Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, July 24th, 2007
Syria is looking for a deal over Lebanon. Al-Hayat "quoted sources in Syria on Monday who said Cousseran had reached a deal with Syrian officials during his visit to Damascus last week to push for a government of national unity as the first step toward resolving Lebanon's political crisis."
Cousseran denies this emphatically, claiming, "There were no negotiations with Syria. I did not go to Syria to negotiate. I headed to Syria to update them on the outcome of the Saint Cloud meeting."
Nevertheless, Cousseran also said, "Syria expressed its willingness to help the Lebanese dialogue."
Syria is looking for a new Lebanese President and national unity government that will protect Syrian regional interests. This means:
1. Refusal to join international efforts to disarm Hizbullah that are not made within a larger regional deal that includes Israel's return of the Golan Heights to Syria.
2. Refusal to support UN efforts to target Syria through the international court or other resolutions. 3. Constructing a national unity government that will marginalize vocal anti-Syrian deputies, such as Geagea and Junbalat.
Syria has two major security interests in Lebanon.
1. To use proxy forces such as Hizbullah and Palestinian groups to pressure Israel for a Golan deal.
2. To make sure Lebanon is not used as a bridgehead to destabilize or isolate Syria.
Syria has no interest in sending troops back into Lebanon, but it does insist on have a neighbor that will help promote its regional interests, rather than undermine them. If the Lebanese government is seen to be supporting international efforts to hurt Syria or back efforts to isolate and sanction it, the Syrian government will naturally do what it can to ensure the Lebanese government is a powerless instrument and incapable of advancing reforms or growing its economy.
Western officials and many Lebanese insist they will not concede such power to Syria. Standing on principle, they maintain that any concession to Syrian interests would be to limit Lebanese sovereignty and freedom. They point out that what Syria is really asking for is the ability to vet Lebanese presidential candidates for their friendliness to Syria and to be consulted on the make-up of a national unity government.
Syrian authorities also stand on principle, invoking "the rights of the Arabs." They see the region to be locked in a larger struggle between East and West and between "Arab" interests and US-Israeli interests. If the US and Israel win in this struggle, Syria insists, it will mean that Syria does not get back the Golan that was snatched from it in 1967 and that more than 300,000 Golanis now living as refugees in their own country will lose their land for good. The Palestinians will continue to be displaced by Israeli settlers and fail to gain their right to a state within the 1967 borders. Iraq will remain unstable and a US satrap. The more than one million Iraqi refugees in Syria will be stuck here as have the half-million Palestinians. Syria will be hemmed in by inimical governments, which may seek to destabilize it and perhaps provoke civil war amongst its people.
So long as both sides stand on principle and can count on their Lebanese allies, there seems little likelihood of a positive outcome in Lebanon or the formation of a stable and effective government. Neither side can win. Syria and its Lebanese allies cannot win by force and have shown no inclination to provoke civil war in Lebanon. They have been content to promote paralysis and stagnation, believing that time is on their side. Equally, the West and its allies among the March 14 coalition believe time favors their side.
The French, in their latest efforts at diplomacy, are suggesting that perhaps they are not certain the West can break or divide the Lebanese opposition by convincing either Hizbullah or Michel Aoun to switch camps. Despite his statements that France will not deal with Syria, Cousseran cannot be insensitive to regional and Syrian requirements to break the logjam in Lebanon. Whether either side is willing to make the concessions necessary for a deal remains to be seen.
It is in this context that we must see Israel war scares, enhanced US sanctions on Syria and Syrian officials, suggestions by right-wingers in the US that military action be taken against Syria, recent claims by US officials in Iraq that Syria is contributing to the killing of US troops in Iraq, and attempts to get the mandate for UNIFIL forces in Lebanon extended to include border control with Syria. The West is making ever effort to intimidate Syria into making concessions in Lebanon. My sense from talking to officials here, is that Syria is in no mood to be intimidated. There is a confidence in Syria today, that I have not sensed in many years. The President made it very clear in his speech last week that the Syrian government will stick to its principles and strategy. There is no reason to disbelieve him. This does not mean that Syria will not show any willingness to deal, but it will insist on clear returns for its cooperation. It is not clear that Cousseran can deliver such returns. He must be commended for trying, however.
The following are articles from today's press, which substantiate aspects of what I have written above. Most were brought to my attention by Mohanad Atassi, who I thank. I have also talked to a number foreign diplomats over the last two months as well as Syrians of varied background, some officials of the government and many not.
Analysis: All quiet on the Mideast front?
By CLAUDE SALHANI
UPI International Editor
WASHINGTON, July 23 (UPI) — All is quiet on the Middle Eastern front — for the time being.
A little over a year after the war between Israel and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah ended almost as abruptly as it had started, there are rumblings of renewed violence possibly breaking out in the Middle East.
