Monday, July 31, 2006

What Role Can Syria Play in Lebanon?

What role can Syria play in the resolution of this conflict?

Joshua Landis
Interviewed by John Dagge
Saturday, July 29, 2006

What role does Syria have to play in the resolution of this conflict?

Syria has a big role to play. Trying to shut it out of any agreement will only guarantee that future cease-fires are temporary and fragile.

The Lebanese root cause of this problem is that the Shi'ites are terribly under-represented in parliament. They have been kept at the bottom of the Lebanese political heap despite being the largest sectarian community in Lebanon. They accepted this position in the 1989 Taif Accords, largely because Syria allowed them to keep their weapons. Since Syria left Lebanon in 2005 the other Lebanese communities – Sunnis, Druze, and Christian - have been demanding that Hezbollah give up its military weapons. At the same time, they have refused to allow the Shiites their proper constitutional role in government. They can’t have it both ways. If a deal to disarm Hizbullah is to be made in Lebanon, the Shi'ites, who represent 40 per cent of the population, will have to get close to 40 percent representation in parliament. This is going to be a major headache.

America professes that it wants a democratic solution to the Middle East, but it is refusing to promote true democracy in Lebanon. This is an analogy to the Hamas problem in Palestine and it is one of the reasons why Hezbollah and Hamas find themselves on the same side and why Arabs throughout the Middle East are rooting for them. So long as there is no solution to this fundamental injustice, there will be no peace in the Middle East. American and Israeli military might is no replacement for equity, justice and democracy.

The way Hezbollah has justified maintaining its arms is by focusing on its resistance role. If you want to eliminate that role of resistance, Hezbollah is going to have to be brought into the political center of Lebanon’s government so it becomes an established power, not an outsider throwing stones at a government dominated by others.

Syria helped broker the Taif accord, along with Saudi Arabia and America. The Americans were interested in maintaining Christian power in Lebanon, which they succeeded in doing by making sure that the Christian seats in the Lebanese parliament were not reduced below 50 per cent even though they constitute roughly 40% of the Lebanese population. The Saudis were interested in maintaining Sunni power in Lebanon which they succeeded in doing by making the Sunnis the most over-represented community in Lebanon - they were allotted the same number of seats as the Shi’ites even though the Sunnis are half as numerous. So in effect, a Sunni Lebanese is worth two Shi’a Lebanese in political terms. The Syrians went along with the deal because they wanted to look like good actors and, most importantly, because they were going to disarm the Sunnis and Christians and allow the Shi’ites to maintain their military weapons to act as a resistance to Israel. This allows Syria to maintain pressure on Israel to give back the Golan Heights.

All the outside actors were happy and the Shi’ites were compensated for their under-representation in constitutional power by gaining extra-constitutional powers in the form of the right to bear arms. Now the international community, Saudi Arabia and the US most particularly, wants to disarm Hizbullah without compensating the Shi’ites. Syria is not going to stand by and watch this happen. This also means that the Taif Accord is now effectively dead.

Syria is important in Lebanon because most of the opposition political figures look to Syria for support and political backing and this holds true right across the political spectrum. It is not only Hezbollah, but also General Michael Aoun - a Maronite Christian - as well as opposition Sunni leaders in both Tripoli and Beirut who resent Hariri's dominance of their community and feal uneasy about Lebanon's radical turn away from Syria.

There are some Western analysts who claim Syria is irrelevant. This is nonsense so long as close to half of the Lebanese politicians look toward Syria for political backing. It has to be remembered also that the Lebanese trade with inland countries has to go though Syria, so Syria stands over Lebanon with a formidable economic hammer. What is more, Syria has the ability to funnel arms to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups as well as radical Sunni groups which allows it to destabilize Lebanon if its interests are ignored.

What do you think Hezbollah's reaction to the insertion of an international force into Southern Lebanon will be?

They will refuse this outright. I don’t think anyone believes that this international force is a solution in its own right. It's the lowest common denominator and it’s a way for the West to pretend that they are doing something while giving Israel time to pound the Shi’ites. No Western European government is going to allow its troops to be thrown into Lebanon without a political agreement. If the Shi’ites have demonstrated one thing of late, it is that they can kill people who are trying to hurt them.

