What Role Can Syria Play in Lebanon?
What role can Syria play in the resolution of this conflict?
Interviewed by John Dagge
Saturday, July 29, 2006
What role does Syria have to play in the resolution of this conflict?
Syria has a big role to play. Trying to shut it out of any agreement will only guarantee that future cease-fires are temporary and fragile.
The Lebanese root cause of this problem is that the Shi'ites are terribly under-represented in parliament. They have been kept at the bottom of the Lebanese political heap despite being the largest sectarian community in Lebanon. They accepted this position in the 1989 Taif Accords, largely because Syria allowed them to keep their weapons. Since Syria left Lebanon in 2005 the other Lebanese communities – Sunnis, Druze, and Christian - have been demanding that Hezbollah give up its military weapons. At the same time, they have refused to allow the Shiites their proper constitutional role in government. They can’t have it both ways. If a deal to disarm Hizbullah is to be made in Lebanon, the Shi'ites, who represent 40 per cent of the population, will have to get close to 40 percent representation in parliament. This is going to be a major headache.
America professes that it wants a democratic solution to the Middle East, but it is refusing to promote true democracy in Lebanon. This is an analogy to the Hamas problem in Palestine and it is one of the reasons why Hezbollah and Hamas find themselves on the same side and why Arabs throughout the Middle East are rooting for them. So long as there is no solution to this fundamental injustice, there will be no peace in the Middle East. American and Israeli military might is no replacement for equity, justice and democracy.
The way Hezbollah has justified maintaining its arms is by focusing on its resistance role. If you want to eliminate that role of resistance, Hezbollah is going to have to be brought into the political center of Lebanon’s government so it becomes an established power, not an outsider throwing stones at a government dominated by others.
Syria helped broker the Taif accord, along with Saudi Arabia and America. The Americans were interested in maintaining Christian power in Lebanon, which they succeeded in doing by making sure that the Christian seats in the Lebanese parliament were not reduced below 50 per cent even though they constitute roughly 40% of the Lebanese population. The Saudis were interested in maintaining Sunni power in Lebanon which they succeeded in doing by making the Sunnis the most over-represented community in Lebanon - they were allotted the same number of seats as the Shi’ites even though the Sunnis are half as numerous. So in effect, a Sunni Lebanese is worth two Shi’a Lebanese in political terms. The Syrians went along with the deal because they wanted to look like good actors and, most importantly, because they were going to disarm the Sunnis and Christians and allow the Shi’ites to maintain their military weapons to act as a resistance to Israel. This allows Syria to maintain pressure on Israel to give back the Golan Heights.
All the outside actors were happy and the Shi’ites were compensated for their under-representation in constitutional power by gaining extra-constitutional powers in the form of the right to bear arms. Now the international community, Saudi Arabia and the US most particularly, wants to disarm Hizbullah without compensating the Shi’ites. Syria is not going to stand by and watch this happen. This also means that the Taif Accord is now effectively dead.
Syria is important in Lebanon because most of the opposition political figures look to Syria for support and political backing and this holds true right across the political spectrum. It is not only Hezbollah, but also General Michael Aoun - a Maronite Christian - as well as opposition Sunni leaders in both Tripoli and Beirut who resent Hariri's dominance of their community and feal uneasy about Lebanon's radical turn away from Syria.
There are some Western analysts who claim Syria is irrelevant. This is nonsense so long as close to half of the Lebanese politicians look toward Syria for political backing. It has to be remembered also that the Lebanese trade with inland countries has to go though Syria, so Syria stands over Lebanon with a formidable economic hammer. What is more, Syria has the ability to funnel arms to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups as well as radical Sunni groups which allows it to destabilize Lebanon if its interests are ignored.
What do you think Hezbollah's reaction to the insertion of an international force into Southern Lebanon will be?
