Thursday, October 7, 2010

Syria's sleight of hand gives it regional standing

If any relationship today speaks to the new dynamics in the Middle East, it is that between Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The volatile nature of those dynamics has complicated ties between Riyadh and Damascus, when the Saudi regime would have preferred more clarity. At the heart of Saudi worries is Iraq, while at the centre of Syria's preoccupations is Lebanon.

Earlier this month the two countries sought to reach an understanding that might advance their interests in both places. At a summit in Damascus, followed by a visit to Beirut, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Bashar Assad of Syria agreed to a deal that went something like this: Syria would collaborate with the Saudis in derailing the appointment of Nouri al Maliki as prime minister of Iraq, while the Saudis would push Saad Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister who is politically beholden to Riyadh, to end his government's co-operation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon established to try suspects in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Syria remains the major suspect in the crime.

In Lebanon, the two Arab leaders endorsed a statement that Lebanese disputes would be settled in the framework of the national unity government. This was regarded as an effort to avert violence in light of Hizbollah's threats that all options were open to the party to undermine Lebanese support for the tribunal, which its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, had described as an "Israeli project".

The understanding stabilised Lebanon, but not for long. Each side felt the other had not respected its engagements. Syria, with few means to shape Iraqi affairs and facing Iranian and American backing for Mr al Maliki's return, rallied to that option. In turn the Syrians accused the Saudis of failing to push Mr Hariri to abandon the tribunal, even though they had compelled the prime minister to make a statement to a Saudi newspaper casting doubt on the institution's work and virtually declaring Syria innocent of his father's killing.

Despite the strains, the Syrians and Saudis will probably try to preserve their understanding. The Saudis are deeply uneasy that Mr al Maliki may come back, and even more so that this was facilitated by Iran and blessed by the United States.

For Riyadh, the new situation only consolidates an Iranian-led Shiite order in Baghdad, even if one can dispute that Mr al Maliki is Tehran's stooge. Consequently, the Saudis hope to gain by maintaining open channels to Syria, since both need to retain a hand in Iraqi affairs as part of their regional leverage.

In Lebanon, the situation is thornier. The Saudis have effectively signed off on a Syrian political revival there, hoping this will contain Hizbollah. However, Riyadh holds a weak hand. The Syrians have spent more time undercutting Mr Hariri than they have treating him as an ally. Thanks to the tension over the special tribunal, Mr Assad has been playing Mr Hariri off against Hizbollah to Syria's advantage, while strengthening his ties with Iran. Indeed, last week the Syrian president made a much-publicised visit to Tehran, reiterating the closeness of the Syrian-Iranian relationship.

The Saudis are gambling that Syrian self-interest will prevail in Lebanon. Mr Assad wants to dominate alone, they believe, and seeks once again to make Lebanon more a Syrian than an Iranian card. That may be true, and it is why Mr Hariri continues to defend his reconciliation with Syria, even though last weekend the Syrian judiciary issued arrest warrants for Lebanese officials and journalists, most of whom are close to the prime minister. The problem with the Saudi calculation is that if Mr Assad does reassert Syrian hegemony in Beirut, Mr Hariri and the Saudis will be marginalised.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Saudis were at the heart of the Arab balancing game, their principal objective to ward instability away from the kingdom's borders while ensuring that no one rival gained the upper hand in the region. Syria took advantage of this, earning Saudi approval for its military takeover of Lebanon, while also aligning itself with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, against the Arab consensus. For Hafez Assad this served several purposes: it allowed him to counterbalance his great foe, Saddam Hussein; it made gaining Syrian approval more expensive for the Arab states; and it allowed Assad to manoeuvre between the Arabs and Iran, permitting him to exploit their enmities.

Today, Bashar Assad is replicating his father's policies, but he has more to play with. Syria's rapport with a powerful Iran has bought it valuable space with respect to the Arab states, so that in the past five years Mr Assad reimposed his writ in Lebanon over Saudi and Egyptian opposition thanks to his alliance with Hizbollah. Syria has also gained a stake in Hamas, along with Iran, and therefore can hinder Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. And Mr Assad has opened up to Turkey, which has served as a mediator between Syria and Israel, allowing him to circumvent Arab or Iranian opposition to talks if required.