America has tried to sideline Syria for some time now and many would argue with some success. In light of the present crisis, can this continue?

The United States has not successfully isolated Syria. They have made life miserable for the Syrians and they have succeeded in making sure Syrian diplomats can not talk to anyone in Washington, and that Bashar al-Asad finds it difficult to meet with world leaders. But the Syrian government has effectively dodged every meaningful American bullet.

The Americans have tried to strangle Syria economically and they have failed. They have tried to keep foreign countries from engaging in commerce with Syria or meeting with the Syrian president. This has been partically successful and a hinderance, but the Europeans have refused to place meaningful economic sanctions on Syria, much to Secretary Rice's dismay. Syria has turned to the East to fine trade. It has turned to rich Gulf countries to find investment. The days of American hegemony in the Middle East have gone. Bashar al-Asad has developed good relations with resurgent Russia and China. He has excellent relations with Turkey and Iran. The Saudis and Egyptians are at the very least polite to him, perhaps begrudgingly, but they don’t write him off as the Americans do.

Indeed, over the last year we have seen the Americans become more isolated in their attempt to shut out Syria. In the last several months more Europeans have been opening their doors to the Asad regime. The Spanish Prime Minister has been talking to Asad, the new Italian Prime Minister has been demanding that diplomatic lines again be opened with Syria. British papers, such as the Observer, are demanding that Britain open a dialogue with Asad even if Washington refuses such logic. The German government has also made noises about seeing what Syria wants. The US has lost the battle to isolate Syria. If the Lebanese crisis accomplishes anything for Syria, it will be to leave Washington's anti-Syria policy in tatters.

Is America likely to swallow its pride and re-engage Syria?

I have a hunch that it will not. It is going to try to deal with this crisis through the Lebanese government. We saw Secretary Rice in her first Middle East tour avoid Damascus. Instead she used the Shiite Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, to sound out Hizbullah. In the past, going to Damascus was always one of the first stops of US diplomacy. However, in avoiding Syria, Washington will complicate life for itself and give the Europeans a greater role in the region.

For me, however, the big question, as a ceasefire comes into place, is where are Lebanese sentiments headed– who are they going to support; who are they going to blame. The Christian right is claiming that there will be a day of reckoning before the dust settles and that Hezbollah will be punished by the rest of the sects. The pro-Hezbollah people are counting on the opposite. They believe that the Hariri government and others who punished Hezbollah by aligning themselves with Israel will bear the brunt of public dismay and anger. Nicholas Blanford (Christian Science Monitor) goes through pearly polling results, which suggest that across the sectarian communities, Lebanese are beginning to side with Hezbollah. While that may be a temporary phenomenon - a result of Israeli bombs - even anti-Syrian politicians such as Walid Jumblatt are beginning to suggest that Hizbullah will be the winner. America and the neo-cons are betting on the fact that Hezbollah is going to be punished by the rest of Lebanon and isolated. My hunch is that the opposite is going to be true and the neo-cons are painting themselves into an ever-smaller circle here.

Despite this, I think you will see them push ahead in an attempt to isolate Hezbollah and build up a Lebanese coalition against them. That has been the thrust of US policy over the past two-years and I expect it remains the present policy. George Bush is yet to blink in the face of failure and I don't see why he will star blinking now in Lebanon.

Are there parallels with the latest conflict and the War of 73 – the war that brought Arabs back to the negotiating table?

I’ve read the analogies but I would see this more in terms of 1982 than ‘73.

Sadat, who found himself politically irrelevant, decided to give the Israelis a bloody nose in order to be taken seriously. He succeeded in doing that and was offered the Sinai back and now Egypt is the strongest America ally in the region and is at peace in Israel. There is no reason to believe that the Syrians will not accept a similar outcome. The major problem with this, however, is that Egypt had the greatest army in the Arab world and was the most important power. Syria has always been considered irrelevant and Israel and the US have always preferred to isolate it rather than give back the Golan Heights. But this is a Pyrrhic victory. Syria will remain a spoiler to any peace plan in the region so as long as it is not dealt into the final outcome. It can be a stabilizing force in the region as many Israeli and American ex-diplomats and intelligence chiefs have claimed. Attempts to write it off as a rogue state or irrational actor are silly.

Are we seeing a new Middle East? Is a fundamental power restructuring taking place?

