Posted by Joshua on Thursday, October 5th, 2006
James Baker, President Bush senior’s Secretary of State, announced Tuesday a week ago that his task force will meet this week with the foreign minister of Syria, against which the administration has mounted a diplomatic boycott for almost two years. The task force has already met with Damascus’ ambassador in Washington, as part of a series of meetings with Washington-based envoys from Iraq’s Arab neighbors.
Such a meeting would no doubt feed speculation here that Baker, a consummate “realist” who reportedly has been privately critical of the administration’s Middle East policies, could help tilt the balance of power within the administration in favor of fellow realists, centered in the State Department. They generally support greater flexibility in dealing with perceived U.S. foes in the region, and against right-wing hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney who have steadfastly opposed engagement with both Iran and Syria.
I have heard nothing further about the meeting of James Baker’s task force with foreign Minister Walid Mualim, but if it indeed went ahead, it will mark a significant lapse in Washington’s isolation policy toward Syria.
An article well worth reading in its entirety is the following by Nir Rosen, who is always excellent and provocative. He argues that Hizbullah is really a secular party and shouldn’t worry us. Can this be true?
Hizb Allah, Party of God
Oct 3, 2006
By Nir Rosen
In the wake of Israel’s 33-day war with Hizballah, the 24-year-old Islamic movement has become the most popular political party in the Middle East. Here’s why that shouldn’t worry us. Over 1 million Lebanese gathered in a vast square in a southern Beirut suburb on Sept. 22 to celebrate their country’s largely successful campaign against Israel. Seyid Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hizballah, risked his life by appearing in public after Israeli leaders had sworn to kill him, and spoke to his adoring supporters in Lebanon and around the world….Surveying this massive crowd of boisterous people—the men and women, the teenagers and the small children, celebrating their identity and their steadfastness together with music—I knew this was not the stuff of religious fundamentalism or terrorism. I was struck by how the reality of Hizballah differed from its distorted image in the West. For although Hizb Allah, the Party of God, is undoubtedly of Shia origin, it is in fact a secular movement, addressing real temporal issues, its leaders speaking in a nationalist discourse, avoiding sectarianism and religious metaphors. They participate in politics, compromising and negotiating, and do not seek to impose Islamic law on others. Proof of this is readily available in Hizballah strongholds, where many of their followers are secular, supporting Hizballah because it represents their political interests and defends them.
Throughout the country, women in chadors walk beside scantily clad beauties. Along Lebanon’s highways, or what is left of them, billboards celebrating Hizballah’s “divine victory” over Israel share advertising space with posters depicting half-naked women wearing jeans or lingerie. Hizballah may have preferences, but unlike the authoritarian leaders of the Taliban or Saudi Arabia, it does not impose them.
Nor has the movement shown a long-standing inability to reconcile with its enemies. Most strikingly, in 2000, after Israel’s withdrawal from the Lebanese territory it was occupying, the thousands of Shia and Christian collaborators suddenly found themselves vulnerable to retribution and street justice from understandably aggrieved Lebanese. On strict orders from Hizballah, however, the vast majority were not touched. Rather they were handed over to the Lebanese army, dealt with by the Lebanese government and imprisoned and amnestied prematurely, in a move that offended many Lebanese. Nevertheless, today they can be spotted in towns in the south; everyone knows who they are, and they remain unharmed. Hardly the actions of a violent fundamentalist terrorist organization.
And what was so unreasonable about Hizballah’s demands? The movement insisted it wanted Lebanese prisoners to be freed by Israel, all of Lebanon’s territory to be evacuated by Israel, and for the Lebanese army, which had never defended Lebanon, let alone its south, to come up with a national defense plan. Thirty years of proven Israeli brutality and 60 years of Lebanese government neglect of the south gave Hizballah a raison d’etre its leadership insisted it did not want. (Continue…)
President Bashar al-Asad makes the same argument as does Nir Rosen about Hizbullah’s politics being largely secular and appealing to a cross-sectarian audience. In a recent interview with Spain’s largest newspaper, El Pais, Asad insists that Hizbullah has a secular orientation, which does not undermine or controdict Syria’s own secular policies. In response to a question about whether it is dangerous for a secular country such as Syria to support Hassan Nasrallah and Hizbullah, an “Islamic” resistance organization, President Assad responded by arguing that Nassrallah’s “political discourse and practice are secular.” He added that most of the forces allied with Nasrallah, including the Christian allies of Michel Aoun, are secular as well.
“If he doesn’t gain support from non-Muslims, he can’t be strong… He is defending a national issue and not merely an Islamic one. There is a consensus among different sects in the Arab countries on his policies and not only in Lebanon… There is no concern at all regarding this point,” president Assad asserted.
Nasrallah has reiterated in most recent speeches that he does not strive to impose sharia law on Lebanon or to establish an Islamic state. Here is what Nasrallah said in his speech of 27 August 2006, given at the conclusion of the Lebanon War this summer.
“Lebanon is a tapestry of various groups, religions, parties, and sects. It cannot be ruled as an Islamic or Christian state, nor can it be ruled as a Shiite Islamic state. These claims are US and Israeli propaganda, designed to make the Christians fear us and fear that we will impose a possible Islamic state on Lebanon. Apparently, the US and Israel want to inculcate a new fear among Sunnis that we are preparing for a Shiite state.”