News Round Up (17 December 2006)

Israeli cabinet split over Assad overtures

JERUSALEM, Dec. 17 (UPI) — Israel's cabinet was divided Sunday over Syrian President Bashar Assad's call to return to the negotiating table.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Assad urged a renewal of peace negotiations with Israel, saying Damascus would cooperate with Washington to resolve regional issues.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem added an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks, Israel's YNet News reported.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the cabinet he stood by his stance that, before opening negotiations, Israel expected Syria to renounce terrorism and stop supporting "extremist influences," such as Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

In contrast, Defense Minister Amir Peretz called on the cabinet to hold an emergency discussion about Assad's and Moallem's comments.

He said talking with Syria could improve the countries' relations and weaken Syria's ties to Hezbollah.

"Every agreement comes with a price tag, and in the Syrian context the price is clear," Peretz said. "The question is whether it is strategically important for us to disconnect Syria from the radical axis and prevent it from cooperating with Hezbollah.

Olmert: Israel mustn't undermine US stance on Syria

Prime minister tells cabinet Israel should refrain from talks with Syria at this point in time, as not to go against the United States' stance regarding Damascus

Ronny Sofer

Published:  12.17.06, 15:31

Calls for a renewal of the peace negotiations between Syria and Israel by Syrian President Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Moalem this weekend, left Prime Minister Ehud Olmert unimpressed.

Olmert continues to stand by his stance that the conditions for talks with Syria have not yet matured.

"The question that should be asked is why Assad made these declarations after the Baker report was published in Washington, after (President George W.) Bush made a strong statement on the matter, and when the entire international community demands that the Syrians stop their war mongering and acts against the Siniora government in Lebanon ," the PM stated.

Olmert told his cabinet he doubts talks with Syria would be the wise step to take at a time when the international community was pushing for pressuring Khaled Mashaal in Syria.

However, what apparently stands behind Olmert's reluctance to accept Syria's overtures for dialogue are United States pressures. At the cabinet meeting, Olmert asked whether now was a good time for Israel to express views that go against those of the American president, while Bush is engaged in hard internal-political battles, as well as wars in Iraq and other places.

'Question is what Israel gets from Syria'

Olmert reminded the ministers that the US was Israel's most important ally, and that the state has a strategic relationship with it.

"The question is not what we give to Assad – Barak and Bibi made him offers in the past – but what Israel gets in return. Can Israel, under today's circumstances, disconnect Syria from Iran? Can we stop Syria's support for Hamas? Before we respond and formulate our policy we should weigh these things with caution," he said.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres also referred to Israel's friendship with the United States, "Which protects us from all threats," and wondered whether Israel would be right to operate against the American stance, "In order for the Syrian president to escape the trouble he's in."

Haaretz: writes, "Aides to Netanyahu emphasized yesterday that Syria needs a peace agreement with Israel no less, and possibly more, than Israel needs a peace agreement with Syria. They stressed that Netanyahu has not changed his position that Israel must remain in the Golan Heights no matter what."  

Can Syria Help?

Should Bush talk to Syria? Interview with Joshua Landis Dec. 16, 2006
Aljazeera.net – Qatar, Adla Massoud in New York

Joshua Landis believes the Bush administration will simply not budge on the issue. Many in Washington feel that we're not going to go back – as the Hamilton-Baker report recommended – to dealing with dictators. Condoleezza Rice's position in dealing with Syria is that for 60 years we made a mistake in believing that supporting the status quo and dealing with dictators creates stability. She has said this is a "false stability" and we're not going to do it again. And I think there are a number of vital elements of this administration that believe that it's an important principle to cling to….

The Syria Gambit
Does the regime of Bashar al-Assad hold the key to America's problems in the Middle East? Some in Washington like to think so, but they are probably wrong.

By Christopher Dickey
Newsweek International (Selected quotes)

"Syria is on a roll," concedes Jonathan Paris, a fellow at Washington's Hudson Institute and a frequent critic of Damascus. "As in the '90s, Syria is seen as the indispensable player."