I think we are seeing a restructuring. This has to do with Iraq changing from a Sunni to a Shi'ite power - from a power that was aligned against Iran and promoted itself as a defender of the Gulf to a power that is looking towards Iran. Shi’ite success looks like it is going to realign Iraq with Iran and possibly Syria against the Gulf. This will fundamentally change the balance of power in the region.

America is resisting this change that it set in motion because it means oil and gas pipeslines will be running from Iran through Iraq and Syria up to Turkey and on through to the EU. Just as importantly, they will be running in the other direction to China, India and Russia. This will reorient world power towards the East. It’s going to pull Europe away from its dependence on the US security umbrella, which is under-girded by US domination of oil markets and oil producers. Europe will become more dependent on powers like Russia and Iran. The stakes are high for American as it loses control of oil. It will not be able to retain its status as the single great superpower; rather, it will become one among equals, which is precisely what Cheney and Rumsfeld are determined to prevent.

Iraqi technical committees have already been meeting with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts plan for these pipelines. This will allow them to challenge Saudi Arabian dominance in OPEC. It’s what you might call an axis of oil – or access of oil - and the Russians and Chinese are eager to connect to it. As I see it, this is the big battle. My hunch is that within five or six years, when Iraq beings to consolidate under a Shi’ite dictatorship, it will not ask American oil companies to run the show, but rather, Russian and Chinese oil companies. For political and economic reasons, Iraqis will want to move away from American domination. Economic imperatives make linking up to Iran and the East logical. Such a combination will be powerful.

What kind of resolution does Syria want to see in Lebanon?

Syria will throw its weight on the side of constraining Hezbollah and working out a political agreement, if its interests are advanced in the process. The most likely way this may happen is if new elections are called in Lebanon.

Many of the pro-Syrian politicians in Lebanon now believe that they will do well at the polls following this conflict. Early polling figures indicate that the Lebanese population is siding with Hizbullah and may be willing to punish the Hariri-led Future Movement that governs Lebanon today. It has been discredited by its American and Israeli allies. Opposition politicians have already begun to accuse the Future Movement of getting Lebanon into this mess and being responsible for the destruction of Lebanon.

Their logic goes along the following lines: by trying to marginalize the Shiites and disarm Hizbullah on orders from America, the Future Movement deserves the blame for dividing the Lebanese and paralyzing the government. Had the Future Bloc eschewed revenge against the Syrians and stuck to the middle road a government of national unity would have been possible. As it was, Hariri insisted on siding with the Americans and elevating Jeremy Feltman, the US ambassador to Lebanon, to the status of proconsul of Beirut. His dictates, whether they were to refuse a Hizbullah appointee the Foreign Ministry, to beat back attempts by the Lebanese government to officially complain to the UN about an Israeli spy ring accused of five political assassinations in Lebanon, or to drive forward the Future Movement’s anti-Syrian policy by repeating ad-nausea that Damascus was the culprit behind Hariri’s murder when the evidence was thin and scuttling Saudi and Egyptian attempts to mediate between Beirut and Damascus, Rafiq’s son traduced his father’s legacy of neutrality and genius for keeping Lebanon out of the region’s wars. Instead to of protecting Lebanon, Hariri made it an instrument of Washington’s war. And to what end? Having refused Hizbullah a real share in government and having failed to defeat them, he offered the country no way forward. The result was paralysis. In essence, he challenged Hizbullah to go off the reservation and provoke a confrontation.

Some Lebanese politicians have already begun to accuse Washington of unleashing Israeli military might on Lebanon because of the Future Bloc’s incompetence. Because the FB was too weak to carry out America’s plan to disarm Hizbullah, Washington turned to Israel to get the job done. The Hariri Bloc recklessly and foolishly put its trust in Washington only to have Lebanon dragged into a conflict he could not control and Lebanon could not win. The subtext to such accusations is that the Future Bloc conspired with Israel, if not explicitly, then tacitly. The silence of the Future Bloc during the first week of Israel’s bombing campaign gives ammunition to such broadsides. Saad Hariri kept insisting that Syria was to blame for the death and destruction rained down on Lebanon by American bombs and airplanes driven by Israeli pilots, even as the Prime Minister of Lebanon, his appointee, tacked in the opposite direction, blaming the US and accusing Israel of war crimes.

