Thursday, August 28, 2008

Might Lebanon face what Georgia did?

Might Lebanon face what Georgia did?
By Michael Young
Commentary by
Thursday, August 28, 2008

It was remarkable that so few Lebanese politicians responded to the statements that Bashar Assad made last week to a Russian business magazine, in which the Syrian president said that what Russia faced in Georgia was similar to what Syria faced in Lebanon. Assad's argument was contained in one particular phrase, where he plainly also had Syria in mind: "On this issue we fully support Russia. The war, which was unleashed by Georgia, is the culmination of attempts to encircle and isolate Russia."

Only Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, apparently had a long enough memory to link Assad's comments to the Syrian leader's previous support, voiced on a trip to Ankara in October 2007, of Turkey's right to conduct cross-border attacks inside Iraq against Kurdish militants of the PKK. This also happened to be a preoccupation of American officials at the time. Some of them linked it to a campaign in the Syrian-allied Lebanese media then accusing the previous Siniora government of wanting to set up American bases in Lebanon to mount forward operations against Syria and counter the Russian military presence there.

So Assad is back full circle again on Russia - as a country with a vested interest in helping Syria, since both face a similar American challenge. Then again, Assad is also instructing those around him (as one can see from the commentary by David Ignatius below) to put out word that Syria would agree to direct talks with Israel if these were co-sponsored by the United States and France. The proposal is not new; Syrian officials have floated the idea before, but Assad, who follows his late father's playbook in its general lines, sees an opportunity to play Moscow and Washington off against each other, just as Hafiz Assad did during the Cold War.

The world has changed, however, and Russia's recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence may have backfired against Assad. The western European states, inasmuch as they can ever express outrage, are outraged. So too is the United States, which is sending its vice president, Dick Cheney, to Tbilisi and its warships to the Georgian port of Poti, only a few dozen meters away from Russian soldiers deployed there. Assad may be trying to have his way with both sides, but given the present mood condemning Russian actions, his statements of encouragement for Russia may have been premature, showing only that bullies side with bullies.

If Russian behavior in Georgia continues to rancorously divide the international community, Assad could soon find it more difficult to maneuver between the Americans and the Russians, and to use his indirect talks with Israel as a means of reopening a channel to the United States. He could also find it relatively more difficult to play border games with Lebanon as the Russians have been doing in Georgia, because many more people would be watching a man who has several times so transparently relayed his thoughts on the rights of states to protect themselves by violating the sovereignty of their neighbors.

That vigilance is even more likely in light of a United Nations report just released on the passage of weapons across the Lebanese-Syrian border. The report was commissioned some 18 months ago by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to determine whether Resolution 1701 was being respected. Its conclusion is that the Syrian-Lebanese border is wide open to arms smuggling, and that neither Syria nor Lebanon has done anything to stop this. It is through that border that the Fatah al-Islam leadership entered Lebanon before the Nahr al-Bared fighting; and it is along or near that border that Syrian-backed Palestinian groups have military bases and training camps, allowing them fairly easy access into Lebanon.

Saudi and Egyptian interest lately in calming the situation in Tripoli suggests that both countries are worried about Syrian efforts to exploit the tensions in northern Lebanon - tensions Damascus has been quietly accused of heightening. Indeed, the North is the one place where Syria would be expected to play dangerous cross-border games if it could establish that it faced a Salafist or an Islamist threat from Lebanon. And if it were to do so, many people in the United States and Europe would almost certainly fall into the trap of siding with the Assad regime. The result could be policy confusion in places like Washington, Paris, and at the UN in New York, with Syria exploiting this to strengthen its allies in Lebanon, much as the Russians did the Abkhazians and South Ossetians.

Is this scenario very likely today? Perhaps not, given that the Sunnis have remained united and that such a scheme would only undermine President Michel Sleiman, with whom the Syrians appear willing to work for the moment. The international backlash against Russia would not make Assad's task any easier. However, the Syrians could just be buying an option, creating a situation that might or might not be exploited in the future depending on the political situation. For example, if the Hariri tribunal, which it is said will start its work early next year, poses a problem for the Assad regime, a border crisis implying that the regime is threatened by militant Islamists could turn into a useful intrusion.

Sleiman is not keen to spoil the congenial mood created during his recent visit to Damascus. But when Syria's head of state essentially says that Lebanon is a danger to his country, and uses this as a parallel to justify the Russian invasion of Georgia, it's up to Lebanon's president to say something, anything. But you have to wonder if there are many people in Beirut who quite understood Assad's veiled threat.

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