The decision of President Barack Obama to make a series of recess appointments that, among other things, sent Robert Ford to Damascus as the new US ambassador, continues to provoke a gnashing of teeth in Washington. But the White House might, first, want to read an American diplomatic cable from February 2006 to see just how the Syrian regime plays hardball to achieve its aims.
The cable in question was written by the then-charge d’affaires in Damascus, Stephen Seche, and followed the burning of the Danish Embassy offices in the city – as well as the Swedish and Chilean embassies housed in the same building. The attack occurred in the aftermath of the publication by a Danish newspaper of unflattering cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.
According to Seche, a Sunni sheikh, described as “one of the most influential Sunni religious figures in Damascus,” seemed to “confirm [Syrian government] involvement in escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in Damascus two days earlier, including communications between [Prime Minister Naji al-Otri’s] office and the Grand Mufti.” The cable went on to report that the “Danish ambassador confirmed to us separately that the minister of the awqaaf [religious endowments] had inflamed the situation the day before the rioting, with his remarks at Friday prayers in a mosque.”
According to the Sunni sheikh, Otri’s office instructed the grand mufti to issue “a strongly worded directive” to imams so that they would condemn the Danish cartoons in their sermons, “without setting any ceilings on the type of language to be used.” Otri also reportedly told the grand mufti and the minister of religious endowments that if Danish or Norwegian representatives tried to deliver apologies to them and seek their assistance in defusing the situation, “that they were to take a hard line and insist that the only way forward was for the [prime ministers] of the countries to issue official apologies.”
The cable also noted that a businessman close to the regime and to the grand mufti had played a key role in organizing the march on the embassies. The authorities “allowed the rioting to continue for an extended period and then, when [they] felt that ‘the message had been delivered,’ [they] reacted with serious threats of force to stop it.”
Most interesting was how the sheikh interpreted the rioting, and the message that the Syrian regime sought to send to the U.S. and the international community: “‘This is what you will have if we allow true democracy and allow Islamists to rule.’ To the Islamic street all over the region, the message was that the [Syrian government] is protecting the dignity of Islam, and that the [Syrian government] is allowing Muslims freedom on the streets of Damascus they are not allowed on the streets of Cairo, Amman or Tunis.”
Here, with great concision, was a description of the Syrian regime’s complex, contradictory modus operandi when it comes to Sunni Islamists. The sheikh, plainly, had no patience for the shallow line peddled in the West that a “secular” Baathist regime like that of President Bashar Assad is incapable of cooperating with Islamists, or of manipulating religious militancy to its advantage. And you have to wonder what ultimately happened to the sheikh, who is easily identifiable by his title in the leaked cable. Perhaps Julian Assange, flush from signing a lucrative book contract, can investigate for us, at least before asserting once more that his actions harm nobody.
Some observers view this cable as meriting far greater attention than it has received. To them, all the ingredients of Syrian political behavior are distilled in a single incident: the intimidation of foreign representatives, despite their diplomatic status; the blackmailing of the Danish and Norwegian governments; the exploitation of religion as a means of bolstering a Syrian regime that has long struggled to garner religious legitimacy; the bold resort to mob violence, but always behind a curtain of respectable deniability; and the willingness to resort to more violence, this time against the mob, if demonstrators failed to obey the instructions of the security services to desist.
It’s difficult to disagree. What we see is Syria simultaneously being an arsonist and a fireman. And this role is precisely the one Assad is striving to play in Lebanon today as he tries to regain a foothold in the country through the mechanism of a still-elusive Saudi-Syrian understanding. Whether it is Syrian state media or Syrian officials, the message is the same: If the Lebanese government does not take measures to undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, this could lead to fresh insecurity in Beirut. At the same time, the Syrians are also trying to paint themselves as the only ones who can preserve Lebanese stability, if only their supremacy over Lebanon is recognized.
It’s a shame that some countries continue to give Syria the benefit of the doubt. France, for instance, regards Syria as a stabilizing force in Lebanon, even as Damascus and its Lebanese allies push hard to neutralize the special tribunal, which France insists it supports. The Syrians are open about their intentions to reshape the political landscape in Beirut in their favor. For them, this comes through the weakening of Hariri, isolation of March 14 groups most strenuously resisting a Syrian comeback, and hints that it is time to redistribute political power to the benefit of the Shiite community.
Each of these ideas is a potential minefield exacerbating tensions that Damascus will attempt to make the most of. Those with high hopes when relying on Syria, like those who have just decided to resend their ambassador to the country, should be conscious of what is likely to lie ahead. The Assad regime will go all the way to increase its sway over Lebanon while protecting itself at home, and being a fire-starter is the principal means to those ends. WikiLeaks might keep us posted.