Prime Minister Siniora has spoken out strongly of late to condemn Israel and the US. His about-face reflects the mood in Lebanon. He is struggling to distance himself from the US and his political bloc’s destructive policies. No Lebanese politician can cling to Washington and hope for a national role. The US has isolated itself. The Future Bloc has dumped it.

For this reason, Damascus will join the demand for new elections in Lebanon as soon as the dust settles. It will claim to be on the side of democracy, knowing that pro-Syrian politicians, who were pushed from power last year, may well be swept back into office. The key will be the Maronite presidential candidate General Aoun. This will be his moment. He is strong, nationalistic, has a well organized party, and has good relations with Damascus, Hizbullah and the Shiites. He will woo the may Sunnis who are now having misgivings about the leadership of the young Hariri. He has long demanded that Lebanon follow a middle way in its foreign policy – depending excessively on neither the East nor West and maintaining constructive relations with both.

It will be interesting to see how the Aoun-Hizbullah alliance holds up should the Siniora government lose the confidence of parliament. Syria championed Aoun as a replacement for President Lahoud, when the Future Bloc insisted that the president resign. This led Hariri’s bloc to vote for retaining Lahoud, preferring a weak pro-Syrian president, rather than one that could challenge them.

Syria will be happy with a Lebanon that eschews its alliance with the West and enmity for Syria. It would like a Lebanon that is responsive to its security concerns and will refuse to be used as a launching pad for US and Israeli attempts to weaken the Asad government.

This is precisely the reason the US does not want to engage Syria.

Is it likely that from the rubble of Lebanon a wider peace process will emerge?

Nothing points to a happy solution on the immediate horizon, despite the present cease-fire. Neither Republicans nor Democrats in the US have a real understanding of the root problems that have animated the conflict. Washington continues to be enamored by the use of force. In Israel it is the same. Iran and Syria believe that time is on their hands, as do the radical Muslim forces, more generally. So long at the US is unwilling to engage them and seeks to undermine them, they will arm the West’s opponents.

Hizbullah is convinced that the future of Lebanon is in its hands. The Shiites of Lebanon, more generally, will not return to being dirt farmers, as they were in the past. They will insist on their fair share of Lebanon’s destiny – if not through parliament, then at the point of a gun. The big question will be whether the other Lebanese sects are willing to concede real political power to the Shiite community and continue their policy of drawing the Shiites into the center of Lebanese politics in order to domesticate them or whether they will arm themselves in an effort to continue the process Israel has started, which is to weaken them by military means.

The fact that the Europeans and pro-Western Arab regimes, such as Saudi, Egypt and Jordan, have forced the US to call a cease-fire, constrains Washington’s and Israeli’s ability to broaden the war. But as long as President Bush is convinced that Israeli methods are correct, there will be no real solution.

Some European powers have announced that they will contribute troops to a UN force. But they insist that a political solution precede any outside intervention into the south of Lebanon. This means that fighting will continue.

There are few signs that we are closer to a real understanding between the various protagonists. Grandiose military objectives on both sides have been somewhat reduced, but this has not been matched by a willingness of the US and Israel to make serious concessions.

"Root Causes" by Scowcroft

Brent Scowcroft sums up the wisdom of moderate republicans on how to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is the fundamental part of the present conflict. The troubles in Palestine set into motion many of the other regional problems that animate the Lebanon debacle we are presently dealing with. The Lebanese Civil war was provoked, in part, by armed Palestinian refugees, who had been expelled from Palestine. The Golan Heights were captured by Israel in 1967 because of the on-going conflict, making Syria an intractable part of the present conflict - so were the West Bank and Gaza. Hizbullah was created in response to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 1982, which in turn was an attempt to destroy the PLO. Scowcroft is courageous to bring us back to the fundamental cause of the regional mess that was left to fester after 1948. Too few in Washington are willing to address this issue, despite all the talk of "root causes." The neocon nostrum that the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad has proven to be utter nonsense. Scowcroft knows this. He is trying to put the horse before the cart in this opinion piece he wrote for the Washington Post this weekend.

