Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008
Syria risks more isolation over Lebanon
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Tue 1 Apr 2008
DAMASCUS, April 1 (Reuters) – Syria faces more isolation unless it helps resolve Lebanon's political crisis blamed on Damascus by Arab and Western states despite its conciliatory stance at the Arab summit it hosted last week.
Diplomats and commentators said Syria's diplomatic offensive will do little to rescue it from dire political and economic straits set to worsen unless Damascus pushes its Lebanese allies to abandon their quest for greater power in Beirut.
"Tough times are ahead for Syria," Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, told Reuters.
"Syria thinks it can persevere another year and then it will be a new day. But the U.S. Treasury is laying landmines that Syria will find it difficult to negotiate," he added.
The March 29-30 meeting in Damascus, which was boycotted by Beirut's Western-backed government and skipped by three key Arab leaders — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, made no progress towards ending the crisis which has poisoned Arab ties.
The conflict in Lebanon pits the Beirut government close to Saudi Arabia and the United States against an opposition dominated by the Shi'ite Hezbollah, backed by Syria and Iran.
The government has been paralysed by the crisis and Lebanon has been without a president since November 2007. The main point of dispute is the opposition demand for effective veto power in cabinet. The ruling coalition has rejected the demand.
Syria pledged at the summit to cooperate on ending the crisis but made it clear that it will not push its allies in Lebanon to allow the election of a new president unless their demands are met.
Landis said Syria could find it tougher to play for time as Washington already expanded sanctions on Damascus and Arab states siding with Lebanon's government showed no willingness to welcome Syria back to what they regard as the Arab mainstream.
Syrian officials admit privately they are in a hunkering-down mood. They expect no imminent solution in Lebanon and more U.S. sanctions, which were first imposed in 2004.
France is also pushing for European Union pressure on Syria after talks between Paris and Damascus late last year failed to end the stalemate in Lebanon, diplomats said.
MORE EU PRESSURE
EU foreign ministers met in Slovenia a day before the Arab summit to discuss Syria. An EU statement said the ministers agreed to improve coordination on Syria and not "reward a lack of cooperation" from Damascus.
With parliamentary elections in Lebanon scheduled for 2009, Syria could be calculating that its allies, who are now in the minority, will emerge with more seats than their opponents, diplomats say.
"The EU is struggling to take a unified stand against Syria and the stalemate in Lebanon might not be that bad for everyone, but can Syria afford more pressure with its economy already reeling?" one diplomat said.
Although Syria is drawing limited Gulf investment, its budget deficit almost doubled last year and falling oil production means that revenue from crude exports is no longer enough to cover fuel import costs.
New U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Syria in February included freezing the assets of Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf for alleged corruption and links to President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States also deployed warships off Lebanon's coast to show impatience with Damascus and its allies.
Ties between Syria and Lebanon's governing coalition soured after the killing of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in 2005. An international investigation team has also implicated Syrian officials in the assassination, one of the reasons for the crisis in Lebanon. Syria denies involvement.
Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdelnour said Syria has realised it could not afford to continue to alienate the West and regional powers such as Saudi Arabia at the same time.
"The other option of keeping up the confrontational stance was obviously a loser," Abdelnour said. (Editing by Samia Nakhoul)
(Comment by Landis) The following two articles about how the US Treasury Department is taking over foreign policy from the State Department on Iran and Syria is very telling. It is not clear where this all leads, but as John McGlynn insists, it is a new form of warfare that can have important repercussions. Syria has resisted opening up to foreign influence for decades for fear of foreign "conspiracies." Today, Syria must open up to foreign banking and investment in order to find a new engine for its economy now that the benefits of socialism, Cold War receipts, and the export of oil can no longer sustain the state.
Syria will find it very difficult to transition to a free market without making concessions to the US and EU on its foreign policy. The Bush administration is busy planting as many landmines for the fragile economy as it can.
The day the US declared war on Iran (Thanks to Enlightened)
By John McGlynn
March 20 is destined to be another day of infamy. On this date this year, the US officially declared war on Iran. But it's not going to be the kind of war many have been expecting…. (Continued)
U.S. Asks Swiss for Copy of Iranian Gas Contract
2008-03-31 11:53 (New York)
By Marc Wolfensberger
(Bloomberg) — The U.S. has asked the Swiss authorities to provide a copy of a 25-year gas import contract signed this month between Iran and a Swiss power company to see if it breaches U.S. sanctions.
"The U.S. government has made an official request to the Swiss government for a copy of the contract, which it didn't receive,'' the U.S. embassy to Switzerland said in remarks posted on March 28 on its Web site. Lars Knuchel, a spokesman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry, declined to comment on the U.S. request when contacted in the capital Bern today.
The contract, valued as high as 27 billion euros ($42.7 billion), was signed on March 17 between Elektrizitaets-Gesellschaft Laufenburg AG and state-owned National Iranian Gas Export Co. The U.S-Iran Sanctions Act permits penalties on foreign companies investing more than $20 million a year in Iran's energy industry. No company has ever been punished.
The U.S. said after the contract was signed that it sends “precisely the wrong message at a time when Iran continues to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions'' over its nuclear program. The U.S. cut diplomatic relations in 1979.
The Swiss authorities attended the signing but are not part of the deal, which envisages the import of 5.5 billion cubic meters of gas a year.
The World Jewish Congress today criticized Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey's decision to attend the signing ceremony in Tehran. In 2005, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Israel should be “wiped off the map'' and that Europe, the U.S. and Canada should use their own land for a Jewish state.
"Calmy-Rey has sold out her government's international credibility in return for 5.5 billion cubic meters of Iranian natural gas and perhaps for some new friends in the radical Muslim world — definitely not a good investment,'' Ronald Lauder, congress president, wrote in an opinion piece on the organization's Web site.
Lauder called the Swiss foreign minister's visit a “propagandistic triumph for the mullahs.''
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has defended the Swiss move, pointing out that the natural gas accord breached neither UN nor US sanctions, which forbid any investment in Iran's oil and gas sector worth more than $20 million (SFr20 million). Switzerland represents Washington's interests in Iran and Tehran's interests in the US.
A high-level diplomatic source on Monday said that the U.S. obtained the list of officials including nuclear engineers, who were involved in the supply of nuclear technology to Syria, through various intelligence networks. This persuaded the U.S. that the North Korea-Syrian nuclear connection did exist.
The smart way out of a foolish war
By Zbigniew Brzezinski, Washington Post, March 30, 2008
Both Democratic presidential candidates agree that the United States should end its combat mission in Iraq within 12 to 16 months of their possible inauguration. The Republican candidate has spoken of continuing the war, even for a hundred years, until “victory.” The core issue of this campaign is thus a basic disagreement over the merits of the war and the benefits and costs of continuing it.
The case for U.S. disengagement from combat is compelling in its own right. But it must be matched by a comprehensive political and diplomatic effort to mitigate the destabilizing regional consequences of a war that the outgoing Bush administration started deliberately, justified demagogically and waged badly. (I write, of course, as a Democrat; while I prefer Sen. Barack Obama, I speak here for myself.)
The contrast between the Democratic argument for ending the war and the Republican argument for continuing is sharp and dramatic. The case for terminating the war is based on its prohibitive and tangible costs, while the case for “staying the course” draws heavily on shadowy fears of the unknown and relies on worst-case scenarios. President Bush’s and Sen. John McCain’s forecasts of regional catastrophe are quite reminiscent of the predictions of “falling dominoes” that were used to justify continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Neither has provided any real evidence that ending the war would mean disaster, but their fear-mongering makes prolonging it easier.
"….The task of dealing with the Middle East's three major crises has thus been returned to individual states or small groups of countries. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis will be handed back to Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the Lebanon crisis will be dealt with by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran; and the internal Palestinian conflict will continue to be left to sporadic initiatives such as that of Yemen and Egyptian mediation. Syria might ultimately dive into this latter conflict as well….
