syrian return. It is extraordinary that Aoun and an embarrassing number of his followers should be so hostile to Sunnis today, when they spent years accusing the community of not being Lebanese enough. The Aounists won’t accept that it was Syrian fear of Rafik Hariri’s (therefore the Sunnis’) anticipated gains in the 2005 elections that precipitated the former prime minister’s assassination; it was mainly Sunni revulsion, locally and regionally, with Hariri’s elimination that pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon; it was Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s diplomacy that ensured the deployment of the Lebanese Army to South Lebanon after the Israeli onslaught of 2006 – a step that earned him the loathing of Hizbullah; and it is the Sunnis whom the Syrians now need to silence by any means possible, particularly through pressure on Saudi Arabia, before they can contemplate a return to Beirut.

A fourth mistake is that Syria overplayed its hand by trying to block the Hariri tribunal inside Lebanon. That the former UN investigator, Serge Brammertz, named no names in his various reports on Hariri’s assassination is worrisome. Without any names, the legal process could conceivably end up in limbo, even if the tribunal is set up. However, even if we assume the worst about Brammertz’s intentions, which may be unfair, Syrian intransigence was instrumental in bringing about the tribunal’s establishment under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Manipulation of the tribunal process is now more difficult for Damascus. The Syrians would like to see the tribunal go away, but are probably unable to accept even a deal that would incriminate lower-level officials in a way that could convincingly exonerate their regime. Regardless of whether there is reluctance at the UN to go after the Syrian leadership – and there is – the fact that the tribunal is now mainly in international hands could create momentum that Syria won’t be able to control.

The Syrians will likely make their grand final push in Lebanon in 2008. If the Lebanese remain as divided as they are today, the Syrians might succeed. However, Syria’s impatience is also, in large part, a recognition of its limitations. Lebanon is trying to break free and Damascus isn’t used to that. Consequently, it will make more mistakes, and those Lebanese truly interested in an independent Lebanon should exploit these mistakes.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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