Beyond Lebanon
This Is the Time for a U.S.-Led Comprehensive Settlement
By Brent Scowcroft
Sunday, July 30, 2006; B07

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated that a simple cease-fire in Lebanon is not the solution to the current violence. She says it is necessary to deal with the roots of the problem. She is right on both counts. But Hezbollah is not the source of the problem; it is a derivative of the cause, which is the tragic conflict over Palestine that began in 1948.

The eastern shore of the Mediterranean is in turmoil from end to end, a repetition of continuing conflicts in one part or another since the abortive attempts of the United Nations to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states in 1948. The current conflagration has energized the world. Now, perhaps more than ever, we have an opportunity to harness that concern and energy to achieve a comprehensive resolution of the entire 58-year-old tragedy. Only the United States can lead the effort required to seize this opportunity.

The outlines of a comprehensive settlement have been apparent since President Bill Clinton's efforts collapsed in 2000. The major elements would include:

· A Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with minor rectifications agreed upon between Palestine and Israel.

· Palestinians giving up the right of return and Israel reciprocating by removing its settlements in the West Bank, again with rectifications as mutually agreed. Those displaced on both sides would receive compensation from the international community.

· King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia unambiguously reconfirming his 2002 pledge that the Arab world is prepared to enter into full normal relations with Israel upon its withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967.

· Egypt and Saudi Arabia working with the Palestinian Authority to put together a government along the lines of the 18-point agreement reached between Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails in June. This government would negotiate for the Authority.

· Deployment, as part of a cease-fire, of a robust international force in southern Lebanon.

· Deployment of another international force to facilitate and supervise traffic to and from Gaza and the West Bank.

· Designation of Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and Palestine, with appropriate international guarantees of freedom of movement and civic life in the city.

These elements are well-known to people who live in the region and to those outside who have labored over the decades seeking to shape a lasting peace. What seems breathtakingly complicated, however, is how one mobilizes the necessary political will, in the region and beyond, to transform these principles into an agreement on a lasting accord.

The current crisis in Lebanon provides a historic opportunity to achieve what has seemed impossible. That said, it is too much to expect those most directly implicated -- Israeli and Palestinian leaders -- to lead the way. That responsibility falls to others, principally the United States, which alone can mobilize the international community and Israel and the Arab states for the task that has defeated so many previous efforts.

How would such a process be organized? The obvious vehicle to direct the process would be the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations), established in 2001 for just such a purpose. The Quartet, beginning at the foreign-minister level, would first organize the necessary international force for southern Lebanon and Gaza and then call for a cease-fire. The security force would have to have the mandate and capability to deal firmly with acts of violence. Ideally, this would be a NATO, or at least NATO-led, contingent. Recognizing the political obstacles, the fact is that direct U.S. participation in such a force would be highly desirable -- and perhaps even essential -- for persuading our friends and allies to contribute the capabilities required.

With a cease-fire and international security force in place, the Quartet would then construct a framework for negotiating the specific elements of a comprehensive settlement, after which Israel, the Palestinian Authority and appropriate Arab state representatives (e.g. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon) would be added to the process to complete the detailed negotiations.

The benefits of reaching a comprehensive settlement of the root cause of today's turmoil would likely ripple well beyond the Israelis and the Palestinians. A comprehensive peace settlement would not only defang the radicals in Lebanon and Palestine (and their supporters in other countries), it would also reduce the influence of Iran -- the country that, under its current ideology, poses the greatest potential threat to stability in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

A comprehensive settlement also would allow Arab leaders to focus on what most say is a primary concern: modernizing their countries to provide jobs and productive lives for their rapidly growing populations.

Removing the argument that nothing can be done because domestic constituencies are fixated on the "plight of the Palestinians" would allow creative energy, talent and money to be rechanneled into education, health, housing, etc. This would have the added benefit of addressing conditions that encourage far too many young Arabs to glorify terrorism as a legitimate means for dealing with the challenges of the modern world.

It is even possible that a comprehensive settlement might help stabilize Iraq. A chastened Iran, bereft of the "Israeli card," might be more willing to reach a modus vivendi with the Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq, and with the United States as well. All countries in the region -- not to mention Iraq itself -- need a stable, prosperous and peaceful Iraq. The road to achieving this may well lead eastward from a Jerusalem shared peacefully by Israelis and Palestinians.

This latest in a seemingly endless series of conflagrations in the region just may present a unique opportunity to change the situation in the Middle East for the better for all time. Let us not shrink from the task.