The irony is that Syria, on its own, suffers from glaring political vulnerabilities. Its influence in Iraq is largely restricted to subverting the country's security; on the Palestinian track, it is Iran, not Damascus, that is footing Hamas's bills; on the ground in Lebanon, Syria has had to depend heavily on Hizbollah during recent years, while its own partisans are feeble; and when it comes to Israel, Syria has consistently avoided a military confrontation, and remained silent when the Israelis destroyed an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

Yet Mr Assad has persuaded one and all, including the Saudis, that Syria is a major player. Being a good illusionist can do wonders, but it also explains why Syria is so often difficult to trust.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

For laughs

Just wanted to share the following e-mail from Amazon with the readers of this blog. If anything, it shows that readers of Michael Young have quite a wide range of interests:-)

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An arresting development

Last week an amusing rumor circulated in Beirut. It went like this: The former head of the General Security Directorate, Jamil as-Sayyed, irritated the Syrians by using his meeting with President Bashar al-Assad to lend weight to his subsequent public attack against Saad al-Hariri. Assad had not appreciated being turned into a tool for the assault because he did not share Sayyed’s hostility toward Hariri.

Now we know better, given that Syria’s judiciary issued arrest warrants on Sunday for 33 people, most of them officials and journalists close to Hariri, as well as against Detlev Mehlis, the first commissioner of the United Nations team investigating Rafik al-Hariri’s assassination. Here is the other face of Syria’s double game in Lebanon: On the one side it claims to support Saad Hariri and appears reluctant to allow Hezbollah to politically cripple the prime minister; on the other, Damascus has systematically undermined Hariri itself.

Those around Hariri have questioned what Syrian behavior says about the Saudi-Syrian understanding over Lebanon finalized in meetings earlier this summer between King Abdullah and Assad. However, this attitude is naïve. Syria’s prime consideration in Lebanon for decades has been to rule alone, and the Saudis signed off on the understanding to gain advantages elsewhere, above all in Iraq, where Riyadh hoped that Syria might help it derail Nouri al-Maliki’s prime ministerial bid. That the Syrians failed in this regard was never going to make Assad reconsider the Lebanese part of the bargain.

The Syrian president sees open pastures ahead for resurrecting Syrian domination. The arrest warrants represent a new level of Syrian escalation, apparently in response to the Saudis’ inability or unwillingness to make Hariri give up on the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Playing the Sunnis off against the Shia through the tribunal is Syria’s main ticket back into Lebanese affairs. While Assad may not sanction a military strike by Hezbollah against Hariri, as this would deny Damascus the latitude to continue playing the Sunni card, other options are open, including provoking tension on the ground.

What does this tell us about the Syrian-Saudi understanding? Is it finished? Things appear to be more complicated. The Syrians gain from the understanding and are likely to preserve it since they are now able to continuously reinterpret its guidelines to their own advantage. They have abandoned the anti-Maliki scheme; they are keeping Hariri weak; and Damascus has just reaffirmed its relationship with Tehran, days before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to fly to Lebanon on an official visit.

The problem for the Saudis is that there is not much they can do about Syrian behavior. They offered Assad a green light back into Lebanon, but never stopped to ask what would happen if the Syrians failed to fulfill their end of the bargain. As things stand today, the Saudis need Assad in Lebanon to stand as a barrier between Hezbollah and the Sunnis, while Assad needs the Saudis far less. Hariri is effectively Syria’s hostage, and his only means of leverage, a refusal to give up on the tribunal, is proving highly contentious.

Making matters worse is that even if Hariri does what the Syrians want him to on the tribunal, that will only invite onerous Syrian demands later. Once he loses the tribunal, the Syrians could easily topple his government by asking more than a third of ministers to resign (and Adnan al-Sayyed Hussein, supposedly from President Michel Sleiman’s quota, would comply). Damascus could then compel Walid Jumblatt to side with Hezbollah and the Aounists in parliament, turning the minority into a majority. This would allow Assad to impose a Lebanese government in which Hariri’s power is greatly reduced. If Hariri refuses, Syria could bring in a more pliable prime minister, taking control of the state and security apparatus.

It’s difficult to see how the Saudis, or all those who have publicly defended Lebanese sovereignty, including the United States and France, might halt this process. Onetime Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are no longer what they used to be. If the Arab states give him trouble today, Assad can simply shift direction and widen his margin of maneuver by dealing with Iran or Turkey.

The Lebanese have been worried about what might happen in the streets if Beirut does not end its collaboration with the Special Tribunal. But that is only the façade for a broader power play by Syria to reimpose its writ in Lebanon. The Saudis feel duped, but is anyone particularly surprised? We could have told them they would be long before Lebanese sovereignty was thrown on the auction block.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Apocalypse now? Maybe not

Hezbollah has been spreading word that it may soon implement an apocalyptic scenario to prevent Lebanese collaboration with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Will the party carry through on that threat? Everything is possible, but this would be no easy task.