They will refuse this outright. I don’t think anyone believes that this international force is a solution in its own right. It's the lowest common denominator and it’s a way for the West to pretend that they are doing something while giving Israel time to pound the Shi’ites. 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 is that they can kill people who are trying to hurt them.
America has tried to sideline Syria for some time now and many would argue with some success. In light of the present crisis, can this continue?
The United States has not successfully isolated Syria. They have made life miserable for the Syrians and they have succeeded in making sure Syrian diplomats can not talk to anyone in Washington, and that Bashar al-Asad finds it difficult to meet with world leaders. But the Syrian government has effectively dodged every meaningful American bullet.
The Americans have tried to strangle Syria economically and they have failed. They have tried to keep foreign countries from engaging in commerce with Syria or meeting with the Syrian president. This has been partically successful and a hinderance, but the Europeans have refused to place meaningful economic sanctions on Syria, much to Secretary Rice's dismay. Syria has turned to the East to fine trade. It has turned to rich Gulf countries to find investment. The days of American hegemony in the Middle East have gone. Bashar al-Asad has developed good relations with resurgent Russia and China. He has excellent relations with Turkey and Iran. The Saudis and Egyptians are at the very least polite to him, perhaps begrudgingly, but they don’t write him off as the Americans do.
Indeed, over the last year we have seen the Americans become more isolated in their attempt to shut out Syria. In the last several months more Europeans have been opening their doors to the Asad regime. The Spanish Prime Minister has been talking to Asad, the new Italian Prime Minister has been demanding that diplomatic lines again be opened with Syria. British papers, such as the Observer, are demanding that Britain open a dialogue with Asad even if Washington refuses such logic. The German government has also made noises about seeing what Syria wants. The US has lost the battle to isolate Syria. If the Lebanese crisis accomplishes anything for Syria, it will be to leave Washington's anti-Syria policy in tatters.
Is America likely to swallow its pride and re-engage Syria?
I have a hunch that it will not. It is going to try to deal with this crisis through the Lebanese government. We saw Secretary Rice in her first Middle East tour avoid Damascus. Instead she used the Shiite Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, to sound out Hizbullah. In the past, going to Damascus was always one of the first stops of US diplomacy. However, in avoiding Syria, Washington will complicate life for itself and give the Europeans a greater role in the region.
For me, however, the big question, as a ceasefire comes into place, is where are Lebanese sentiments headed– who are they going to support; who are they going to blame. The Christian right is claiming that there will be a day of reckoning before the dust settles and that Hezbollah will be punished by the rest of the sects. The pro-Hezbollah people are counting on the opposite. They believe that the Hariri government and others who punished Hezbollah by aligning themselves with Israel will bear the brunt of public dismay and anger. Nicholas Blanford (Christian Science Monitor) goes through pearly polling results, which suggest that across the sectarian communities, Lebanese are beginning to side with Hezbollah. While that may be a temporary phenomenon - a result of Israeli bombs - even anti-Syrian politicians such as Walid Jumblatt are beginning to suggest that Hizbullah will be the winner. America and the neo-cons are betting on the fact that Hezbollah is going to be punished by the rest of Lebanon and isolated. My hunch is that the opposite is going to be true and the neo-cons are painting themselves into an ever-smaller circle here.
Despite this, I think you will see them push ahead in an attempt to isolate Hezbollah and 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 star blinking now in Lebanon.
Are there parallels with the latest conflict and the War of 73 – the war that brought Arabs back to the negotiating table?
I’ve read the analogies but I would see this more in terms of 1982 than ‘73.
Sadat, who found himself politically irrelevant, decided to give the Israelis a bloody nose in order to be taken seriously. He succeeded in doing that and was offered the Sinai back and now Egypt is the strongest America ally in the region and is at peace in Israel. There is no reason to believe that the Syrians will not accept a similar outcome. The major problem with this, however, is that Egypt had the greatest army in the Arab world and was the most important power. Syria has always been considered irrelevant and Israel and the US have always preferred to isolate it rather than give back the Golan Heights. But this is a Pyrrhic victory. Syria will remain a spoiler to any peace plan in the region so as long as it is not dealt into the final outcome. It can be a stabilizing force in the region as many Israeli and American ex-diplomats and intelligence chiefs have claimed. Attempts to write it off as a rogue state or irrational actor are silly.
