Avoiding the Road to Damascus

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Despite the pall of wartime smoke obscuring much of southern Lebanon these days, one thing is clear: Syria bruised, battered and all but chalked up as road kill by the Bush Administration is again proving it is a political force which will not be ignored.

The United States and international community refused to engage Syria in stringing together UN resolution 1701, an agreement which is meant to silence the guns in Lebanon and pave the way for lasting peace. It is unlikely to achieve its first goal and unable to provide the last.

Israel signed up to the ceasefire reserving the right to keep up to 20,000 troops in southern Lebanon and engage in ‘defensive’ actions against the militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah. For its part, Hezbollah came to the peace table reserving its right to attack any Israeli troops that remained in Lebanon — a position the group has held since it was formed in the wake of Israel’s 1982 invasion.

These apparent contradictions have so far been studiously ignored by the international peace-brokers. Furthermore, none of the main obstacles to peace have been addressed. There is no process for the return of the two captured Israeli soldiers nor for the Lebanese prisoners; there is no mention of the disputed border area known as the Shebaa Farms; and it is unknown how Hezbollah will be disarmed (the Lebanese Government has expressed an unwillingness to use Lebanese troops to forcefully disarm Hezbollah — rightfully fearing civil war — while France has said it does not believe it is the role of the yet-to-be-assembled UNIFIL force to do so).

After a month of war, Israel has not been able to destroy Hezbollah and the Lebanese Government has shown itself unable to convince the Shi’a group to stop shooting its guns, let alone give them up. The international community doesn’t want a shoot out, but nobody expects Hezbollah to voluntarily turn in its weapons. If meaningful pressure is to be applied to the group to disarm and stay out of southern Lebanon, then it’s going to have to come from Damascus.

‘Trying to shut Syria out of any agreement will only guarantee that it isn’t successful,’ said Joshua Landis, Director of Oklahoma University’s Center for Peace Studies and author blogger at www.syriacomment.com:

No Western European government is going to allow its troops to be thrown into Lebanon without a political agreement. If the Shi’ites have demonstrated one thing of late, it’s that they can kill people who are trying to hurt them.

Reengaging Syria will be a major reversal of President George W Bush’s Middle East policy, which has worked to isolate and destabilise the last remaining Baath regime in the Middle East. Failure to speak to Lebanon’s northern neighbour, however, will result, at best, in a temporary reprieve in the latest chapter of Israeli-Arab warfare, rather than a lasting settlement. If US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice is serious about being mid-wife to a new Middle East, Damascus is going to have to be invited into the delivery room, sooner or later.

Despite US attempts to undermine his regime, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven deft at outmanoeuvring Washington. ‘The United States has not successfully isolated Syria,’ Landis said:

They have made life miserable for the Syrians and they have succeeded in making sure Syrian diplomats cannot talk to anyone and that Bashar al-Assad finds it difficult to meet with world leaders. But the Syrians have effectively dodged every American bullet. If this latest Lebanese crisis accomplishes anything for Syria, it will be to effectively undermine attempts to isolate it.

It has been a testing couple of years for Assad, who took over the presidency in 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. The Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought war to Syria’s borders and toppled one of its major economic pillars — the illicit oil trade with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It also brought a US administration eager to see the regime’s downfall within firing distance. During the current break-up of Iraq, the United States has constantly accused Syria of supporting the insurgency. Relations with America became so bad that Assad was denied an American visa when he was scheduled to address the United Nations in New York last year.

The Assad regime was further shaken by the global outcry following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The subsequent ‘Cedar Revolution’ forced the Syrian army into a humiliating withdrawal in 2005 from a country which many Syrians still regard as part of their own. The UN investigation into Hariri’s assassination has not disguised the fact that Syria is the prime suspect.

As a result economic sanctions on Syria were increased at a time when Assad was trying to reform a stagnant economy. Even relations with the generally supportive France — the former colonial master — were strained to breaking point. Regime change, we were told, was imminent.

Now, as Lebanon burns, however, Assad is firmly back in control of Syria. In recent months there has been a crackdown on dissidents and dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested. Talk of reform has been replaced by talk of stability. What’s more, this kind of talk is finding a receptive audience in a country bordered by Lebanon and Iraq.

Thanks to Alan Moir.

The Middle East watched as Lebanon swapped the Syrian security umbrella — at a time when the country rebuilt itself after decades of civil war and repeated invasions — for an American one. But how can it be that Lebanon’s new democratic ally, the world’s only superpower, has given Israel the ‘green light’ to launch a devastating war on Lebanon, one that has so far claimed more than 1000 deaths, the majority civilians, and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure.

‘Those who went under the American umbrella of protection are shocked that America would tolerate such a war and they are embarrassed in front of Lebanese public opinion,’ Syrian political analyst and author Sami Moubayed said. ‘They are asking: Is this the protection you brought us under? At least this did not happen under the Syrians.’

While Syria has been sidelined in all recent negotiations, there is a growing consensus among America’s political elite that it is time to once again re-engage with it. Writing in the Washington Post, Warren Christopher, Secretary of State under President Clinton, criticised Rice’s July trip to Rome as an exercise in ‘wrongly focused diplomacy’. Christopher, who negotiated ceasefires between Israel and Hezbollah in 1993 and 1996 using Hafez al-Assad to reign in Hezbollah said Syria was once again emerging as ‘a critical participant in any ceasefire arrangement … We do not have the luxury of continuing to treat it (Syria) with diplomatic disdain.’

The New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman was less constrained: ‘One wonders what planet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed from, thinking she can build an international force to take charge in south Lebanon without going to Damascus and trying to bring the Syrians onboard.’

Nor has it simply been former Clinton staffers and the usual ‘give-negotiations-a-chance’ cheer squad who have been calling for re-engagement with Syria. Writing in the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal, columnist Edward Luttwak said it was time for the US to swallow its pride and start knocking on Assad’s door:

For France, the US and the UK, it would, of course, be tremendously embarrassing to recognise that they made a gigantic error in expelling Syria without having put anything in its place, thus leaving a vacuum of power in Lebanon that Hezbollah has exploited. But unlike the military option, which is simply impossible, the diplomatic option is merely humiliating.

Whether America is willing to make the trip to Damascus remains to be seen. So far the US has preferred to negotiate a settlement through the Lebanese Government. Most Syrian watchers are betting Syria will remain locked out of the negotiations as ill-fated as that may be.

‘We saw Secretary Rice in her first Middle East tour avoid Damascus and in the past, in these types of situations, it was always one of the first stops,’ Landis said:

However, in avoiding Syria they will have limited success. But they are going to push ahead to isolate Hezbollah and to build up a Lebanese coalition against them. That has been the thrust of US policy over the past two years, and I expect it remains the present policy. George Bush is yet to blink in the face of failure and I don’t see why he will start blinking now in Lebanon.

If that ends up being the case, all we will be hearing from Lebanon is more of the same at best, low level border clashes for a couple of years, before another major break out of violence.

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