The writer was national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. He is now president of the Forum for International Policy.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Warren Christopher Says "Syria is Critical Participant"

Warren Christopher, Secretary of State under President Clinton, explains why: "Syria may well be a critical participant in any cease-fire arrangement, just as it was in 1993 and 1996."

A Time To Act
By Warren Christopher
Washington Post Friday, July 28, 2006; A25

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's just-concluded trip to Lebanon, Israel and Rome was an exercise in grace, bravery and, to my regret, wrongly focused diplomacy. Especially disappointing is the fact that she resisted all suggestions that the first order of business should be negotiation of an immediate cease-fire between the warring parties.

In the course of her trip, the secretary repeatedly insisted that any cease-fire be tied to a "permanent" and "sustainable" solution to the root causes of the conflict. Such a solution is achievable, if at all, only after protracted negotiations involving multiple parties. In the meantime, civilians will continue to die, precious infrastructure will continue to be destroyed and the fragile Lebanese democracy will continue to erode.

My own experience in the region underlies my belief that in the short term we should focus our efforts on stopping the killing. Twice during my four years as secretary of state we faced situations similar to the one that confronts us today. Twice, at the request of the Israelis, we helped bring the bloodshed to an end.

In June 1993, Israel responded to Hezbollah rocket attacks along its northern border by launching Operation Accountability, resulting in the expulsion of 250,000 civilians from the southern part of Lebanon.

After the Israeli bombardment had continued for several days, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked me to use my contacts in Syria to seek their help in containing the hostilities. I contacted Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, who, of course, consulted with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. After several days of urgent negotiations, an agreement was reached committing the parties to stop targeting one another's civilian populations. We never knew exactly what the Syrians did, but clearly Hezbollah responded to their direction.

In April 1996, when Hezbollah again launched rocket attacks on Israel's northern border, the Israelis countered with Operation Grapes of Wrath, sending 400,000 Lebanese fleeing from southern Lebanon. Errant Israeli bombs hit a U.N. refugee camp at Cana in southern Lebanon, killing about 100 civilians and bringing the wrath of international public opinion down upon Israel.

This time Shimon Peres, who had become prime minister after the assassination of Rabin, sought our help. In response, we launched an eight-day shuttle to Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem that produced a written agreement bringing the hostilities to an end. Weeks later, the parties agreed to a border monitoring group consisting of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, France and the United States. Until three weeks ago, that agreement had succeeded for 10 years in preventing a wholesale resumption of hostilities.

What do these episodes teach us?

First, as in 1996, an immediate cease-fire must take priority, with negotiations on longer-term arrangements to follow. Achieving a cease-fire will be difficult enough without overloading the initial negotiations with a search for permanent solutions.

Second, if a cease-fire is the goal, the United States has an indispensable role to play. A succession of Israeli leaders has turned to us, and only us, when they have concluded that retaliation for Hezbollah attacks has become counterproductive. Israel plainly trusts no one else to negotiate on its behalf and will accept no settlement in which we are not deeply involved. Further, based upon my experience in helping bring an end to the fighting in the Balkans, the Europeans are unlikely to participate in a multinational enforcement action until the United States commits to putting its own troops on the ground.

Finally, Syria may well be a critical participant in any cease-fire arrangement, just as it was in 1993 and 1996. Although Syria no longer has troops in Lebanon, Hezbollah's supply routes pass through the heart of Syria, and some Hezbollah leaders may reside in Damascus, giving the Syrians more leverage over Hezbollah's actions than any other country save Iran. Syria has invited a direct dialogue with the United States, and although our relations with Syria have seriously deteriorated in recent years (we have not had an ambassador in Damascus for more than a year), we do not have the luxury of continuing to treat it with diplomatic disdain. As the situations with North Korea and Iran confirm, refusing to speak with those we dislike is a recipe for frustration and failure.

Because Hezbollah has positioned itself as the "David" in this war, every day that the killing continues burnishes its reputation within the Arab world. Every day that more of the Lebanese infrastructure is turned to dust, Beirut's fragile democracy becomes weaker, both in its ability to function and in the eyes of its people.