There's even hope that Damascus can be seduced away from Iran, countering its hegemonic ambitions in the greater Middle East. "Syria is a key partner," says Syrian political scientist Marwan Kabalan, "in all these regional issues."

the government-controlled daily Al Baath warned last week that if the Bush administration fails to engage Syria, "it will continue to wallow and sink in the quagmire and the situation in the region and the world will continue to be subjected to upheavals and instability."

Jonathan Paris points out, Syria thrives on the level of unrest that exists right now. "If you were Bashar, the one thing you would be afraid of is regional stability," says Paris, "because then Syria's 19 million people would ask why they are ruled by this clique of 15 or so who run the country like it is their own bank."

"America has two different options," says Syrian author and political analyst Sami Moubayed. "Either they deal with Syria, while excluding Iran, or vice versa. Dealing with both is impossible and dealing with neither is also impossible."

The only hope of marshaling the same kind of pressure on Syria is to nail the Assad regime in a United Nations-backed tribunal investigating the Valentine's Day massacre of ex-prime minister Rafik Hariri and bystanders in Beirut last year, and the other high-profile killings since. That's what the five Lebanese ministers in the Grand Serail are holding out for. And that is precisely why they've been put under siege by Hizbullah and other Syrian allies trying to destroy altogether the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "Political assassination is very, very common in Lebanon," says Ahmad Fatfat, one of the ministers in the Serail. "We need the tribunal to stop this. If we cannot succeed in this project, it is impossible to preserve our democracy."

Indeed, if they cannot succeed, it may be impossible to preserve the shreds of the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East. But the Assad regime, so good at spoiling, so good at surviving, is likely to go on.

David Ignatius in the Washington Post: Is this Syrian gambit for real? Is Moallem serious in his offer to talk with America about a comprehensive package of peace with Israel, stability for Iraq and compromise in Lebanon? The answer is that there’s really only one way to find out, which is to explore further the ideas the Syrian foreign minister has put on the table. 

President Bashar Assad will visit Moscow on Monday to discuss the Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian crises as Russia seeks to restore its role as a key actor in the Middle East.

Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin will examine "means to resolve the crises." The three-day mission comes hot on the heels of a Moscow visit by Prime Minister Fouad Saniora.

Saniora met Putin on Friday in a bid to have Moscow pressure Syria over the political unrest, seen by his government as a Damascus-backed coup bid. The visit came amid EU warnings for Iran and Syria not to meddle in Lebanon.

According to Posukhov, Moscow supports the establishment of an international tribunal but Putin will seek to reassure Assad that it "not be used as a means of pressure on Syria".

Russian press reports said that Russia was seeking to restore its role as a key actor in the Middle East following the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

"Syria is a key country in the region … It is not possible to resolve the situation in Iraq without contacts with Damascus," wrote Fedor Lukianov, editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics.

"Russia wants to reserve the role of privileged interlocutor of Bashar Assad," he wrote.

On the economic front, the Russian diplomat in Damascus said that Syria and Russia aim to double their two-trade from the current level of some 300 million dollars a year. Moscow remains Syria's main arms supplier.

Rice Says U.S. Will Beef Up the Lebanese Army

If You Love Lebanon, Set It Free
by Robert Grenier, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency's counterintelligence center.
December 17, 2006 NEW YORK TIMES
Op-Ed Contributor

…. A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.

Make no mistake: Hezbollah is no friend to America. As a former United States intelligence officer, I know there are a few accounts yet to be settled with that organization. But Washington will never achieve its objectives in the Middle East — including its obligation to ensure Israel's long-term security — unless it puts emotions aside and deals realistically with facts on the ground. Like it or not, Hezbollah is one of those facts. A less-than-pliable but strong government in Lebanon would be far preferable to no real government at all, which is what we have now.

"Who's running Lebanon? ": ROBERT FISK  "THE INDEPENDENT"     15 December 2006 

As the nation rushes headlong towards civil war, Robert Fisk, who has lived in Beirut for 30 years, picks through the city's reckage to identify the agitators, military leaders and politicians who now wield the real power…..