The next few months could be "fateful" for Syria, according to the country's president, Bashar Assad, as quoted by the usually very well informed Internet blog, SyriaComment.com.
Indeed, the region was rife with rumors over the past few months of probable outbreak of hostilities between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights. And rumors of a possible attack by the United States on Iran's nuclear facilities have never been entirely off the radar screens. Some circles in Washington are calling for action before the Islamic republic becomes a nuclear power, making the possibility of such a raid far more complex.
Reports of a third U.S. carrier task force — with the USS Nimitz — said to be heading for the Gulf region this week now places a total of about 300 carrier-based fighter jets within striking range of Iran.
"The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better," writes Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Peace Studies at the University of Oklahoma, publisher of the SyriaComment blog, who is currently visiting Syria. The next few months "will be a waiting game and the hatches have all been battened down," writes Landis.
Damascus and Tehran are bound by a mutual defense pact and an attack on Iran by the United States is likely to bring Syria into the fray. An Iranian opposition figure reports that an important arms deal was struck between Iran and Syria following the visit of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus last week in which Iran will fund Syria's military about $1 billion towards arms procurement.
Writing in the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Ali Reza Nourizadeh reports that the defense agreement between the two countries allows Iran to keep MiG-31E fighter aircrafts based in Syria with Syrian markings, but at Iran's disposal.
Syria hopes to use the money to renew its aging fighter jets, Soviet-era tanks and anti-ship missiles, and to develop its nuclear and chemical weapons research programs.
Assad also reportedly promised Ahmadinejad that he would cease his pursuit of peace talks with Israel if Iran would back Syrian interests in Lebanon. The strengthening of ties between Syria and Iran is seen as a serious threat in Israel. The Jerusalem Post reports that Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman is calling for a national unity government to protect the Jewish state from the growing "axis of evil."
Report of the Syrian-Iranian agreement and Washington's saber rattling has not done much to lessen the tension in the region. Even recent overtures towards Syria from France, which is reasserting itself as a key player in the region's politics, has kept relations between Damascus and the West tense. Middle East experts remain pessimistic regarding the region's immediate future, despite a recent call by U.S. President George W. Bush for a regional conference to relaunch the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Breaking the long isolation imposed on Damascus by Washington and Paris since the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, French President Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched an envoy to Damascus and Iran, to reassert France's role in the region.
Although French Foreign Ministry sources say that the visit by Jean-Claude Cousseran to Damascus and Tehran will not diminish Paris's support of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government, the move, nevertheless, is a break from the previous policy of former President Jacques Chirac to keep Syria isolated.
Chirac and Hariri were close friends and the killing of the former Lebanese leader pushed Chirac to freeze relations with Damascus. While President Sarkozy made it known that he intends to continue supporting the government of Prime Minister Siniora, however, he is not burdened by the personal relationship his predecessor entertained with Hariri.
Nevertheless, Naharnet, the Internet edition of the influential Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar, cites unnamed French Foreign Ministry sources as saying that the French envoy to Damascus was under instructions from the Elysee Palace, to inform Syria of the need to quit betting on external powers to make a "deal" at Lebanon's expense.
The possibility of a deal being struck between Damascus and Washington and/or Paris to the detriment of the Lebanese continues to worry many Lebanese who fear seeing Syria reassert itself militarily in Lebanon.
Still according to the Lebanese newspaper, French sources confirmed that Cousseran conveyed a "harsh warning" to Syria's Vice President Farouk Sharaa and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem concerning the need to deal "positively" with French and Arab efforts aimed at building stability in Lebanon.
The sources stressed that "Cousseran was 'very honest and clear' with the Syrian leadership," and that he made it known that this was Syria's "last chance" toward changing its behavior in Lebanon.
The Lebanese paper said that the French envoy "informed Syrian officials that such meetings will not take place in the future unless France sees 'tangible' changes in Syria's behavior in Lebanon and the region."
Yes, the Middle Eastern front may be quiet. But is it the proverbial calm before the storm? — (E-mail: Claude@upi.com)
Cousseran conveys Syria's 'willingness to help Lebanese dialogue'
24 July 2007Daily Star
Beirut — BEIRUT: French envoy Jean-Claude Cousseran arrived in Beirut on Monday in a bid to relaunch dialogue in Lebanon between feuding political leaders and break the eight-month-old political deadlock. "Syria expressed its willingness to help the Lebanese dialogue," Cousseran told reporters after his meeting with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Cousseran met with Siniora within an hour after Cousseran's arrival from Paris.
Prior to his visit to Lebanon, Cousseran journeyed last week to Syria, where the French envoy met with Syrian officials regarding the political standoff in Lebanon and said the Syrian authorities were "backing" French efforts to prod dialogue among Lebanon's political camps.