The impact is not limited to Lebanon or Israel. Every day America gives the green light to further Israeli violence, our already tattered reputation sinks even lower. The reluctance of our closest allies in the Middle East even to receive Secretary Rice this week in their capitals attests to this fact.

It is time for the United States to step forward with the authority and balance that this moment requires.

The writer was secretary of state from 1993 to 1997

An open letter published Friday in The Independent newspaper, signed by former British Cabinet ministers and ambassadors urging Tony Blair to help broker a swift cease-fire. It warned that any continuing support for Israel's military action could become as unpopular with the public as the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The letter was also signed by musicians Damon Albarn, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno and writers Harold Pinter, Will Self and Gillian Slovo. A picture of the front page is attached. Also below is the lead article from The Independent today.

Friedman and Lesch Argue for US Engagement With Syria

Both Thomas Friedman and David Lesch explain why the US must talk to Syria and try to enlist it as a stabalizing force in the region, rather than as a provocateur. I have copied both opinion pieces in full. Many others have argued the same thing - including EDWARD N. LUTTWAK writing in the Wall Street Journal, "Come Back, Bashar." He concludes:

For France, the U.S. and the U.K., it would, of course, be tremendously embarrassing to recognize that they made a gigantic error in expelling Syria without having put anything its place, thus leaving a vacuum of power in Lebanon that Hezbollah has exploited. But unlike the military option, which is simply impossible, the diplomatic option is merely humiliating. Having massacred their own Islamists very efficiently, the Syrians can do the job again, if sufficiently rewarded.

“Talking Turkey With Syria”
New York Times, Op-Ed
Damascus, Syria

One wonders what planet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed from, thinking she can build an international force to take charge in south Lebanon without going to Damascus and trying to bring the Syrians on board.

Two Syrian officials made no bones about it when I asked their reaction to deploying such a force, without Syrian backing: Do you remember what happened in 1983, each asked, when the Reagan administration tried to impose an Israeli-designed treaty on Lebanon against Syria's will?

I was there, I remember quite well: Hezbollah, no doubt backed by Syria or Iran, debuted its skills for the world by blowing up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping battalions. This is not a knitting circle here.

Can we get the Syrians on board? Can we split Damascus from Tehran? My
conversations here suggest it would be very hard, but worth a shot. It is the most important strategic play we could make, because Syria is the bridge between Iran and Hezbollah. But it would take a high-level, rational dialogue.

Dr. Rice says we can deal with Syria through normal diplomatic channels. Really?

We've withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus, and the U.S. diplomats left here are allowed to meet only the Foreign Ministry's director of protocol, whose main job is to ask how you like your Turkish coffee. Syria's ambassador in Washington is similarly isolated.

Is this Syrian regime brutal and ruthless? You bet it is. If the Bush team wants to go to war with Syria, I get that. But the U.S. boycott of Syria is not intimidating Damascus. (Its economy is still growing, thanks to high oil prices.) So we're left with the worst of all worlds ? a hostile Syria that is not afraid of us.

We need to get real on Lebanon. Hezbollah made a reckless mistake in
provoking Israel. Shame on Hezbollah for bringing this disaster upon Lebanon by embedding its "heroic" forces amid civilians. I understand Israel's vital need to degrade Hezbollah's rocket network. But Hezbollah's militia, which represents 40 percent of Lebanon, the Shiites, can't be wiped out at a price that Israel, or America's Arab allies, can sustain? if at all.

You can't go into an office in the Arab world today without finding an Arab TV station featuring the daily carnage in Lebanon. It's now the Muzak of the Arab world, and it is toxic for us and our Arab friends.

Despite Hezbollah's bravado, Israel has hurt it and its supporters badly, in a way they will never forget. Point made. It is now time to wind down this war and pull together a deal ? a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, a resumption of the peace effort and an international force to help the Lebanese Army secure the border with Israel? before things spin out of control. Whoever goes for a knockout blow will knock themselves out instead.

Will Syria play? Syrians will tell you that their alliance with Tehran is "a marriage of convenience." Syria is a largely secular country, with a Sunni majority. Its leadership is not comfortable with Iranian Shiite ayatollahs.
The Iranians know that, which is why "they keep sending high officials here every few weeks to check on the relationship," a diplomat said.

