Thursday, September 23, 2010

What price for Bashar Assad's backing?

Walid Jumblatt has been apocalyptic in predicting what lies ahead for Lebanon. The Druze leader may be overstating things, but is legitimately worried about a Sunni-Shiite conflict over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. He is also apparently defining a new role for himself: that of midwife to a Syrian military return to Lebanon.

“We’re heading toward civil war if things remain as they are,” Jumblatt told me this week.

“What about the Syrians?” I asked.

“We should stop this fixation on the Syrians. They can’t do anything if the situation begins deteriorating; they don’t have troops on the ground,” he replied.

“But they would like to,” I said.

“And why not, I would support this,” Jumblatt interjected; “This is not a nation but a collection of tribes. You can quote me.”

When Jumblatt makes such statements, there is usually something behind it. After the Burj Abi Haidar clashes, Wi’am Wahhab, a faithful conveyor of the Syrian mindset, warned that Damascus would intervene using all possible means to prevent a Sunni-Shiite conflict in Lebanon. At the time Jumblatt and the parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, also played up the sectarian nature of the fighting, implying that foreign, read Syrian, intercession might one day be required.

That the Syrians never abandoned the idea of returning to Lebanon militarily after 2005 is and always was evident. But it’s not easy, because those with the most to lose from Syria’s comeback are Iran and Hizbullah. Neither Damascus nor Tehran will enter into open conflict over Lebanon, since their interests coincide on many fronts. However, after five years during which Hizbullah took hold of the commanding heights of the Lebanese state, transforming it into an Iranian card in the Levant, the party has no desire, and Iran no intention, of reverting to the time when Hizbullah hewed to Syrian priorities.

Where is Syria today? The elusiveness of an answer has confused both Hizbullah and Saad Hariri, with his Saudi sponsors. It appears the Saudis are angry with Syria’s President Bashar Assad for allowing Hizbullah, through General Jamil al-Sayyed, and Michel Aoun to attack the prime minister as they have. More important, the Saudis are unhappy that their agreement with Syria over Iraq is unraveling, now that Assad appears to have embraced the Iranian and American view that Nouri al-Maliki must be reappointed prime minister in Baghdad. The Saudis had hoped that, with Syrian backing, they could derail that project, but Assad has little leverage in Iraq, other than violence, to oppose a tacit American-Iranian understanding.

That is why Hariri arrived from Saudi Arabia this week raising the ante, declaring that he would continue to support the special tribunal. A report on MTV Tuesday suggested that a Saudi envoy (unnamed, but presumably King Abdullah’s son Abdel-Aziz) visited Damascus and told the Syrians that they were not respecting the agreement reached in Beirut last month between Assad and King Abdullah. The agreement held that all disputes would be settled within the national unity government, and that stability in Lebanon would prevail.

If the report is correct, the envoy was engaged in a preemptive move, because until now Syria has held up its end of the bargain. While the ramifications of the Burj Abi Haidar incident are still obscure, the bottom line of that confrontation was that in the future if Hizbullah decides on a military operation in western Beirut to intimidate Hariri, it might find itself fighting pro-Syrian Sunni armed groups.

As for bringing down the government, the recent arrest by the Internal Security Forces’ Information Branch of Fayez Karam, an adviser to Michel Aoun, for allegedly being an Israeli spy, is a convenient deterrent to Aoun. The general may discover that if he were to follow Hizbullah out of the government, others in his entourage might suddenly be accused of Israeli ties. And as Aoun knows, the Information Branch has been coordinating with the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh. The Karam arrest may well have been concocted in Beirut and Damascus.

What worries the Saudis is that Assad will give up on the Beirut agreement once he faces Hizbullah and Iranian determination to undermine the Hariri tribunal. When the Hizbullah parliamentarian Nawaf al-Musawi describes an indictment against Hizbullah as “a new May 17 agreement,” in reference to the Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal agreement of 1983; when the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, plans to visit Beirut in mid-October largely to reassert his stake in Lebanon’s future; when those things occur, it is understandable that the Saudis doubt Syrian resolve, above and beyond their natural fear of Syrian duplicity.

Hizbullah is putting out word that it may soon strike a debilitating blow against the tribunal. Perhaps, but what would the consequences be? Assad spent years patiently bringing Saad Hariri and the Sunnis back to Syria’s door. He managed to get Hariri to declare Syria innocent of Rafik Hariri’s murder. Assad also reintegrated Syria into the Arab fold through his reconciliation with the Saudis, while avoiding a divorce with Iran. It’s doubtful that Syria would surrender these gains by allowing Hizbullah to devastate the Sunnis, now once again allies of Damascus, unless of course Assad can take advantage of the ensuing sectarian conflagration to bring Syrian soldiers back to Lebanon.

That’s a long shot. Hariri is playing for time, awaiting the tribunal’s indictment, after which he possibly imagines that he can bargain with Hizbullah over the party’s weapons. That is terribly optimistic, especially as Syria will have demands of its own. But Syria’s ambiguity on the tribunal and on stability in Lebanon will persist – its playing both sides of the Lebanese coin. This worries everyone, and Assad is delighted. Worrying everyone makes him more valuable, and it means he can raise his price on all comers, Iranian and Saudi.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just want to say thank you for republishing these articles. They are very interesting and I wouldn't know where else to get good opinion on Lebanon.