Al-Hayat newspaper quoted sources in Syria on Monday who said Cousseran had reached a deal with Syrian officials during his visit to Damascus last week to push for a government of national unity as the first step toward resolving Lebanon's political crisis.
"There were no negotiations with Syria. I did not go to Syria to negotiate," Cousseran said after repeated questions from the media concerning the details of Cousseran's visit to Lebanon's neighbor. "I headed to Syria to update them on the outcome of the Saint Cloud meeting," he added. …
Cousseran's three-day mission in Beirut is aimed at paving the way for a two-day trip to Beirut by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Kouchner is scheduled to arrive on Saturday. "There will be a visit by Kouchner, who will hold talks [with Lebanese factions] to help them resume dialogue," said Cousseran. Kouchner has said his visit to Lebanon was aimed at making progress in the dialogue that had started in La Celle Saint Cloud, a Paris suburb where 30 politicians from 14 factions took part in the closed-door weekend talks. …
Cousseran did not confirm whether Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa would be joining the French initiative.
The Arab League mission to Beirut last month ended without making progress in getting feuding political factions closer to the negotiating table.
A source at the French Embassy told The Daily Star that Cousseran would also be meeting with parliamentary majority leader MP Saad Hariri and head of the Free Patriotic Movement MP Michel Aoun on Monday.
"This is not a new initiative, but continuation of the one that started in Paris," Cousseran told reporters after his meeting with Hariri.
Cousseran expressed optimism over how the initiative is progressing and reiterated that the meeting near Paris "did help close some of the gap" between Lebanon's wrangling leaders.
At the same time, Syria vowed to reach an agreement based on the Lebanese Constitution and elect a new Lebanese president with a two-thirds quorum in Parliament.
The sources also said Syria will be discussing the French-Syrian deal with leaders from the opposition in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, France's decision to send its envoy to Damascus marked a potential softening of its stance following the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy in May. However, the daily An-Nahar newspaper quoted French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani as saying that Cousseran's talks in Damascus do not imply "any change in France's policy" toward Syria.
Lebanon is all conflict mitigation without reform
24 July 2007
(c) 2007 THE DAILY STAR, BEIRUT, LEBANON.
Beirut — One has to wonder whether to admire the resiliency of Lebanese society or ridicule its ability to adapt so easily to potential doom. Assailed by speculation of another summer conflict, Lebanese displayed a mixture of hope and angst. Youth flocked to Facebook groups such as "Nobody's ruining my f-ing vacation in Lebanon this summer," perpetuating a much-derided if necessary schizophrenia. Of course, such a mindset could not survive the coming storm.
Since May, Lebanon has suffered major security incidents. Government paralysis, a crisis of legitimacy regarding the country's institutions and power-sharing system and a targeted campaign of violence, all against the backdrop of upcoming milestones, have left Lebanon economically struggling, politically fractured and flirting with state failure again.
The first blow came when Lebanese security forces clashed with Fatah al-Islam. This peculiar organization, whose alleged loyalties and patrons have inspired spurious theories, has operated from Palestinian camps north of Tripoli since late 2006 and is comprised of Arab and Lebanese fighters, some returning from Iraq. Some have depicted Fatah al-Islam as a carefully groomed Sunni instrument that turned rogue; rather, Fatah al-Islam thrived on the factional nature of Sunni Islam, the availability of frustrated foreign militants, the ability to siphon resources and men from other groups (and thus to invite manipulation) and the state's structural incapacity to preempt such threats.
The Nahr al-Bared tragedy is approaching its end, but once again Lebanon's weak institutions failed to deliver basic security. The fight left the camp in ruins, exacerbating tensions between displaced Palestinians and local Lebanese and, despite overwhelming Sunni condemnation of Fatah al-Islam, frustrated and further radicalized segments of the Sunni community. While violence is now territorially contained, Fatah al-Islam's use of rockets against neighboring towns, the threat of sleeper cells and the real risk of Palestinian or Salafist-jihadist uprisings elsewhere are distressing prospects.
After a bruising start and disorderly political direction, the military's performance gradually improved, boosting its image and morale. Almost everywhere there are signs of genuine if inflated pride in the Lebanese armed forces, seen by many as the one institution actually fulfilling its mission and not mired in sectarian and political bickering. Whatever good comes out of the army's performance, however, will dissipate as the political crisis endures. Underlying this success is the reality of an overstretched force, poor managerial and strategic skills at the top, inadequate equipment and training and perennial concerns about force cohesion. Indeed, the illusion that the army is a solution to the country's ills is fading. Unless comprehensive reform occurs, the security sector will remain vulnerable to political interference, misplaced ambitions and manipulation.