Ex-general Michel Aoun is the quaint, frightening and messianic Maronite leader whose supporters provide the high number of Christians opposed to Siniora… He found no problem in trying to run Lebanon without Muslim ministers in 1990 – but is outraged at Siniora for trying to remain Prime Minister without Shiite cabinet members today. In fact, Hizbollah is far more intelligent than to send "Napoleon" back to the Baabda palace. Aoun will be swiftly dispatched …

What we are watching across the whole region is the steady but increasing collapse of American imperial power. It will not be a joyous event. It may prove to be terrifying. It will definitely be bloody. And Lebanon may now be the mirror that proves it all true.

This U-Tube video clip from Future TV (Thanks G for correction), the Hariri owned station of Beirut, showing the channel’s coverage of the opposition demonstration last week is a demonstration of how polarized the two sides have become. The point of the clip is to demonstrate how "un-Lebanese" the demonstrators are. It paints them as Syrian and Iranian inspired and promotes a conspiratorial view of the opposition. At the end of the clip there are interviews with Syrian workers who are joining the demonstration to support Nasrallah. The commentary argues that this is a sign of Syria's manipulations. But the interviewed Syrians are very forthright. They say they have come to show support for Nasrallah because without him they would be kicked out of the country, which may well be true. A bit like Mexican workers in the US demonstrating against congressional efforts to stop them from getting into the country.   

One of the more catchy slogans being chanted by the demonstrators was:

 

Oh Jumblat, Oh you brute (`Akrout = Pimp)
The Shiites are descending on Beirut!

 

Comments (11)


1. Gibran said:

Jonathan Paris says, “because then Syria’s 19 million people would ask why they are ruled by this clique of 15 or so who run the country like it is their own bank.”
Therefore the only thing the US has to do is to wait out Bashar until his own chaos engulfs him. He is a loser and let him continue to be so. President Bush has made the bold and wise step of beefing up US forces in Iraq. Perhaps he can do better by beefing them up to a level that will allow them to march to Damascus at the right time. The pro American governments neighboring Syria (Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, etc…) would be valuable assets in ushering the American century.
Mr. Grenier would do well to recognize that Hezbollah and its allies were only capable of marshalling less than 20% of the population of Lebanon. They were already over represented in the government before their ministers resigned. Hezbollah, on the other hand, does not even represent the whole of the Shiite community in Lebanon and is losing popularity at a fast rate. The gambit of Nasrallah is a losing one this time. He went too far and didn’t foresee the level of response by the Israelis to his reckless act of kidnapping soldiers. He can use some of the homeless Shiite he created by his foolishness to beef up the ranks of his militias. The majority of the Shiite population, however, is beginning to see the foolishness of his unilateral act of taking the country to war. Questions are also beginning to get raised as to the influence of Iran on Hezbollah decisions. Khamenei has blundered tremendously by stating his objective so clearly: he wants to defeat America in Lebanon. Well, Lebanese (Shiite and others) are not fools to allow a self declared despot to destroy their country in order to satisfy his over blown ego!

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December 17th, 2006, 6:58 pm

 

2. G said:

Ummm, Landis, I know your impulse is in the other direction, but do at least try to stick to facts. The clip, for example, is from Future TV, not LBC.

It has nothing to do with “Christians.” The clip only highlights Shia-Sunni tensions and the clearly Hezbollah/Shiite character of the rally. Those are the “two sides.”

I will not even bother commenting on your nonsensical and distorted comment about the workers.

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December 17th, 2006, 7:16 pm

 

3. R said:

Landis – you are really doing yourself disservice when you comment on Lebanon- please stick to something you know at least a modicum about. To anyone with any insight – you paint yourself as a biggot?

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December 17th, 2006, 8:11 pm

 

4. Abdul Haq said:

المصيبة الكبرى التي أصابت سوريا والتي ابتلي بها هذا البلد هي وجود قيادة جاهلة، ومغامرة. قيادة عاجزة عن التمييز بين ما يفيد سوريا وما يؤذيها، وعاجزة عن القيام بقراءة صحيحة للتاريخ والواقع، سواء أكان هذا الواقع سورياً، أو عربياً أو دولياً.