Are we seeing a new Middle East? Is a fundamental power restructuring taking place?
I think we are seeing a restructuring. This has to do with Iraq changing from a Sunni to a Shi'ite power - from a power that was aligned against Iran and promoted itself as a defender of the Gulf to a power that is looking towards Iran. Shi’ite success looks like it is going to realign Iraq with Iran and possibly Syria against the Gulf. This will fundamentally change the balance of power in the region.
America is resisting this change that it set in motion because it means oil and gas pipeslines will be running from Iran through Iraq and Syria up to Turkey and on through to the EU. Just as importantly, they will be running in the other direction to China, India and Russia. This will reorient world power towards the East. It’s going to pull Europe away from its dependence on the US security umbrella, which is under-girded by US domination of oil markets and oil producers. Europe will become more dependent on powers like Russia and Iran. The stakes are high for American as it loses control of oil. It will not be able to retain its status as the single great superpower; rather, it will become one among equals, which is precisely what Cheney and Rumsfeld are determined to prevent.
Iraqi technical committees have already been meeting with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts plan for these pipelines. This will allow them to challenge Saudi Arabian dominance in OPEC. It’s what you might call an axis of oil – or access of oil - and the Russians and Chinese are eager to connect to it. As I see it, this is the big battle. My hunch is that within five or six years, when Iraq beings to consolidate under a Shi’ite dictatorship, it will not ask American oil companies to run the show, but rather, Russian and Chinese oil companies. For political and economic reasons, Iraqis will want to move away from American domination. Economic imperatives make linking up to Iran and the East logical. Such a combination will be powerful.
What kind of resolution does Syria want to see in Lebanon?
Syria will throw its weight on the side of constraining Hezbollah and working out a political agreement, if its interests are advanced in the process. The most likely way this may happen is if new elections are called in Lebanon.
Many of the pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon now believe that they will do well at the polls following this conflict. Early polling figures indicate that the Lebanese population is siding with Hizbullah and may be willing to punish the Hariri-led Future Movement that governs Lebanon today. It has been discredited by its American and Israeli allies. Opposition politicians have already begun to accuse the Future Movement of getting Lebanon into this mess and being responsible for the destruction of Lebanon.
Their logic goes along the following lines: by trying to marginalize the Shiites and disarm Hizbullah on orders from America, the Future Movement deserves the blame for dividing the Lebanese and paralyzing the government. Had the Future Bloc eschewed revenge against the Syrians and stuck to the middle road a government of national unity would have been possible. As it was, Hariri insisted on siding with the Americans and elevating Jeremy Feltman, the US ambassador to Lebanon, to the status of proconsul of Beirut. His dictates, whether they were to refuse a Hizbullah appointee the Foreign Ministry, to beat back attempts by the Lebanese government to officially complain to the UN about an Israeli spy ring accused of five political assassinations in Lebanon, or to drive forward the Future Movement’s anti-Syrian policy by repeating ad-nausea that Damascus was the culprit behind Hariri’s murder when the evidence was thin and scuttling Saudi and Egyptian attempts to mediate between Beirut and Damascus, Rafiq’s son traduced his father’s legacy of neutrality and genius for keeping Lebanon out of the region’s wars. Instead to of protecting Lebanon, Hariri made it an instrument of Washington’s war. And to what end? Having refused Hizbullah a real share in government and having failed to defeat them, he offered the country no way forward. The result was paralysis. In essence, he challenged Hizbullah to go off the reservation and provoke a confrontation.
Some Lebanese politicians have already begun to accuse Washington of unleashing Israeli military might on Lebanon because of the Future Bloc’s incompetence. Because the FB was too weak to carry out America’s plan to disarm Hizbullah, Washington turned to Israel to get the job done. The Hariri Bloc recklessly and foolishly put its trust in Washington only to have Lebanon dragged into a conflict he could not control and Lebanon could not win. The subtext to such accusations is that the Future Bloc conspired with Israel, if not explicitly, then tacitly. The silence of the Future Bloc during the first week of Israel’s bombing campaign gives ammunition to such broadsides. Saad Hariri kept insisting that Syria was to blame for the death and destruction rained down on Lebanon by American bombs and airplanes driven by Israeli pilots, even as the Prime Minister of Lebanon, his appointee, tacked in the opposite direction, blaming the US and accusing Israel of war crimes.
Prime Minister Siniora has spoken out strongly of late to condemn Israel and the US. His about-face reflects the mood in Lebanon. He is struggling to distance himself from the US and his political bloc’s destructive policies. No Lebanese politician can cling to Washington and hope for a national role. The US has isolated itself. The Future Bloc has dumped it.
For this reason, Damascus will join the demand for new elections in Lebanon as soon as the dust settles. It will claim to be on the side of democracy, knowing that pro-Syrian politicians, who were pushed from power last year, may well be swept back into office. The key will be the Maronite presidential candidate General Aoun. This will be his moment. He is strong, nationalistic, has a well organized party, and has good relations with Damascus, Hizbullah and the Shiites. He will woo the may Sunnis who are now having misgivings about the leadership of the young Hariri. He has long demanded that Lebanon follow a middle way in its foreign policy – depending excessively on neither the East nor West and maintaining constructive relations with both.
It will be interesting to see how the Aoun-Hizbullah alliance holds up should the Siniora government lose the confidence of parliament. Syria championed Aoun as a replacement for President Lahoud, when the Future Bloc insisted that the president resign. This led Hariri’s bloc to vote for retaining Lahoud, preferring a weak pro-Syrian president, rather than one that could challenge them.
Syria will be happy with a Lebanon that eschews its alliance with the West and enmity for Syria. It would like a Lebanon that is responsive to its security concerns and will refuse to be used as a launching pad for US and Israeli attempts to weaken the Asad government.
This is precisely the reason the US does not want to engage Syria.
Is it likely that from the rubble of Lebanon a wider peace process will emerge?
Nothing points to a happy solution on the immediate horizon, despite the present cease-fire. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in the US have a real understanding of the root problems that have animated the conflict. Washington continues to be enamored by the use of force. In Israel it is the same. Iran and Syria believe that time is on their hands, as do the radical Muslim forces, more generally. So long at the US is unwilling to engage them and seeks to undermine them, they will arm the West’s opponents.
Hizbullah is convinced that the future of Lebanon is in its hands. The Shiites of Lebanon, more generally, will not return to being dirt farmers, as they were in the past. They will insist on their fair share of Lebanon’s destiny – if not through parliament, then at the point of a gun. The big question will be whether the other Lebanese sects are willing to concede real political power to the Shiite community and continue their policy of drawing the Shiites into the center of Lebanese politics in order to domesticate them or whether they will arm themselves in an effort to continue the process Israel has started, which is to weaken them by military means.
The fact that the Europeans and pro-Western Arab regimes, such as Saudi, Egypt and Jordan, have forced the US to call a cease-fire, constrains Washington’s and Israeli’s ability to broaden the war. But as long as President Bush is convinced that Israeli methods are correct, there will be no real solution.
Some European powers have announced that they will contribute troops to a UN force. But they insist that a political solution precede any outside intervention into the south of Lebanon. This means that fighting will continue.
There are few signs that we are closer to a real understanding between the various protagonists. Grandiose military objectives on both sides have been somewhat reduced, but this has not been matched by a willingness of the US and Israel to make serious concessions.