Thursday, July 5, 2007

Some common sense from Javier Solana

Some common sense from Javier Solana
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, July 05, 2007

After the attack against a Spanish patrol two Sundays ago, Spain's military began cooperating with Hizbullah in the investigation to determine who had killed its soldiers. This was based on an odd belief that the party is keen to safeguard the United Nations force. On Monday, the Defense Ministry in Madrid announced that the bombing was carried out by a "terrorist cell composed of non-Lebanese," with some newspapers describing them as Salafists. Spain's prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero, known to his countrymen as "Bambi," hinted that Syria might even be brought in to help uncover the truth about what had happened.

Then on Monday, another Spaniard, the European Union's chief foreign policy official, Javier Solana, came to the rescue with some common sense. In an important statement, Solana declared that "[w]hat happened in Gaza cannot be seen separately from what happened in Lebanon." He noted that there "are new groups in the Palestinian camps, and the fact that UNIFIL has been attacked for the first time cannot be taken separately." The car-bomb attack against the Spanish contingent was provoked by "forces we don't know," but Solana also underlined that it "would be naive not to see this as part of a global approach."

Solana's most revealing statement pointed a finger at Iran and Syria, when he unmistakably suggested that the "forces we don't know" could have been run out of Tehran and Damascus: "Somebody I know well - Ali Larijani - has said 'we are supporting Hamas'... All this is connected. It didn't happen by accident or miracle, it was probably planned ... It would be difficult to understand without seeing other important regional players behind it," he added, referring to "other forces" in Iran and Syria.

Perhaps Bambi will now think twice about Syrian participation in the investigation of the attack against UNIFIL. And if he doesn't, he should examine an extraordinary document published by the French daily Le Monde last Saturday: the minutes of a meeting between Syrian President Bashar Assad and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on April 24 at the presidential palace in Damascus. The article mostly flew under the radar of the Lebanese media, although its key passage had been leaked to An-Nahar in April and was never denied by the Syrians. The version in Le Monde largely confirmed the An-Nahar account, and it merits being quoted extensively. The language of the exchange was not specified.

In their discussion of Lebanon, Ban told Assad that Syria had "an important role" to play to end Lebanese divisions. The secretary general also called on Syria to support the Hariri tribunal, which had not yet been established under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Assad responded: "In Lebanon, divisions and confessionalism have been deeply anchored for more than 300 years. Lebanese society is very fragile. [The country's] most peaceful years were when Syrian forces were present. From 1976 to 2005 Lebanon was stable, whereas now there is great instability."

The Syrian president then issued what Ban could plainly see was a threat: "[This instability] will worsen if the special [Hariri] tribunal is established. Particularly if it is established under Chapter VII. This might easily cause a conflict that would degenerate into civil war, provoking divisions between Sunnis and Shiites from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea ... This would have serious consequences beyond Lebanon."

Not to be outdone by his boss, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem was highly critical of the US ambassador in Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman. The document quotes Moallem as saying to Ban: "Feltman should leave [Lebanon]; I'm prepared to pay for his vacation to Hawaii." That statement, too, could be interpreted as a threat. As a finale, Assad told the secretary general as they were about to part: "We're in the eye of the cyclone. You will, therefore, need to stay in contact with us."

The minutes were intentionally leaked by the UN, and the timing was no coincidence. An educated guess would suggest the leak took place after the rocket attack against northern Israel in June, and the subsequent killing of the peacekeepers. The point was, evidently, to affirm what Solana did in his statement on Monday: that Syria is destabilizing Lebanon and the region in order to negotiate with the UN and the international community from a position of strength.

The exchange also proved that Assad, though he has denied Syrian involvement in Rafik Hariri's assassination, was very worried about the tribunal. And if there were any doubts about whether the Syrian leader wants to send his forces back in to Lebanon, his reference to Lebanese stability during the years of Syrian rule (even if the country was actually a mess between 1976 and 1990) surely dissipated them. Assad was blunt: If you want stability to return to the country then Syria must return to the country.

Repeated enough times, this kind of language will lose Assad even his most gullible friends in Europe. The cult of "engagement" of Syria is being battered by the fact that most European powers are realizing, to their dismay, that Damascus will not accept any of the quid pro quos that engagement requires. Instead, what they are all hearing, from Brussels to Berlin, is the Syrian language of the gun. Not even the most boneless of European officials could long sustain a discussion with Assad that is based on sundry warnings and intimidation, the practical impact of which is to terminate Lebanon's independence. And that a foreign minister should have exposed himself so recklessly in the presence of a UN delegation by assailing an ambassador in Beirut showed how dangerously belligerent and insular the mood in Damascus is becoming.

The implications of Solana's statements are clear. We are caught in a process of perhaps irresolvable confrontation - with Iran, Syria, and their allies in Hizbullah and Hamas on the one side; and the UN, the United States, Europe, the Arab states, and their allies on the other. Few Europeans relish being in so monolithic a standoff, and they are right. But unless something gives, unless Iran redefines its relationship with the West and the Arabs on the nuclear issue and its policies in the Middle East, stalemate will persist. Then we will see who has stronger knees: an international community that cannot afford to be browbeaten, or a Syria and Iran that must sooner or later prove they can build better than they can destroy.

No comments: