Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, June 10th, 2009
George Mitchell is due to arrive in Syria on Friday for what promises to be a crucial visit. Syria wants a place in any emerging Obama peace plan for the region. Washington would be short sighted not to include Damascus. The Lebanon has been a leading factor in Syria’s isolation and Washington’s dominant concern in the Levant for five years very much to Syria’s detriment. Because of the election results, Lebanon can now take a back seat to other regional considerations.
The Lebanon elections produced results confirming the political status quo among Lebanon’s competing factions. The Doha, power-sharing agreement that resolved the Lebanon question last year – or something closely approximating it – is likely to be reformulated for the new government. All sides seem to be in agreement about the general outlines of a new government, eliminating the temptation on the part of all sides, including the US and Syria to renegotiate the regional balance of power. Lebanon has effectively been placed in deep freeze.
Obama has yet to speak the word Syria. He has spoken clearly and emphatically about the Palestinian track in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not about the Syrian track.
For Syria, this means that the moment of truth for Washington has arrived. If Mitchell is interested in coming to an understanding with Syria, Damascus will be very responsive. Damascus does not want to be left out of a regional peace plan. It is eager to come to an understanding with the US that recognizes its long-term interests. Those interests are: 1. Getting back the Golan and signing peace with Israel. 2. Getting out from underneath sanctions imposed on it due to its struggle with Israel. 3. Working with the US and Baghdad to assure the stability, security, and political balance of Iraq. 4. Moving forward with border delineation in Lebanon; and 5. Encouraging Hamas to work with the PLO in supporting an emerging Obama plan to resolve outstanding Palestinian-Israeli differences.
Damascus fears that Washington intends to “cherry pick,” or to push Syria forward on the Iraq and Lebanon issues, which are relatively easy to resolve, without committing itself to including Syria in the Obama peace plan or to getting the Golan restored, which is much more difficult. After all, the sanctions which weigh on Syria are a result of its on-going struggle with Israel as are the claims that it supports “terror.” Syria want normal relations with the world, but it will not abandon its right to the Golan.
Syrian authorities are unlikely to give to Obama what they refused to give to Bush. Damascus will give gratification on the issues important to Washington if it gets gratification on the Golan, Sanctions, and diplomatic normalization in return. This is why Syria insists on a comprehensive approach to the region’s problems. It does not want to repeat the experience of the 1990s, when it was abandoned at the alter in 2000 after eight years of cooperation in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.
News Round Up follows
MP Michel Aoun announced Wednesday he planned to contest the elections before the Constitutional Council and said he was not opposed to giving President Michel Suleiman veto power “within the constitution,” in his first public appearance following March 8’s defeat in the June 7 elections…..On his loss in the elections, Aoun said: “We had the support of 70% of Christians at a time when we had nothing in the government. Now we have 27 deputies. Explain to me how does that indicate we lost?” “They admit today that I represent half (of the Christians), then I want half of the Christians’ share in governance,” he added. He said that although the opposition did not win parliamentary majority, it “maintains popular majority.”
Feltman Insists U.S. Will Not Deal with Hizbullah (Naharnet, 10 Jun 09 – via T_desco)
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman said Hizbullah should be disarmed and become a political party that functions in accordance with the Lebanese constitution.
Feltman, in an interview with Alhurra Arabic language satellite TV network, said that Hizbullah should abide by U.N. Security Council resolutions that call for the disarming of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.
Feltman reiterated that the U.S. does not and will not deal with Hizbullah. He said Washington does not deal with a party that threatened its people through the use of arms in May 2008.
He told Alhurra that the U.S. looks forward to cooperate with the new Lebanese government and its people in order to strengthen its institutions, independence and sovereignty.
On U.S. aid to Lebanon, the top official reiterated that assistance depends on the moves the new government will make.
Asked about possible cabinet ministers, Feltman said that it is up to the Lebanese people to decide the formation of the cabinet. (Naharnet, 10 Jun 09)
Hezbollah, in a statement on the Web site of the group’s al-Manar television station, said it “strongly condemns the continued harsh and overt interference of the United States in the internal affairs of Lebanon, especially in terms of the statements of its officials on the results of recent parliamentary elections.” (Darhally in “Lebanon’s Winning Bloc Must Try to Placate Hezbollah”
(Naharnet, 09 Jun 09)
“A high-ranking State Department source” “said the U.S. and Lebanon’s friends were not comfortable with the experience of veto power in the government because many issues were frozen in the previous period.
A high-ranking State Department source also told pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat that it would be easier to cooperate with a Lebanese foreign minister who is not allied with Hizbullah.
About U.S. aid to Lebanon, the source said: “Washington’s assistance to Lebanon depends on what it wants and what it expects from the Lebanese government in terms of its partnership with the U.S.”
Aid also depends on the upcoming cabinet’s formation and policy statement, the official added.”
(Naharnet, 09 Jun 09)
Geagea: Veto Power with Minority Will Cripple Country (Naharnet, 09 Jun 09)
Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea reiterated his opposition Tuesday to giving the minority veto power in government warning it could lead to the “complete paralysis” of the country.
“I support awarding veto power to the president of the republic because he is neutral and was elected through consensus,” Geagea said following talks with U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison in Maarab.
“Regarding the need for a “second Doha Agreement” to form the next government, Geagea believed that the picture conveyed by these elections was clear and did not point in this direction, revealing: “I am against the hindering third. However, this issue will be discussed with all the other forces of March 14. Personally, I am in favor of giving that power to the President of the Republic”, recalling the campaigns that used to be waged by some, even until now, against the president of the republic, who is a consensus president. (Naharnet, 09 Jun 09)
“Al-Hayat asked Al-Hariri if the March 14 forces have developed a plan for dealing with future decisions, in relation to the leadership of parliament and government, its formation, and representation in it. Al-Hariri answered: “The March 14 forces are working now to formulate the plan and we will meet to decide on it.” Asked if his candidate for heading the government has been decided, he answered: “Only one person decides who the prime minister will be and this person is Saad al-Hariri, of course, in consultation with the allies.” When asked for his opinion of some speculations that it would be difficult for President Michel Sleiman to play a bigger role after the elections following the failure of an independent bloc in the Jbeil district, he replied: “The president’s role is that of the wise man, judge, and protector of the constitution. As for the bloc, my entire bloc is for the president of the republic.”
The temptation to make too much of Hizballah’s failure to unseat Lebanon’s Western-backed government in Sunday’s election is obvious. For past three years, the Shi’ite Islamist movement has been on a roll, withstanding an Israeli invasion, then paralyzing the U.S.-backed government, eventually humiliating its militias in a street confrontation, in the process winning veto power over cabinet decisions. Many had feared that the election would see the Iran-backed movement lead an opposition coalition to victory. Instead, voters on Sunday affirmed the status quo, prompting some observers to claim that the region’s political tide had turned against Iran and its “rejectionist” allies.
One Israeli official claimed that “Hizballah was punished for the  war,” while New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman announced, “President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran” in Lebanon’s vote. Yet these are somewhat far-fetched claims for an election that was decided by Christian swing voters — and that affirmed the raw sectarianism of Lebanese politics.
Sectarianism is the organizing principle of Lebanese democracy, because the constitution allocates a fixed number of seats in parliament to each religious group — on the basis of a formula derived from the population statistics in 1936. (The slicing of the political pie no longer matches the demographic reality: Christians, for example, are allocated half of the seats in parliament, but probably comprise little more than a third of the population; Shi’ites are allocated 20% of the seats but their share of the population is closer to double that proportion.)…
Thomas L. Friedman’s one sentence summary of the region…
… Ballots were the only weapons the March 14 coalition had against an Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance that is widely suspected of having been involved in murdering Rafik Hariri … (Ballots Over Bullets: NYT, June 9, 2009) thanks T_desco
Milli Schmidt added in the comment section of the last post:
How wonderful that attention is drawn to Rafik Shami! He is very well known in Germany (he publishes in German), particularly for the absolutely wonderful book “A Handful of Stars” – a moving, beautifully written, funny account of his childhood in Bab Tuma, when the old city was still a collection of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Armenians and a handful of madmen and women thrown in. I’m also just now reading a collection of stories that expands on one character out of A Handful of Stars (the old coach driver Salim), called Damascus Nights – all highly recommended!
Also, very interesting and well written piece on the Iraqi refugee crisis in Syria, contains a wider analysis of the country’s economic and political situation: