Posted by Joshua on Sunday, June 15th, 2008
Commentary by Joshua Landis
The US and France are struggling to find a common post-Doha policy on Hizbullah and Syria. France is exploiting the appointment of President Michel Suleiman to rehabilitate relations with Syria, which have been in the dumps since 2005. Washington is not happy with the Franco-Syrian honeymoon. This comes as little surprise, for it marks the failure of Washington's Lebanon policy. President Bush wanted to wrest Lebanon from Syria's sphere of influence as part of an over-arching effort to reform the Greater Middle East. It should be stated that Washington succeeded in driving Syria's military out of Lebanon in 2005. But far from being able to accept this as a victory, President Bush stubbornly insisted on eradicating every expression of Syrian influence from its smaller and divided neighbor – a policy which seemed as unwise as it was unrealizable.
Differences between France and the US have came into sharp focus over the impending Bastille Day visit to Paris of President Bashar al-Assad. Although Syria's diplomatic isolation has been crumbling over the last year, Assad's trip to Paris will be a symbolic coming out party for the Syrian President. Washington has expressed dismay over France's warming relations with Bashar. The foreign ministries of both countries have been working overtime to patch up their differences. Secretary of State Rice in a Saturday announcement says she is happy that France understands that Syria should not be completely rehabilitated. Kuchner responded to this with a soul searching announcement that he has misgivings about Assad's visit to the epicenter of civilization, brotherhood, and liberty. All the same, he points out, Syria and France had a deal about the appointment of a Lebanese president. France is merely honoring this deal by inviting Assad to Paris. He assures America that Paris will not take undo pleasure in its renewed flirtation with Damascus.
It is hard to say with any precision where the recent Hizbullah victory and subsequent Doha Agreement leave Lebanese sovereignty or Hizbullah's status.
Is Hizbullah undergoing a rehabilitation in the halls of Western Powers? Does its return to Lebanon's government within the framework of the Doha Agreement, which France so warmly embraced, mean that France will treat it as a full-fledged and legitimate political party? Or, is it a terror organization? France has maintained an admirable degree of ambiguity in its relations with Hizbullah – much like France's relations with its presidents' mistresses.
Ambiguity over Hizbullah is expressed in this story: European MPs Pressing Towards Branding Hizbullah 'Terrorist' Group. Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament and chairman of the EU's committee on foreign affairs, says he is pushing a resolution to officially brand Hizbullah a terror organization, but at the same time he confesses that any real decision of the EU will be made by the European Council. Brok stressed that the issue of classifying Hizbullah as a terrorist organization should be discussed in light of Lebanon developments. He added, "important steps" have been achieved in Lebanon in light of the Doha Accord that had been signed by the various factions, including Hizbullah. Brok seems to want to publicly rebuke Hizbullah for terrorism, while accepting that it must be treated as a legitimate party, which is, in effect, a signatory to a political deal — Doha — which included Europe.
Similar ambiguity characterizes western relations with Syria. Syria helped broker the Doha agreement – hence, Assad's invitation to France. The Doha agreement enshrines Syria's continued role in Lebanese politics. Only yesterday, the West declared that Hizbullah and the Lebanese opposition were Syrian-Iranian proxies that undermine democracy and Lebanese sovereignty. Today, they are part of the government, at the heart of Doha, and recognized as authors of Lebanon's new future and unity.
President Bush and parts of his administration are clearly very unhappy about Syria's and Hizbullah's change in status. Only a few days ago, President Bush demonstrated that he is not changing his tune. He called for "fighting Hizbullah terrorists supported by Syria and Iran." Hopefully, the French will give Bush a lesson in how to deal with shades of grey, if not with mistresses.
[End of commentary]
The US president had a blunt message for Damascus in Paris: "Stop fooling around with the Iranians and stop harboring terrorists" and warn Tehran "that the West is serious" about curtailing the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
Sarkozy, who has invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend France's national "Bastille Day" celebrations next month, underlined that Damascus must guarantee neighbor Lebanon's independence.
The French president said he wanted "that Syria break as much as possible with Iran in its quest to develop a nuclear weapon" in order to pursue improved diplomatic relations with Paris.
The National, a new EAU paper, had this to say:
In a statement issued by the French presidential palace, the United States and France sought to dispel signs that they have diverging thoughts on Syria.
The joint statement called on Syria and Lebanon to quickly establish full diplomatic relations – a signal that the countries hope Damascus will reduce its interference in domestic Lebanese affairs.
Mr Bush said Syria should serve as a constructive force in the Middle East to help advance a Palestinian state and make it clear to the militant group Hamas that “their terror should stop for the sake of peace”.
President Sarkozy warned Syria against standing with Iran on the nuclear standoff and other issues.
The French president said he and Mr Bush agreed about the need to guarantee Lebanon’s independence.
