Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let's not be crushed by the Syria train

"Don't panic," the former US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, told his Lebanese friends at a conference organized jointly last week by the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and the Aspen Institute. And the Lebanese panicked, because the March 14 majority doesn't know how to make itself relevant as the transition in Washington accelerates, amid signs the Obama administration intends to engage Syria.

There is disconcerting haziness whenever American officials, past, present, or future, explain why it is time to talk to Syria. The principal argument is that the Syrians can be broken off from Iran and Hizbullah, that now is the time to pry Bashar Assad away from his dangerous liaisons. That reasoning, when not utterly na•ve, happens to be counter-intuitive. Assad knows that it is his dangerous liaisons that make engaging Syria desirable; the Syrians' strong card is their ability to dance with Iran and Hizbullah and Hamas and manipulate the Lebanese and Palestinian scenes while continuing to oversee mayhem in Iraq. For Assad to give all that up as a prerequisite for dealing with Washington is a non-starter. It would mean surrendering his leverage before getting down to the serious business of negotiations. Why should he do that?
Assad can read the dynamics as well as anybody. The reality is that it is the Americans who want a new relationship with Syria, so the onus is on them to make the concessions. Nor are the Syrians blind to the lessons of recent history. Hafez Assad spent decades playing the spoiler in the Middle East, many Americans were killed thanks to his efforts, but that only induced successive US administrations to pursue him with greater vigor. Syria has violated United Nations resolutions on Lebanon that the Bush administration considered vital, most damagingly Resolution 1701, but the fact is that Bashar Assad has paid no price for this and may soon be rewarded with heightened attention from the Obama administration.

Assad is under no great pressure from the US to give up anything significant. So why does the mood in Washington become so animated whenever the subject of dealing with Syria is brought up? Why does so potentially bad an arrangement seem high on the agenda of those in the Obama transition team dealing with Middle Eastern affairs?

The only convincing explanation is that the Americans are pining for the 1990s, when states rather than non-state actors happened to be more dominant in the region. As US policymakers look around these days, they see a disconcerting vista. In Lebanon, Hizbullah seems more powerful than the state; in the Palestinian areas, Hamas has a decisive advantage over the Palestinian Authority; in Egypt and Iraq, groups outside the reach of the state, or alienated from or inadequately integrated into the state, are challenging governments or ruling regimes. On the margins of the region, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamist movements, sometimes sponsored by state organs but also able to resist state authority, seem to be proliferating. A natural reaction of American diplomats and policymakers used to dealing with formal state structures is deep unease.

This the Syrians have skillfully understood. At a recent conference in Venice, I sat next to a Syrian doctor who several months ago was sent with colleagues to Washington to explain why Syria was worth opening up to. If one could distill his argument into a single phrase, it was this: "Syria is a state; it's best for everyone to bolster states in the Middle East against non-state actors." For many policymakers, the Syrian dictatorship remains attractive because it wards away the prospect of non-state Sunni Islamists taking over in Damascus. That Syria has been at the epicenter of efforts to arm and assist non-state actors such as Hizbullah, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda seems largely irrelevant to Western policymakers and opinion-shapers. In the absence of a desirable alternative to the Assad regime, the Syrians are making headway in marketing themselves abroad.

Which leads us back to the Lebanese panic - or at least the panic of those who understand that there are those in Washington who would welcome going back to the time when Syria could control Hizbullah. If the US preoccupation is with the growing power of non-state actors, then what better way to contain Hizbullah than by allowing a new form of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon? Reinforcing that argument is the fact that Israel has no real problem with it. According to reports, Israel and Syria advanced quite far over Lebanon in their talks in Turkey. If Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel's prime minister after his country's elections next February, one of the ways he might avoid making concessions on the Golan Heights is to cut Assad more slack in Lebanon.

Some US officials argue that Washington's engagement of Syria will help assure that Lebanon is not on the block in future Syrian-Israeli discussions. Perhaps, but if the Obama administration's priority is to inhibit Hizbullah, then we must be realistic: The sovereign Lebanon that emerged from the 2005 Independence Intifada is expendable, because that Lebanon has been unable to prevail over Hizbullah. Even within the US bureaucracy, those defending an independent Lebanon will have to persuade colleagues that a Lebanese state backed by Syria is less attractive to Washington and Israel than a weaker government that has been unable to extend its authority over all its national territory.

Does that mean an independent Lebanon is finished? Not necessarily. There are fundamental difficulties in a Syrian return to Lebanon, whichever form it might take: The Syrians need Hizbullah as leverage in their own talks with Israel. That means that far from weakening the party, they may only ensure that Hizbullah resumes its cross-border attacks. At the same time, Syria is incapable of fully imposing its writ on the party in the same way it could before 2005. Iran is now a major player on the scene, and there are many ways for the Iranians and Hizbullah to show that Syrian power in Lebanon is not what it used to be. This would make even less likely a Syrian-Iranian rift, however, since Syria could neither defeat Hizbullah militarily in that event, nor would it see any benefit in breaking with a party that has been its de facto enforcer in Beirut.
In other words, the Obama administration may soon come to realize that Syria doesn't have the means to give the US what it seeks in Lebanon. The Lebanese March 14 majority must see to it that while Obama is experimenting, an independent Lebanon survives. The majority has another strong suit, namely that it represents a far more desirable, pluralistic, even liberal Lebanese future than the despotism of Syria or the religious militancy of Hizbullah. However, March 14 has displayed crying incompetence in adapting to change in Washington, or shaping American attitudes in this transition period - for example by pushing for a delay in US engagement of Syria before the parliamentary elections next spring.

If the majority loses, alas we all lose. There is still a policy vacuum to be filled in Washington. There is still time for March 14 to fill that vacuum with practical proposals to ensure the US does not throw out the Lebanese independence baby with the bathwater when it chats up Assad. The Syria train is moving out in Washington, and the majority must ensure it will be on board.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The majority has another strong suit, namely that it represents a far more desirable, pluralistic, even liberal Lebanese future"

are you serious? A group Salafists and Wahabis , Totalitarian PSP Militia, Christian LF fanatics canno't be described as Liberal!