Posted by Joshua on Thursday, March 13th, 2008
Can the International Tribunal Change Syrian Policy?
By Joshua Landis
March 12, 2008
In two recent trips to Washington DC, I had the occasion to talk to a number of officials, ex-officials, and policy mavens about US policy toward Damascus in this very difficult transition period.
The consensus seems to be that the Bush administration is counting on the international tribunal to force Syria into changing its Lebanon policy, and presumably other policies as well.
How this will work is not completely clear. Syria has stated that it will not allow its citizens to appear before the tribunal, which it has said could be used as a political tool against it.
If Damascus does indeed refuse to allow Syrians to appear before the court, procedural difficulties will be enough to trip up the Syrians, suggest Washington officials. Whether sufficient evidence exists to convict Syrians would be irrelevant, in such a case.
Michael Young in his article, "Time may play against Syria in Lebanon" explains how many in Lebanon have their hopes pinned on this US policy.
US efforts also include ensuring that the Hariri tribunal is established as soon as possible, and that Daniel Bellemare, the future prosecutor of the tribunal, issues his act of accusation before the US administration leaves office. This seems likely, according to diplomats in Beirut. As Bush knows, no successor would engage Assad once the Syrian regime is implicated in Hariri's murder, particularly if it rebuffs all cooperation with the tribunal.
Of course the international tribunal is not the only card the US has to play. It will continue to target Syrian politicians and regime figures for sanctions; it will accuse Syria of backing foreign fighters in Iraq; and it will continue to try to isolate Syria diplomatically by dissuading Arab and European leaders from doing business with Damascus. All the same, the international tribunal is the center piece of US strategy. It is the only strategy of those listed here that could possible lead European nations to join a sanctions regime against Damascus.
The likelihood of European nations being convinced or shamed into joining a sanctions regime against Damascus at this late date, seems improbable. Of course, if Syrian authorities stonewall the court, European statesmen will be obliged to do something. Whether their action will have real teeth will have to be seen. The notion that Damascus will reject the court in its entirety, is also doubtful. During the Mehlis investigation, Syria also said it would refuse to turn over witnesses. After some prevarication, it complied and avoided sanctions. Sending Syrians to an international court under indictment is different from sending them to Vienna for questioning. All the same, Syrian authorities are unlikely to refuse outright to deliver Syrians to the court.
How effective Washington's policy will be in liberating Lebanon from the influence of Hizbullah, Lebanon's native opposition, and Syrian influence remains to be seen.