Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, December 11th, 2007
Lebanon has become a hot house for paranoid hysteria. Ever since Syria's invitation to Annapolis signaled a two degree thaw between Washington and Damascus, a Beirut Spring of strategic extrapolations has begun to sprout jungle-like in the land of Cedars. The Iran NIA served to nourish further the febrile hallucinations of March 14 minds.
Raghida Dargham of al-Hayat is seeing Shiite Orcs marching to Uncle Sam's drum beat. Yes, in Dargham's considered opinion, Washington has struck a devil's bargain with Iran. And because Iran holds the armies of Middle Eastern Shiites in its sectarian thrall, George Bush can now issue marching orders to its new turbaned legions, who just happen to live atop the region's oil, Dargham darkly notes. The victim of this secret alliance are the jilted Sunnis. In essence, the Shiite crescent has been transmogrified into a living scimitar directed at the heart of the March 14th Movement. After all, why did the neoconservatives decide to overthrow Sunni Saddam and hand Iraq over to the "Iranian" Shiites? Dargham explains her anxieties thusly:
But there is another interesting theory. All of the indications at the time pointed to the pro-Iraq war group – from neoconservatives to those advocating the unleashing of what they called the "Shiite force" – all worked on the basis that the enemy were only Sunnis, who produced terrorism and the 11 September 2001 attack on the US. The basic idea for these people was Iraq, and its president, Saddam Hussein, constituted the "ideal" cover to justify a strike at the country, on the pretext of WMD. They said that the oil-rich Arab lands were inhabited by Arab Shiites, and that the best way to create an oil belt (a "Petrolistan") is to produce chaos in these areas. Then, it would be able to create a Shiite extension of influence in the Arab Gulf for Iran, and via the special Syrian-Israeli relationship, one could link to Israel via Syria and Lebanon.
Lee Smith, has been insisting at "Now Lebanon" that President Bush is not dumping March 14. In his article, "No deal," Smith writes that,
Despite rumors and fears, no backroom bargain was cut at the expense of the US's Lebanese allies.
President Bush himself has been pressed into reassuring Washington's allies. Elliot Abrams and NSC chief Hadley arranged for a meeting between Syrian oppositionists living in the US and President Bush himself. Amar Abdulhamid, one of the Syrian contingent, has written about the Meeting. He describes how Bush "spoke passionately in defense of human rights in Syria and worldwide and revealed in-depth knowledge of developments inside Syria."
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is another March 14er, who believes that Lebanon is being sold down the river by Washington. Without evidence, he posits that King Abdullah's trip to Damascus the week before Annapolis was in reality a fireside sale. Syria is getting back the Golan, he insists, but Bashar hasn't "flipped" yet! What does this mean? Stupid American suckers for Syria. Read his article.
Beirut — The question as to whether Damascus can be made to break its alliance with Iran and alter its ways, as Western and Arab governments have sought of late, has confounded all those answering in the affirmative.
When Lebanon's March 14 coalition recently approved the candidacy for president of army commander General Michel Suleiman, the pro-Iranian Hizbullah displayed reluctance in accepting. This suggested a possible crack between Syria and Iran, because Syria had long been viewed as supportive of Suleiman. Yet Syrian-Iranian divergences might really be more a product of Western wishful thinking than anything else.
Diplomats believe that during his recent visit to Damascus three weeks ago, Jordan's King Abdullah relayed to Syrian President Bashar Assad what he described as a "final offer" for Syria to distance itself from Iran. Abdullah's package reportedly included proposals that Syria would regain control of the occupied Golan Heights and would receive international aid, while the international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would be scaled down.
In return, Damascus would have to ratify a peace treaty with Israel, cease its intervention in Lebanese affairs, end its ties with Iran, and cut off Iran's proxy groups, particularly Hizbullah and Hamas.
The idea was that if Assad walked in the footsteps of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, he would end his country's isolation and rejoin the international community as a full partner. Alternatively, if Assad refused the offer, he would have to endure more international opprobrium and be abandoned to his alliance with an increasingly isolated Tehran.
The assumptions behind such a scheme jar with what we already know about Syria and its behavior in the past. The Syrian regime has never taken one side or another when asked to do so, and this is particularly true of its relationship with Iran. For example, recently Damascus sent Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad to Annapolis for the conference on Middle East peace. Yet only days earlier, Foreign Minister Walid Moallem had flown to Tehran to explain to the Iranians his country's perspective on the gathering, which Assad had depicted as a likely failure.
Damascus wants to have the cake and eat it too. It wants the Hariri tribunal scaled down and its international isolation ended. At the same time, the Syrian regime wants to maintain its links to Hizbullah, preserve its ties to an Iran that has bought off Syria's debt to Russia, and re-impose its hegemony over Lebanon. No matter how much international aid Syria receives, this would never sweeten Syria's financial pot as did its control over Lebanon before 2005, the year its army withdrew from the country.
The Syrian regime also believes that if the international community is not willing to give Syria all it wants now, it might be willing to do so in the future. Damascus feels it has plenty of time to wait for the balance of power to change in a way that all its demands are eventually answered.
Now that the Annapolis conference is over, the Syrian regime can pretend that it has actually taken Abdullah's offer. However, once the United States sends its ambassador back to Damascus and the international community scales down the Hariri tribunal, Syria would only ask for more. Among these demands is the restoration of its influence over Lebanon. As time goes by, Damascus would find excuses to reestablish its links to Tehran – assuming it severed them at all. In no time, Syria would have reneged on all its commitments, while the regime would have raked in all the benefits the international community had to offer.
Some history might be useful here. After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in summer 1982, Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Beirut. Five years later, however, Damascus managed to send its forces back into West Beirut not only to restore civil peace after Amal and Hizbullah had fought a bloody conflict in the capital's southern suburbs, but also supposedly to help release Western hostages. Washington approved the return. Between 1982 and 1987 circumstances had changed, yet the Syrian regime stood its ground and heightened its chances for a comeback. It succeeded.
There is no guarantee this won't happen again. In early 2008 there will be a new administration in Washington and international circumstances will have probably changed. The recent release of a US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program has the potential to substantially alter American calculations in the Middle East, which could offer Syria greater room to maneuver. Nothing guarantees that Damascus won't try to take advantage of the new situation in order to return in some way to Lebanon and take the country back to where it was before the Cedar Revolution. The world should be aware that this is the real Syrian game.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a journalist based in Washington. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.