As for Syria, it seems that its "punishment" by other Arab leaders made it clear even to them that if they wish to thwart Iran's influence in the Arab Middle East, they must hasten to rescue Damascus from that very isolation in which they seek to imprison it. Their public display of anger might prove to be a boomerang that, should Syria choose to flex a few additional muscles, will make it even harder for the Arab states to resolve the Lebanon crisis and the Palestinian conflict."
|By Amr Hamzawy|
|Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue No. 890, March 27 -April 2, 2008|
The common idea that every regional contest is succinctly played out in Lebanon is false, writes Amr Hamzawy*
"Is it safe to go to Lebanon in the next few days?" an American colleague at the Carnegie Endowment asked me. I didn't know what to tell him. For one thing, I'm not a specialist in Lebanese affairs. Also, I hate to speculate on a situation that remains, in my view, too fluid. Still, as I started to pay more attention to Lebanon, going over dozens of reports and commentary, I formulated some thoughts on the matter:
First, some Arab commentators have developed a maddening tendency to connect everything that happens in the region with developments in Lebanon and call it the "big picture". They rehash the Iranian-US crisis, proposed UN sanctions on Iran, and the Israeli offensive in Gaza, throw in a few words about the failure of dialogue among the Lebanese and the frustrated efforts of the Arab League in narrowing the differences, then tie all of the above with heightened Saudi-Syrian tensions, the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, and the deployment of USS Cole. The result is not a "big picture", but a bundle of muddled up interpretations.
Second, I know how tempting it is to explain everything that happens in Lebanon by way of the US-Iranian standoff. But we must not downplay the autonomous inclinations of the Lebanese opposition and majority. And we cannot discount the independent thinking of such countries as Saudi Arabia and Syria. The picture one gets from reading current commentaries suggests that everyone is somewhat waiting for inspiration from Washington or Tehran. Granted, there is coordination between the US, the Lebanese majority and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon. But one cannot assume that everything is happening just because the Americans want it so, or that Washington can dictate a specific course of action on its allies. Actually, regional players have their own agendas and are willing to pursue an independent course of action if need be. The Lebanese majority, also known as the 14 March movement, is mainly interested in having US backing against Syria. And Saudi Arabia has concerns in Lebanon and the region that do not exactly tally with those of the Americans.
The same thing goes for the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah connection. Iran has benefited much from its relations with Damascus. The latter helped Tehran emerge from its regional isolation in the 1980s and allowed it to develop ideological, military, and organisational links with Hizbullah. The Syrians, however, have their own agenda both in the Gulf and Lebanon. Hizbullah, for its part, relies a lot on Tehran and Damascus, but its involvement in local politics affords it a considerable degree of independence. Hizbullah emerged from its confrontation with Israel as a sovereign institution within a weak state. The situation in Lebanon is therefore one in which alliances are formed without any of the players sacrificing totally their independence.
Third, the excessive focus by analysts on the US-Iranian conflict is perhaps due to their failure to see the constraints of both Washington and Tehran. It was the adventurism of the Bush administration that prompted it to rely heavily on military force to advance its Middle East agenda, but that approach has backfired. Now Washington is not in a position to control the course of events in the region. More often than not, Washington reacts to Iranian policies rather than takes the initiative. Furthermore, US Arab allies are thinking twice before listening to the Americans. In short, the US may have immense military presence in the Middle East, but not enough leverage to impose the future course of action in Iraq, the Gulf, Lebanon and Palestine.
Tehran has benefited from Bush's adventurism and it is now hoping to forge a network of alliances with Arab partners that would boost its stature. But let's not forget that Iran is almost as internationally isolated as it was in 1979. Iran's nuclear programme is causing much concern abroad, and not just to the Americans. And it is likely that the new US administration (certainly if McCain comes to office) would try to stop Iran in its tracks. Also, many of Iran's neighbours have their own reasons to keep it at arm's length.
What we have in the Middle East is not a struggle between two invincible powers. It is rather a scene in which a troubled superpower and a hobbled regional power try to find their bearings in passageways cluttered with various Arab and non-Arab agendas.
Iran Incites Cold War With U.S. in Lebanon Roiled by Hezbollah
2008-03-31 20:13 (New York)
By Janine Zacharia
April 1 (Bloomberg) — When David Welch, the U.S. State Department's top Middle East envoy, wakes each morning, he asks himself, “Is everything OK over there?''
“Over there'' is Lebanon, caught in a political stalemate that is putting American officials and much of the Arab world on edge. During six months of paralysis in electing a Lebanese president, Iranian and Syrian support for the Shiite Muslim party, Hezbollah, has flourished while the U.S. has tried to keep its Sunni ally, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, from being ousted.
In this contest is the danger that Lebanon may turn into a full-fledged battleground in the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Iran, which is allied with Syria to derail Lebanon's fragile democracy…..