Posted by Joshua on Monday, June 25th, 2007
I recently received this note from a Western analyst working for a private risk analysis outfit.
I hope your stay in Syria is going well and you are not working too much. I have a quick question – while off the record it could start a nice discussion on the site.
It seems to me as if Syria is being forced into a tough corner right now. When the Arab League left Beirut, the finger was pointed at the opposition and Syria for foiling the talks – Mussa even said that Beirut will not be left in control of foreign powers. Pretty direct talk for him. Since Saudi, Qatar, Egypt and others were involved in those talks, the Arabs may try to isolate Syria again with the hope of changing Presidents in Lebanon by the end of the summer. At the same time, the UN is moving forward with Hariri trial and is even considering UN forces along the Syria-Lebanon border. Both real no-go areas for Syria.
Now, Asad has a number of options to him to try to stop these. One was nicely outlined by Michael Young in the Friday article – while I cant see a Hizballah coup, a parallel government seems the likely path for Lebanon after Aug. 5 elections are held. At the same time, we can also see more action by Sunni militant groups – i.e. the UNIFIL attack on Sunday or other bombings – or Hizballah activity along the border with Israel. Syria can also encourage allies in the PA – i.e. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – to attack Israel. Or, Syria could attempt a cross border attack to re-capture small parts of Golan Heights back from Israel (or all 3 at the same time).
The way I read Syria, it could easily take a military approach to getting out of this whole – and frankly, I don't think it has a diplomatic way out unless it is willing to make major concessions with so signs that it will be rewarded for it. I wanted to get your perspective on this. Any help you have will be greatly appreciated.
One gets the sense in Damascus that the regime feels embattled by the situation in Lebanon and Palestinian, the International Tribunal, and the lack of any progress with the US or Israel. Most Syrians cannot see a way out, but they are quite anti-Lebanese (or more correctly, March 14) and anti-US, which gives the government latitude to raise the pressure in Lebanon and dig in its heels. The president is popular and the regime faces no organized opposition, which has been dealt with severely. The regime has prepared the ground in Syria for struggle.
I think the bombing of the UNIFIL troops was an indication of the troubles that the UN can look forward to if it presses the Syrians or their ally Hizbullah. My sense is the Syrians are angry and believe they are not being offered an acceptable way forward. Syrians believe they are a crucial piece of the regional geo-strategic architecture and should not be treated with disdain. They are not about to allow Hizbullah to be isolated. The government is confident it can withstand considerable international pressure if needs be. It will fight, but covertly.
I do not think they will do anything on the Golan, however. This would be to hand Israel a golden opportunity to pound Syria. There is too much Western and Arab opposition to Syria for the regime to risk any open hostilities with Israel. No one would be there to stop Israeli attacks as they were in the case of Lebanon 2006. Anything Syria might grab for a few hours on the Golan would be retrieved by Israel in no time and at great cost to Syria.
The Syrian government is gambling on economic growth in Syria. It would not want to squander that on adventures with Israel. The example of Lebanon's economic slump since its 2006 misadventure with Israel is a stark warning. Syria has nothing to gain from direct conflict with Israel. The March 14th government and Western troops in Lebanon, however, are sitting ducks. They are exposed, militarily, politically, and economically. If Western leaders believe they can take on Syria and the Lebanese opposition without engaging them or making concessions, I think they will be in for a nasty fight. The Lebanese will suffer, particularly the well off, who are not used to deprivations.
Many Western diplomats here are of the opinion that this Syrian policy of tit for tat is short sighted because any increase of extremism in the region will eventually bleed back into Syria. The West is far away, they observe. This is probably true in the long run. Extremism is good for no one. However, Syria seems willing to play this game of chicken. It believes it can survive it. The fact that there have been no successful acts of terrorism in Syria for 20 years has produced a sense of invulnerability – perhaps a false one, as foreign diplomats like to point out.
One Syrian recently wrote on Syria Comment the following indelicate warning:
Do not keep f…ing with the long arm of Syria. Shar’a [Faruq al-Sharaa, Vice-President] has already given the US/Moderate camp another not so subtle hint when he said Syria’s friends in Lebanon are more powerful than their opponents. Know what he meant and implied? Forget Iraq; it is gone, now forget Gaza and the West Bank, and Lebanon is a done deal with the eventual collapse of Saado/Jaja/Junblat looming not far away.
I think this sentiment encapsulates the dominant thinking of authorities here.
I do not know what strategy the Syrians will support toward the upcoming Lebanese presidential elections. Much of this will probably be left up to the Lebanese opposition to decide. So long as March 14 cannot establish a constitutional and viable way forward without coming to the negotiating table, Syria will have made its point.
Not a rosy picture. I don't see anything good happening in the region so long as the present constellation of forces remains entrenched. There is zero trust between the various actors, hatreds are being nourished, and each side believes it can win a war of attrition.
Best to you, Joshua
The Collateral Damage of Lebanese Sovereignty
Jim Quilty, Middle East Report, June 18, 2007
"Eyes Wide Shut"
Peter Harling and Joost Hiltermann, Le Monde Diplomatique, 14 May 2007
full article: https://exchange.ou.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4831%26l=1
"The Road from Mecca"
Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, The New York Review of Books, 10 May 2007
full article: http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4844&l=1
بعد مكة: إشراك حماس؟
Middle East Report N°62, 28 February 2007
full report: https://exchange.ou.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/getfile.cfm?id=2783%26tid=4677%26type=pdf%26l=6
استئناف المفاوضات الإسرائيلية – السورية
Middle East Report N°63, 10 April 2007
full report: https://exchange.ou.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/getfile.cfm?id=2893%26tid=4758%26type=pdf%26l=6
"Dialoguer avec la Syrie, une nécessité"
Robert Malley and Peter Harling, Le Monde, 2 June 2007
full article: https://exchange.ou.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4881%26l=1
"'West Bank First': It Won't Work"
Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller, The Washington Post, 19 June 2007
full article: https://exchange.ou.edu/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4908