The other security front is South Lebanon, an over-militarized and volatile space. The predictable June 25 attack on the Spanish peacekeepers – probably by a jihadist group – and multiple violations of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 by Israel, Syria and Hizbullah illustrate the resolution's limitations. Torn between the requirements of force protection, which would call for intelligence sharing with Hizbullah and security guarantees from Syria, and the need to fulfill their mission by containing both, nervous UNIFIL officials are adamant that attacks will not divert them from the latter. For its part, Hizbullah seems genuinely disturbed by this attack at a time when it is still determined to win the political struggle in Beirut, not turn up the heat in the South.
The UN Security Council's adoption of the Hariri tribunal was a watershed event but not a turning point – probably because some parties from all sides see the tribunal as an instrument of regime change instead of deterrence and leverage with Syria. Having secured the tribunal, the parliamentary majority extended too timid a hand to the opposition, which in turn refused to soften its demand for a veto right within a national unity government. Nor did the tribunal prevent the assassination of parliamentarian Walid Eido, likely the doing of Damascus' Lebanese henchmen.
A frustrated victor, Hizbullah has failed to cash in politically on its victory against Israel and to deliver on its reconstruction promises. Having jeopardized its cross-sectarian appeal, it has taken a backseat as its allies lead the confrontation with the government. But these partners, strongly identified with Syrian rule (except Michel Aoun), undermine the opposition's very claim to embody change and good governance. Nevertheless, the Hizbullah-Aoun alliance of convenience and shared opposition to the Taif system continue to shape political dynamics, and Hizbullah scored an unprecedented diplomatic nod when invited to the French-sponsored meeting of Saint-Cloud.
The governing coalition has survived the opposition's tremendous challenge so far. Yet, physically threatened and internally divided, it has failed to demonstrate either competence or creativity.
By trying to internationalize every problem, it has given credence to the perception of a Western and Arab trusteeship over Lebanon. Moreover, the tactics of delegitimizing Hizbullah as un-Lebanese and refusing to rethink the governance structure have shown their limits. This is why anti-Syrian rhetoric is escalating again, not without justification, but at considerable risk.
Indeed, Syria's direct contribution to Lebanon's instability remains considerable, if murky and sometimes overstated. In Syrian eyes, instability validates the positive role Syria played until 2005, squarely putting the blame for recent tensions on Lebanon's sectarian divisions and on the international community's shortsightedness. It also contributes to international fatigue with the Lebanese mess – opening the door for Syria to return as a pivotal player with veto power over Lebanese politics and the capacity to deliver its Lebanese allies if properly courted and rewarded, as French diplomacy is presently doing.
Under such circumstances, there is no opening for serious debate about political reform, only for conflict mitigation. The best Lebanon can hope for is a consensual president, which would require a foreign-brokered compromise. So far, however, external initiatives to promote reconciliation have stalled. The various factions are busy strategizing for the September presidential election in the hope that some improbable regional development will tip the balance their way.
At the street level, bombastic statements and meager achievements on all sides have sucked up whatever romance people still attached to either Hizbullah's "resistance" or the majority's "Cedar Revolution," strengthening sectarian sentiments at the expense of both myths.
Syria threatened to fight in Lebanon war-Hezbollah
23 July 2007
DUBAI, July 23 (Reuters) – Syria warned Israel it would send troops into Lebanon during the Jewish state's 2006 war against Hezbollah militants if its forces advanced into a Lebanese region adjacent to Damascus, the head of the guerrillas said.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah told Al Jazeera television that Syria, which along with Iran backs the Shi'ite guerrilla group, threatened to send troops "even into Lebanese territory to tackle Israeli forces".
"Syria informed the enemy's government through mediators that should any ground troops advance into Arqoub … Syria would not stand to watch and would engage," Nasrallah said in an interview aired on Monday.
The war erupted after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006. About 1,200 Lebanese and 157 Israelis were killed in a 34-day conflict.
Nasrallah did not elucidate on the source of the information. But he said Damascus did not discuss any such plans with his group during the war and Israel appeared to have heeded the warning.
"The Israelis took this message seriously … No ground advance took place in that (area) and not a single Israeli soldier advanced there," Nasrallah said.
He added that Hezbollah did not ask Syria or any other country to enter the war on its side: "This was not an intention or a wish on our part and we did not see any interest in that."
Peace talks between Syria and Israel collapsed in 2000 over Damascus's demand that the Jewish state return the Golan Heights, a mountainous plateau seized by Israel in 1967.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly expressed interest in resuming talks, but Israel says Syria's continued support for Hezbollah is too great a stumbling block.
Israel and the United States accuse Syria and Iran of arming, training and funding Hezbollah. Syria and Iran say their support to the Shi'ite anti-Israel faction is purely political.
Lebanese security and political sources said in May that Hezbollah had replenished its rocket arsenal and received improved anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles from Iran via Syria since a U.N.-backed truce halted hostilities in August.
The Beirut government says it has no proof of arms transfers from Syria since August.