Posted by Joshua on Thursday, December 7th, 2006
MKS asked in the comment section of the last post, "Josh – what is so important about this article by Sharaa that you and Alex thought it needed to be translated? Does Faruq al-Sharaa even still matter?"
Answer from Joshua: Yes, Sharaa still matters. Sharaa has been an integral part of the new Asad regime. He has played "bad cop" to various "good cops." From 2003 to 2005, he was bad cop to Khaddam and Kanaan on the Lebanon issue (see this previous post of 2005, bottom of post). More recently he has played bad cop to Walid Mualem, particularly on the UN investigation of the Hariri murder.
Khaddam wanted to go soft on Lebanon in 2004, permitting a free presidential election during the fall of 2004. Sharaa was the architect of Lahoud's extension. At the time, he argued that the UN Security Council would not take action against Syria with 1559. He was wrong, but was not punished for this at the time, despite wide-spread belief by Syria's reformers that he should have been. He was the instrument by which regime leaders split the "old guard." He articulated the anti-Khaddam line within the old guard.
Sharaa also argued for a hard Syrian line on Iraq (Jihad and resistance) in contrast to Khaddam who wanted Syria to pursue a more flexible policy toward America. Sharaa believing that Saddam would put up more resistance than he did to the American invasion. When this didn't happen and Saddam fell without a fight, Syria was thrown back on its heals, and the US went on its Syria offensive, accusing Syria of aiding Iraq's Baathist dead-enders, taking in Saddam's WMD, and opening up a Ho Chi Min trail to assist the insurgents. As a result, Sharaa was taken off the Iraq portfolio and it was given to Khaddam. Khaddam tried to organize the Sunni tribal leaders in order to deliver them to the Americans and reopen a dialogue with Washington on the basis of delivering Iraqi Sunni cooperation for Lebanon. This strategy failed because Washington would not talk to its enemies, use diplomacy with the Syrians, or pay blackmail (whichever description you prefer).
Following the Hariri murder and the UN investigation into Syria's culpability, Sharaa and Asef Shawkat led a 5 man committee that was tasked with planning Syria's defense and strategy toward the investigation. Only when the aggressive Mehlis phase of the investigation had been undermined by the turning of Husam Husam’s testimony and the announced resignation of Mehlis was Sharaa kicked upstairs to VP and Mualem made Foreign Minister. Mualem was brought in show a change of Syrian course. He was tasked to play the good cop.
His appointment indicated to the UN that Syria would cooperate up to a point with the international investigation. President Asad wanted to find a graceful way to de-escalate the confrontation in Lebanon; he wanted to smooth relations with the International community. By replacing Sharaa with Mualem at the end of 2005, Asad was suggesting that Syria believed it had dodged the Mehlis bullet and needed a new foreign policy face to try to break out of its isolation.
The return of Sharaa as Syria’s spokesperson in yesterday's statement suggests that Syria’s regime leaders are taking him out of mothballs in order to initiate a "bad cop" phase. They may well believe that Washington is determined not to compromise on Lebanon and not to follow the Baker-Hamilton Plan recommendations. Bush and Olmert have made it clear they refuse to resume real dialogue with Syria. This may mean that Syria is pulling up its socks and preparing to push the confrontation up a notch in order to punish Washington for its refusal to engage Syria and give ground in Lebanon and on the UN investigation.
Syria thinks it has won these battles, or will win them, and that Washington is just being obtuse by not finding a gracefully retreat (as the Baker report recommends) and negotiating with Syria to save what it can of its Lebanon policy without subjecting Lebanon and the region to needless confrontation. My hunch is that Syria is preparing to play for keeps in Lebanon on the issue of bringing down the Siniora government, even if an escalation means further civil discord and risking violence that may spin out of control. It means blocking Hamas cooperation with Abu Abbas and blocking a prisoner exchange with Israel. It means obstructing American initiatives in Iraq and undermining the Malaki government. It means going to the mat with Saudi Arabia and tightening cooperation with Iran.
In effect, Sharaa is saying to the West, "if you want to play this game of chicken, you are foolish. We are not going to blink first or veer from our well known course. You will lose in this game. If you do not negotiate with us in good faith, Lebanon will burn, Palestine will burn, and Iraq will burn. We have the cards and we will play them.” This is why I found Sharaa's statement important. From Alex's comments, I think he shares this concern.
This is no time for the US and Syria to be escalating their conflict. The dangers of further radicalization in the region are real and America’s hand is weak. My hunch is that Syria will win on more fronts that it loses. “Win” is perhaps the wrong word to use. Everyone will be a loser, but Syria will lose less than Lebanon, Palestine or Iraq.
Compromising with Hizbullah in Beirut will not mean a “Tehran on the Mediterranean” as Hisham Melham insisted it would in his PBS News Hour interview with me. This is why I posted my “Babes of Hizbullah” article several days ago. Lebanon will not become Iran, as some claim will happen should ground be ceded to the Lebanese opposition. (See Helena Cobban's vociferous objection to this post on the grounds that it was sexist and exploitative. Also see her post at "Just World News," her site.)
Allow me to add one anecdote to explain why I believe Lebanon will not become a copy of Khomeini’s Iran. In 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon forcing two-hundred-thousand Southern Lebanese to flee north, a Shiite Imam occupied the apartment on the first floor of a building in which lived a Lebanese woman friend of mine. I had been teaching at International College in Beirut, but had moved to Damascus before the invasion to attend the University of Damascus.
The Imam brought body guards and militia men with him; they became a powerful presence in the neighborhood (Saqiet al-Janzeer). They shut down the bars in the quarter and harassed my friend for living alone and for having male visitors to her apartment. She worried that Beirut would turn into Tehran. After some time, the Imam stopped enforcing his puritanical rules on the neighborhood and things returned to normal. The Shiites from the South adapted to Beirut rather than Beirut being transformed into Tehran.
There can be little doubt that finding a compromise with Hizbullah and Aoun will change things in Lebanon in a way that liberal, Western-oriented Lebanese will dislike, but perhaps negotiating a compromise will be less damaging to their interests than forcing a confrontation that will become ugly? Having Hizbullah take additional power by force will not serve anyone’s interests.