Kouchner Uneasy About Assad's Visit: French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Friday he is uncomfortable that Syrian President Bashar Assad has been invited to the Bastille Day parade, even though such visits are necessary to keep dialogue open. "I'm not especially amused" by Assad's visit, Kouchner said on Europe-1 radio. But he said Syria has made progress by resuming peace talks with Israel. The visit "doesn't leave me totally at ease, but this is what we have to do or else we'll maintain a state of tensions, difficulties and probably confrontations," Kouchner said. "I've said that if President (Michel Suleiman) was elected after months of vacuum, then France will normalize relations with Syria. That's what we are doing now," the French foreign minister said. (Naharnet)
French envoys in Syria to boost ties: Senior French envoys are to hold talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on Sunday in an effort to boost diplomatic ties which soured over the crisis in Lebanon.
Bush Calls for Fighting Hizbullah 'Terrorists': U.S. President George Bush called Friday for fighting "Hizbullah terrorists supported by Syria and Iran" emphasizing the need to support the Iranian and Syrian peoples against their regimes. "We stand by the peaceful citizens in those nations which deserve better than what they have now, and we must reject those countries supporting terrorism for the benefit of local and global security," Bush said during a visit to France. (Naharnet)
Assad has said that Damascus will cooperate with UN inspectors due to visit on June 22-24 to probe claims Syria was building a nuclear facility.
The myth of the Shia crescent
By Michael Broening in Haaretz
June 15, 2008
AMMAN – Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz recently offered an unequivocal veto on a key issue in the Middle East peace process: Any return of the Golan Heights to Syria would result in an “Iranian foothold” on Israel’s border and would thus not only be politically naive but irrational.
Mofaz’s statement is symptomatic of a perception that is now deeply entrenched, not only in the Middle East, but in the United States as well. That notion is of a hegemonic Iran that is attempting to dominate the region through an array of Shi’ite proxies. This Iranian fifth column is believed to stretch from Beirut via Damascus and Gaza to Baghdad and finally from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Yemen. Recent armed clashes between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government are, it is said, just another sign of Iran’s hegemonic reach.
Ironically, this perception brings Israel some rather unlikely partners. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt claims that Shi’ites are “always loyal to Iran,” while King Abdullah of Jordan has coined the axiom about a rising “Shi’ite crescent.” This “rise of the Shi’ites” and the resulting “Sunni-Shia divide” is alleged to be creating an ever-widening chasm in the region.
Although this perception may convince at first glance, it is ultimately based on generalizations that reveal more about its advocates than about the actual reality on the ground.
Take Iraq, where the looming “Shia crescent” is often blamed for much of the chaos. Recent developments in Iraq allegedly point to a fundamental clash between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the region and bear witness to malevolent Iranian interferences. But is Iraq really symptomatic of a greater Shia scheme?
True, sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq have escalated since the fall of Saddam Hussein. But contrary to common perception, Iraqi Shi’ites do not constitute a homogenous block that opposes the supposedly unified Sunnis. Indeed, the opposite is true. In light of Iraqi nationalism that crosses sectarian boundaries, it is farfetched to consider the Iraqi Shia merely proxies of Iran.
Instead, what we are witnessing in Iraq today is not ever-increasing friction between religious communities but escalating internal power struggles within the Sunni and Shi’ite communities. Ongoing violence in Basra and the fighting between Sunni “Awakening Councils” and Al-Qaida in Iraq demonstrate this. In fact, the current escalation points to an increasing political struggle between the federalist position of Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and the centralist position of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. This struggle will ultimately define the political structure of Iraq.
Here is where Sunni-Shi’ite cooperation comes in. Widely unnoticed, Iraqi Sunni and Shia centralists have managed in the last couple of months to form a united parliamentary platform that leaves sectarian tensions behind. More than a hundred followers of former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, Sadr, and others have joined their ranks.
This supra-sectarian platform calls for a central government administration of Iraq’s natural resources and the postponement of the looming referendum to settle the status of the city of Kirkuk.
Change within the government is also noteworthy. Sunni ministers who had been boycotting the government since last year have returned to their posts. Thus, Iraq is seeing both escalating intra-sectarian violence and cautious steps toward inter-sectarian alliances.
And what about Iran? Contrary to the blame games being played out in the U.S., Iran cannot be accused of an unrestrained aggressive stance toward Iraq. Of course, no Iranian decision maker is interested in an American success in Iraq that might well put regime change in Iran back on the agenda. But the rationale behind Iran’s policy of economic, social and military engagement seems to be, first and foremost, defensive. …. (continue)
Michael Broening is director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Amman, Jordan. FES is a political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
Several weeks after Jerusalem announced the renewal of indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, frustration about the pace of the negotiations seems to be settling in among some Syrian officials, with one senior member of the foreign ministry suggesting that if Israel did not willingly give up the Golan, then Syria would take it by force.
Syrian deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said that Syria has "other options" to "liberate" the Golan, adding that should hostilities erupt, his country would be able to "protect its land within minutes."
Speaking directly to Israeli residents of the Golan – whom he labeled "settlers" – the foreign minister warned that they should not "raise their sons in the Golan, for this is not their place."
In Lebanon: Aoun Rejects Giving President Two Key Christian Cabinet Seats. The Cabinet crisis continues.