The scenario, in its multiple variations, involves Hezbollah’s militarily taking over predominantly Muslim areas of Beirut or Lebanon (the different versions don’t define precisely which), place its adversaries under house arrest, then accuse them of collaborating with Israel for supporting the Special Tribunal, which Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, has labeled an “Israeli project.” Hezbollah would also ask the Lebanese army to control mainly Christian areas and detain politicians there backing the tribunal. The end result would be a coup of sorts, followed by the formation of a pliable government.

Some point to comments by Hezbollah’s Nawwaf al-Moussawi as rationalizing such a coup. Moussawi recently declared, “[T]he period that will follow the [tribunal] indictment will not be the same as the one before, and any group in Lebanon that might endorse this indictment will be treated as one of the tools of the US-Israeli invasion, and will suffer the same fate as the invader.”

Nothing can be ruled out with Hezbollah, but there are serious problems with this scheme, if the party indeed intends to carry it out. Would such a strike come before or after indictments are issued by the tribunal? There is a big difference. If the party acts before, it would have a hard time justifying and sustaining an operation based on an as-yet-nonexistent accusation. Hezbollah would only further incriminate itself, while the army might refuse to go along.

The essential question that Hezbollah would have to answer is where Syria stands on a military putsch. The party mistrusts the Syrians, and for good reason. The priority of President Bashar al-Assad today is to reassert Syrian domination over Lebanon. While he has no desire to enter into a confrontation with Hezbollah or Iran, Assad wants Lebanon once again to be primarily a Syrian card, therefore less of an Iranian one. Assad’s alleged advice to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he postpone his visit to South Lebanon in October, if true, might indicate the Syrian president is delineating his territory.

Syria has made a habit of double-dealing in Lebanon. However, it seems unlikely that it would welcome a debilitating assault against Saad Hariri and the Sunni community. The Syrians have spent years bringing Hariri and the Sunnis back to their door after the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The Sunnis, in their fear and loathing of Hezbollah, have been willing to forget the past with Damascus. This has allowed Assad to play the Sunnis off against the Shia to Syria’s greater advantage. In this context it would make no sense for Assad to sign off on a Hezbollah operation that would deny Syria the valuable Sunni relationship it has carefully fostered.

There is also the fact that this time around, any military move by Hezbollah is almost certain to lead to a Sunni-Shia civil war. The Bourj Abi Haidar clash was a foreshadowing of what might happen, and there it was pro-Syrian Sunnis who were involved. The Syrians doubtless benefit from Sunni-Shia tension, and Lebanese politicians close to Damascus, most recently Walid Jumblatt, have declared that a Syrian military return to Lebanon would be welcome if sectarian conflict breaks out. However, for Syria to provoke such a conflict to bring its troops back is risky. Sunni-Shia fighting could quickly become uncontrollable, offers no guarantees that Syria will be given a green light to dispatch its soldiers, and might well spread to Syria.

Assad probably prefers, at least initially, less violent means of reasserting his authority in Lebanon. An indictment against Hezbollah offers this. Despite Damascus’ public hostility to the tribunal, once an accusation comes out, it would permit Assad to position himself between Hariri and Hezbollah, and take from each side. He would have leverage to obtain from Hezbollah key posts in the military-security apparatus the party controls and Syria seeks – command of the army, of military intelligence, of General Security, of airport security, and so forth. And once Assad gets what he wants, he can force concessions from Hariri for having saved him from Hezbollah, while pushing the prime minister (with Saudi backing) to end, or more likely hinder, Lebanese assistance to the tribunal.

Hezbollah knows that that any sectarian conflict it precipitates would only hasten a Syrian military comeback and rally the party’s domestic foes to Syria’s side. Which makes one wonder whether Jumblatt, in welcoming a new Syrian deployment in Lebanon, was not implicitly warning Hezbollah against engaging in reckless action.

If Hezbollah were to ignore these obstacles and pursue a military option against Syrian wishes, this could harm Syrian-Iranian relations. The party does not have such leeway. In the end it would be up to Iran to decide whether Hezbollah negotiates with Damascus or not. And that is why the timing of any Hezbollah move is essential. Once an indictment is out, talks would begin over how to save Hezbollah. The party’s ability to go for its guns might evaporate as its fate swiftly falls into the hands of Damascus and Tehran.

If Tehran were to receive guarantees from Syria that Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal would be preserved, and that Tehran’s deterrent power in southern Lebanon would remain intact (guarantees that Assad would gladly offer), the Iranians could perhaps approve a package deal obliging Hezbollah to surrender some power to Damascus. That is what Nasrallah fears the most, but he may be the prisoner of a trap he cannot escape – a trap the Syrians helped set.