Thursday, March 6, 2008

The USS Cole and America's election

The USS Cole and America's election
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, March 06, 2008

The USS Cole has certainly created a ruckus in Lebanon, especially when no one has actually seen the ship. But amid all the howls of "gunboat diplomacy" and dire warnings that the United States cannot impose its will in such a way, most people are missing the broader Bush administration goal: to tie the hands of a successor administration, particularly a Democratic one, in Lebanon and particularly Iraq.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently highlighted this point in an article. He observed that US President George W. Bush wanted to maintain a large force in Iraq until the November election, "because that would open the next administration's bargaining on troop levels at a higher level - and allow the next president to cut troops without getting down to a bare-bones level that might be dangerous." He went on to note that Defense Secretary Robert Gates seemed to share Bush's view, and concluded: "[Y]ou get the sense that Bush's biggest concern is that the next president not unravel the gains he has made in Iraq."

That's obvious, as is the fact that what happens with Syria is essential to the success of this strategy. The USS Cole's deployment came in a larger context of heightened American pressure against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Lebanon was one of the intended beneficiaries, but on Tuesday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was vaguer in describing the vessel's mission: "It is simply to make very clear that the US is capable and willing to defend its interests and the interests of its allies." And when Washington puts the military option on the table, it is probably not because it expects to lob missiles from the Mediterranean; it is to remind Syria that America has 160,000 soldiers in next-door Iraq.

In that sense, one Arabic newspaper may have gotten it right when it compared the USS Cole move to what the late Hafez Assad faced in 1998, when Turkey bullied the Syrians into expelling Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), from their territory. The Turks proved more to the point in that their commandos were routinely operating dozens of kilometers inside Syria in the Kamishli area, while Turkish armor was concentrated along the border. But Assad realized that Ocalan did not merit a war, so he instructed the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, briefly imported from Anjar, to say yes to pretty much any of the demands the Turks imposed. The result was the Adana Agreement of October 1998, a pragmatic Syrian capitulation.

Nothing so muscular seems to be taking place today. However, the US Treasury Department Bernanke-Changed-Course Nov-07 recently imposed financial sanctions on Rami Makhluf, the cousin of Bashar Assad, freezing his assets under US jurisdiction and prohibiting Americans from conducting business with him. But Makhluf is more than just a privileged Syrian getting fat through regime clout. He is the most powerful businessman in Syria and a financial leg of the Assad regime. While Makhluf and Syria's Lebanese peons responded, in chorus, that Makhluf had no assets under US jurisdiction, let alone did business with Americans, that wasn't especially relevant. To be placed on an American watch list is the anteroom to hell for anyone conducting financial affairs in the world, and Makhluf's accounts are reportedly already under international scrutiny.

A week after that decision, the Bush administration hit out against another lever of the Syrian regime: its ability to wreak havoc in Iraq. The US Treasury targeted four other Syrians under the same legislation used with Makhluf, particularly one Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, otherwise known as Abu Ghadiyah, who has played an important role in supporting Al-Qaeda operations in Iraq and in funneling militants via Syria. A primary objective in Washington today is to so cripple Al-Qaeda in Iraq, that a drawdown of US forces in the coming months would not substantially threaten the achievements of the "surge." At the same time, without a serious Al-Qaeda card in Syria's hand, a new American president would have no incentive to engage Damascus over Iraq's future.

To interpret the USS Cole's arrival in isolation of these two events, therefore, would be a mistake. We should add a third, equally appropriate development. While Turkey has of late tried to mediate between Syria and Israel, and is sometimes regarded by the Assad regime as a reliable neighborhood comrade, the fact is that Ankara has largely gotten over its bumpy interregnum with Washington, as shown by American acquiescence in the recent Turkish incursion into northern Iraq. Turkey is also considering buying an Israeli satellite, and selling one was a principal ambition of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on his visit to Ankara in mid-February. As security, particularly security with regard to the Kurds, rises on Turkey's list of priorities, the more reluctant it may be to cross America on its regional priorities - impairing Syria being one of them.

The USS Cole affair will blow over, but it is quite possible (at least if we believe the departing State Department official Nicholas Burns) that more economic sanctions will be imposed on Syria this year. The country's financial system is hardly as invulnerable as many claim. With oil reserves nearing their end and the Syrian government increasingly obliged to lift subsidies on essential products, in the midst of an international increase in prices no less, punitive measures can hurt. They're unlikely to change Syrian behavior much. However, taken in unison with the Hariri tribunal being set up in The Hague, the limited margin of maneuver of Syria's Lebanese allies, the abandonment of Al-Qaeda in Iraq by the country's Sunnis, growing Syrian isolation in the Arab world, Israel's apparent ability to act with impunity in the heart of the Syrian capital, and Turkey's collaboration with the US against the PKK, the Assad regime might at some point have to start overhauling its political calculations.

The Bush administration may already have succeeded in making Lebanon a "red line" in terms of a Syrian return. With its now-usual haste, the Assad regime has achieved precisely what it sought to avoid when it began its bid to reimpose its hegemony in Beirut: It focused the attention of all those in the Arab world and outside who have no intention of allowing this to happen. The mainly Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, agree that giving Syria and Iran a Lebanese victory would consolidate the "Shiite arc" they are so existentially afraid of. The US has a Lebanon policy today, and it won't be easy for a new president to reverse it if it means that America's Arab allies are harmed.

And what about Iraq? Despite learned analyses in the past two years affirming that Iraq was in a civil war, the violence has stopped short of Armageddon. There are many things the US can do wrong to undermine the pluses of the surge, but that will not change the fact that Al-Qaeda, Syria's sole weapon in Iraq's morass, is not something Iraqis, Arabs, or even Iranians are keen to see revived. If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq this week did not show Syria that Iranian-Iraqi normalization may come at Al-Qaeda's expense, then nothing will.

That's where US military browbeating comes in. No one bothered to console Syria all the times Israel bombed its territory or murdered someone in its capital; no one approves of Syrian efforts in Lebanon now; Syria is a nuisance in Gaza, so the prospect of a helping hand from Israel is doubtful, even if Syrian diplomats are talking to Israelis. The USS Cole reminds Syria that it is exposed, and that George W. Bush believes a weak Syria is the best means of protecting his policies in the Middle East.

1 comment:

EV said...

Nice analysis and good post.
If I read correctly between your lines, you stop short of stating that Syria is turning into a deck of cards that will soon collapse.