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December 17th, 2006, 8:22 pm

 

5. ivanka said:

Here is a very balanced article on what the US approach to Lebanon should be:

Op-Ed Contributor
If You Love Lebanon, Set It Free

By ROBERT GRENIER
Published: December 17, 2006
Washington

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits “Syrian- and Iranian-backed” Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the “Western-backed” Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions — citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification — illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the “Western backers” — primarily the United States and France — would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

Let’s dial back half a year, to the start of this latest crisis. The immediate reaction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel to the cross-border attack by Hezbollah on Israeli troops was his most honest. This was not, he said, an act of terrorism — it was an act of war. And, issues of proportionality aside, it was quite justifiable to hold the Lebanese government to account.

The honesty of that initial reaction, however, was quickly replaced by the old formula to which Israel has resorted since 1978. Israel did not intend to attack Lebanon, its spokesmen insisted, but was just trying to help the Lebanese by attacking Iran-controlled Hezbollah. This was a polite way of saying to Mr. Siniora: We’re going to rid ourselves — and you — of Hezbollah, for which you should be grateful, and you’d better make sure they don’t rise again.

Now let’s try to view this from the perspective of a Lebanese nationalist. To acquiesce to the American-Israeli formula for Lebanon would be to accept that one’s nation should be entirely supine before a neighbor; that any time the Israelis decided to react to a limited provocation or threat, the only defense one could mount would be the tearful pleas of a powerless prime minister.

Thus it should not be surprising that many Lebanese, including Mr. Siniora, at least temporarily put aside their factional mistrust and embraced Hezbollah as the sole available means of national resistance. This, along with Hezbollah’s surprisingly successful resistance, has permanently changed the political calculus of the nation.

For one thing, it is harder today to suggest to Lebanese nationalists that Hezbollah is simply a mindless proxy for the Iranians. Throughout the Middle East, religious extremism and Arab nationalism are becoming identical, with the former becoming the only effective means of pursuing the latter. This is true of the Sunni extremists in Iraq and throughout the Arab world, as well as of the Shiite extremists of Hezbollah in Lebanon, whose resistance to the Israelis, clearly motivated at least in part by a desire to support the Sunni Palestinians, has paradoxically made them a hero of the Sunni Arab street.

Likewise, Hezbollah’s support of the Syrian presence in Lebanon — which should be anathema to any Lebanese nationalist — should be seen less as obeisance to a neighbor than as the cynical price the group must pay to ensure its logistical link with Iran.

As Hezbollah becomes more enmeshed in Lebanese politics, however, domestic political considerations will become increasingly influential in its calculations — a tendency that should be encouraged. Indeed, the closing stages of last summer’s war provided a fleeting opportunity for the Beirut government to gain a greater measure of state control over Hezbollah.

The hardship caused to average Lebanese by its recklessness meant that the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had some explaining to do. He quickly admitted that the raid had been a mistake. And his desire for a cease-fire, gained through the external political engagement of Mr. Siniora, put the prime minister in a relatively strong position to demand Hezbollah’s cooperation in demonstrating that it was being brought under at least the partial control of the state.

On the other hand, the potent demonstration of Hezbollah’s ability to resist Israeli forces gave many Lebanese nationalists, even Sunnis, a new desire to preserve the radical group in the service of all Lebanon.

Given a more farsighted leadership, these two factors could have given the Lebanese an impetus to forge a new political compact for the country. It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon’s complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah’s militia be brought under some sort of state control — perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

This sort of overarching agreement would not have been easy to reach, and it would be naïve to suppose that somehow the Hezbollah leadership would allow itself to be totally stripped of control of its militia overnight. But its involvement in Lebanese politics since the summer has already brought discernible changes in Hezbollah’s attitudes and behavior. Its leaders understand that if they want to influence the policies of the state, they will have to accommodate the interests of other religious groups and political factions. This change of attitude would, over time, undoubtedly have a moderating effect. In sum, if Hezbollah were given a greater stake in Lebanon, it would progressively become more Lebanese.

