Thursday, September 4, 2008

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here

Beware, the Friends of Bashar are here
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, September 04, 2008

Not very long ago, you will remember, there was the Friends of Lebanon group of states, whose declared aim was to defend Lebanese sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence, democratic institutions, and what have you. Meeting today in Damascus is a new fraternity, the Friends of Bashar. It includes the emir of Qatar, the prime minister of Turkey, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and their aim is to ensure that the Assad regime remains in power and breaks out of the international and regional isolation imposed on it after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Sarkozy has proven to be the most destructive of opportunists here. After having negotiated a mediocre agreement in Georgia that allowed Russia to pursue its military actions there under the guise of defensive measures, yesterday in Damascus the French president waded into the Shebaa Farms imbroglio, with the same ostentation and shallowness. Sarkozy's true purpose was plain on Tuesday when he declared that peace in the Middle East "went through France and Syria," and that his aim was to see Syria "regaining its place in the concert of nations."

Months ago, after Michel Sleiman's election, the French set some conditions for their opening to Syria, particularly the establishment of diplomatic relations between Damascus and Beirut. We're still waiting. This was largely a pretense. Sarkozy never had any intention of turning those conditions into obstacles blocking French overtures to Bashar Assad, because he is so keen to fill some role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Lebanon is an irritant on that front. The Syrians want their peace talks with Israel to be a highway to Washington; Sarkozy is willing to broker that rapprochement if France is given a seat at the negotiating table too; however Syria will only play seriously on the peace front if it can reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon; therefore France will look the other way as Assad rebuilds in Beirut what he was made to abandon in 2005.

For the moment the United States refuses to go along with this, and has informed the French it would continue isolating Syria. But that may be nearing its end because the Bush administration is nearing its end. A new administration, whether Republican or Democrat, will probably alter US policy toward Syria, and those in Lebanon concerned with their country's sovereignty should take heed. President Michel Sleiman has traveled to France, then to Damascus, and this week flew to Qatar to yet again thank Emir Hamad for sponsoring the Doha agreement. However, a visit to Washington at this stage is necessary, because Sleiman needs to urgently offset the influence of the Friends of Bashar.

Sleiman apparently intends to fly to Washington in the near future. However, the president has no desire to transform this into leverage against Syria, nor would that be sensible at this stage. George W. Bush is leaving next January, so whatever he commits to might only last that long. However, and by the same token, Sleiman would make a mistake if he failed to use the trip to prepare for when Bush is gone. If the point is just to get a White House photo-op, then Sleiman might as well ask that his picture be taken with a cardboard effigy of Bush, because the US president is not only a lame duck, he's now virtually a dead one.

Where Sleiman would gain is by building up networks of relations in the US Congress, in the presidential campaigns, and in the think-tank community, which has been active, reprehensibly so, in encouraging American policymakers to open up to Syria. In fact, Bashar Assad has had a battery of promoters and objective allies in such places as the United States Institute of Peace, the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment, and the International Crisis Group, to name only them, all of which have urged engagement of Damascus, all of which have willfully ignored or papered over Syria's role in the Hariri assassination.

However, is Sleiman willing to go through with such an effort? Who in his entourage might be able to follow up on his contacts with the Americans? These are all questions the president will need to answer before embarking on his American tour, unless his plan is to avoid making the journey count for very much. And if that is indeed the case, then we would have to assume that little has changed in the Syrian-Lebanese relationship since 2005, with Lebanon's foreign policy still regarded by decision-makers in Beirut as a dispensation of the Assad regime.

Sleiman, if he hopes to plot a course even mildly independent from Syria, must make his American trip work. But the Syrians have a head start. The Friends of Bashar have repeatedly shown how little concerned they are by Syrian behavior in Lebanon - or more accurately, how little concerned they are by Syria's pursuing its destabilization of the country while imposing red lines on elected officials, on ministers, and on military and security appointees. Sleiman needs to guarantee that he has enough pull in the US so that come next year, if a new administration talks to the Assad regime, Lebanon will not once again be Syria's meal.

Why is it so difficult to be optimistic? Perhaps because Sleiman has a lot going for him politically, but still seems too timid by half. Because he seems so keen to market Syria to the world, as he did last week when he urged the international community to "open up" to Damascus, without anyone having requested such altruism. And because the Friends of Bashar are doing their damnedest to save the skin of a man who has never shown any sign of recognizing Lebanese independence, while the Lebanese don't seem to have a clue as to who will save their skins.

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