Friday, December 14, 2007

Syria prepares its grand comeback

To better understand the assassination of General Francois Hajj on Wednesday morning in Baabda, one has to view it against the backdrop of the statement by Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa a day earlier. At a conference of Syria's National Progressive Front, Sharaa declared that "Syria's friends in Lebanon represent a true force on the ground, and no one in Lebanon is able to harm Syria and Lebanon."

One of the things most disturbing to the Syrians about the decision of the March 14 coalition to support army commander Michel Suleiman was that this was apparently preceded by commitments on both sides. One such commitment appeared to have been agreement on a new army commander, or a list of potential army commanders. Hajj, despite the opposition's effort to paint his killing as a blow against Michel Aoun, was actually Suleiman's man and was reportedly one of those on the list.

The message, therefore, was that for Suleiman to become president, he has to, first, renounce all previous commitments reached with March 14 and enter into new arrangements with the "true force on the ground."

The Syrians are accelerating their return to Lebanon, and the disastrous French initiative on the presidency only confirmed to them that the international community would readily engage Syria on Lebanon. As for the United States, it has been comatose - caught between the constraints of the Annapolis process (if a process it is) and the need to reduce pressure on Iran after the release last week of a National Intelligence Estimate affirming that Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. The French and the Americans have been neutralized in Lebanon, and while this can be reversed, Sharaa's remarks showed the extent of Syrian confidence.

Things are more complicated with regard to the Arab states. Saudi-Syrian hostility continues unabated, and a paramount Syrian objective in imposing a Lebanese presidential vacuum is to gain leverage for Syria's triumphal re-entry into the Arab fold. The intended date is next March, when the Arab League summit is to be held in Damascus. The Assad regime would like the gathering to consecrate its return to regional prominence, and Lebanon is Syria's hostage to bring that about.

For the moment leading Arab states aren't playing ball. At a press conference on Tuesday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Gheit shot down reports that a mini-summit was to be held soon between Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Palestinians. He also downplayed prospects for a regional peace summit in Moscow next year, which the Syrians hope will place the Golan Heights issue back on the table.

But will the Arabs stick to their guns? Syria humiliated the Saudis and Egyptians by undermining their separate efforts to sponsor an inter-Palestinian settlement. Damascus is now blocking Suleiman's arrival in Lebanon, although both Egypt and Saudi Arabia approve of the general. Less clear, however, are the calculations of King Abdullah of Jordan. His apparent engagement of the Assad regime suggests he is willing to be more flexible on a Syrian role in Lebanon if this can help calm the Palestinian front, thereby buying Jordan a measure of domestic stability.

Whichever way you cut it, Lebanon is in for many more months of anxiety. However, the imbroglio over the presidency makes you wonder whether the Syrians have a clear-cut presidential strategy. Syria has impeded the election of a bevy of allies, likely friends, or fellow travelers who were acceptable to March 14, including Robert Ghanem, Michel Edde, and Suleiman. Their treatment of Suleiman in particular reveals that they don't quite trust the Lebanese Army, and that they certainly don't want a new army commander who might reverse pervasive Syrian infiltration of the senior officer corps.

Creating a vacuum is not a strategy; it is a tactic designed to bring someone to power on Syria's terms. Damascus wants exclusivity in the next Lebanese president, but without its armed forces in the country to impose this, a new officeholder might prove too independent. That's why we should doubt Sharaa when he says, as he did on Tuesday, that Syria does not intend to return to Lebanon "militarily or in a security capacity." But it's also why, in believing that they cannot dominate the Lebanese without an armed presence, the Syrians might be overreaching. The Syrian move into Lebanon in 1976 required a regional and international consensus, as well as an Israeli green light, and was formalized by the Arab League. That's unlikely to happen again today. In forcing the issue, doesn't the Assad regime risk provoking a powerful local, regional and international backlash that might ultimately scuttle its plans?

Then again, a direr scenario is just as plausible. What remains of the Cedar Revolution is under mortal threat, with March 14 increasingly disoriented and without imagination. The coalition's Christian policy is a shambles, allowing Michel Aoun to continue conning many of his coreligionists into believing that he best represents their interests, even as he perpetuates the presidential vacuum to undermine Suleiman. Amid such chaos, no wonder the Syrians feel they are but a step away from reversing the losses of 2005. And so repulsive are the divisions within Lebanese society that we must seriously worry that the West and the Arab states will soon quietly agree to subcontract Lebanon to Syria again.

That's what the Syrians are hoping. They are convinced that the logic of the gun will prevail. When a substantial proportion of Lebanese society is either actively or objectively working on Syria's behalf, it's difficult to blame them. Yesterday was the second anniversary of Gebran Tueni's assassination. It is dawning upon us, certainly too late, that he and all the other murder victims of the past two years probably went in vain. That's no surprise when so many Lebanese are taking their country in vain.

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