WHICH brings us back to the barricades now dividing the center of Beirut. All sides are indulging themselves in an orgy of historical recrimination, and stoking fantasies that they can achieve their goals through confrontation. Not only would a civil war be a disaster for all Lebanese, but among the ever-present foreign backers, the United States would lose most.

Tacitly encouraging civil war is seldom wise, and particularly when the side with which one is affiliated cannot win. It should be obvious that American — and Israeli — interests are best served by a unified Lebanese state that has clear control over its people and its territory. We now know that Hezbollah is not going to be eradicated, nor its influence reduced.

So the only way of making the Lebanese government accountable is to encourage the progressive, moderating integration of Hezbollah into the political, social and military fabric of the state.

How could Washington help this happen? Well, for one thing, we should give up talk of greatly enlarging the multinational force in southern Lebanon, and convince the Europeans to do likewise. Fortunately, the plan to insert such a force this fall foundered when the French (wisely) decided they were not up to the task of disarming Hezbollah, although smaller numbers of European troops are apparently headed there soon. It is folly, particularly with lightly armed foreign forces, to try to get regional actors to do things that they see as fundamentally against their interests.

Second is to end the proxy battles between foreign powers. I don’t know what the Americans are telling the Lebanese government privately, but the public statements are disappointing. Last month the White House issued an official statement citing “attempts by Syria, Iran, and their allies within Lebanon to foment instability and violence” and insisting the United States would “continue its efforts with allied nations and democratic forces in Lebanon to resist these efforts.” In other words, we’re still trying to rile Lebanese sentiment as a wedge against our enemies in the region.

A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah’s war-making capacity.

Make no mistake: Hezbollah is no friend to America. As a former United States intelligence officer, I know there are a few accounts yet to be settled with that organization. But Washington will never achieve its objectives in the Middle East — including its obligation to ensure Israel’s long-term security — unless it puts emotions aside and deals realistically with facts on the ground. Like it or not, Hezbollah is one of those facts. A less-than-pliable but strong government in Lebanon would be far preferable to no real government at all, which is what we have now.

Robert Grenier, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterintelligence center, is a security consultant.

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December 17th, 2006, 10:23 pm

 

6. Enlightened said:

“If you were Bashar, the one thing you would be afraid of is regional stability,” says Paris, “because then Syria’s 19 million people would ask why they are ruled by this clique of 15 or so who run the country like it is their own bank.”

This as one commentary puts it is the critical key!

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December 17th, 2006, 11:33 pm

 

7. Joe M. said:

Since you are doing a news round-up, here is the most important article of the say (if you ask me):

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3340750,00.html
Towards the end of this article:

“I know this will annoy many of your readers… But the anger is over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians. Instead of Israel fighting against Hizbullah, many parts of the American administration believe that Israel should have fought against the real enemy, which is Syria and not Hizbullah.”

Did the administration expect Israel to attack Syria?

“They hoped Israel would do it. You cannot come to another country and order it to launch a war, but there was hope, and more than hope, that Israel would do the right thing. It would have served both the American and Israeli interests.

“The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space… They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its strategic and important ally should be hit.”

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December 18th, 2006, 3:33 am

 

8. Gibran said:

Very good Enlightened. Hope Israel gets the message and acts on it.

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December 18th, 2006, 4:09 am

 

9. Dubai Jazz said:

Gibran utters: “Perhaps he can do better by beefing them up to a level that will allow them to march to Damascus at the right time.”

You seem to be disconnected with the world around you. People like you are those who roll the red carpet for the dirty American boots to tread upon. Those who are dellusioned by the inevitablilty of the American vision for the new middle east. It is you who think the American way is impecabble. People like you are the LOSERS in the new game.

We’ll wait and see who’s vision is more genuine and valid…

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December 18th, 2006, 7:26 am

 

10. Gibran said:

It is as easy for me to say and in upper case letters YOU ARE THE LOSER – That is you Dubai Jazz

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December 18th, 2006, 8:08 am

 

11. Dubai Jazz said:

Yeah..that is a peculiarity at which you excel; thinking that things are easy when they are not!!
And that is you GIB-RAN…

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December 18th, 2006, 8:24 am

 

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