So uncomfortable are many Syrian Sunnis with the Iran relationship that
President Bashar al-Assad has had to allow a surge of Sunni religiosity; last April, a bigger public display was made of Muhammad's birthday than the Syrian Baath Party's anniversary, which had never happened before.

Syrian officials stress that they formed their alliance with Iran because they felt they had no other option. One top Syrian official said the door with the U.S. was "not closed from Damascus. [But] when you have only one friend, you stay with him all the time. When you have 10 friends, you stay with each one of them."

What do the Syrians want? They say: respect for their security interests in Lebanon and a resumption of negotiations over the Golan. Syria is also providing support for the Sunni Baathists in Iraq. Much as the Bush team wants to, it can't fight everyone at once and get where it needs to go. There will not be a peace force in south Lebanon unless it's backed by Syria. No one will send troops.

I repeat: I don't know if Syria can be brought around, and we certainly can't do it at Lebanon's expense. But you have to try, with real sticks and real carrots. Syria is not going to calm things in Lebanon, or Iraq, just so the Bush team can then focus on regime change in Damascus.

As one diplomat here put it to me, "Turkeys don't vote for Thanksgiving."

Try Talking With Syria
Assad Isn't Going Away
By David W. Lesch
Washington Post, Op-Ed
Thursday, July 27, 2006; Page A25

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a lonely man in international circles of late. Indeed, one of the few Americans with whom he has had contact in the past few years has been a professor (me) who wrote a book about him -- not exactly high-powered diplomacy.

Assad was a tremendous disappointment to many U.S. officials after a promising beginning when he came to power in 2000. Considering the dilapidated, broken-down country he inherited, however, the expectations were misplaced. And because they were so high, so was the level of disappointment.

Along with accusations of Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, Washington began to view Assad as being on the wrong side of the war on terrorism. Indeed, with Syria's neo-patrimonial structure staring down the Bush administration's attempt to spread democracy in the region, the regime was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Thus the long-held disdain among American neoconservatives for the Assads (Bashar and his late father, Hafez) became Bush administration policy, along with the strategic goal of weakening Syria. The young Syrian leader was dismissed as an inept buffoon who wasn't really in control. Regime change in Damascus became U.S. policy in all but name, especially after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in early 2005, in which Syria was seen as the culprit. The Syrian president couldn't even obtain a visa to attend a U.N. General Assembly summit meeting.

Assad has confounded the critics, though. He has survived, despite a few glaring missteps. And it has to be acknowledged by now that one doesn't last six years as president of Syria without being at least somewhat clever, politically skilled and strong-willed.

In fact, Assad is more securely in power and more confident in his leadership today than he has ever been -- although perhaps, as recent events have shown, maybe a bit overconfident. He has weeded out most of the "old guard" from his father's reign, and he funneled the international pressure related to the Hariri assassination and subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon into a nationalistic response that has coalesced in support of the regime.

From Assad's point of view, the United States is stuck in a quagmire in Iraq. It is also deeply concerned about Iran. Meanwhile, President Bush's democracy promotion has hit a brick wall. But Assad continues to talk to practically no one from a Western government.

There are many reasons for the current crisis in the Middle East. It is largely the result of American weakness and perceived illegitimacy, stemming from U.S. folly in Iraq, which has allowed state and sub-state actors to assert themselves.

From Syria's perspective, the crisis is seen as a search for relevance. Damascus needs at least a few arrows in what has been an empty quiver of diplomatic leverage. Assad wants to be taken seriously. He believes the sincere overtures he made to the United States and even Israel in his first few years in power were categorically rebuffed -- and in fact they were. After all, he was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Once before, an Arab leader felt rebuffed in much the same way. That was in 1973, and the leader was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He launched an Arab-Israeli war to reactivate diplomacy and improve his bargaining position with regard to return of the Sinai Peninsula. The United States was smart enough to recognize these motives at the time, and it engaged in a diplomatic process that led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Leaders reach out in interesting, and occasionally lethal, ways. The Bush administration should not, however, react to the current situation by continuing to isolate and threaten Syria. Recognize the situation for what it is, because, like it or not, Bashar al-Assad is sticking around. Just because diplomacy is what he is ultimately searching for should not obviate the possibility of diplomacy.

In coming weeks, one hopes, the Syrian president will be talking with someone from the United States other than a professor who wrote a book about him.

The writer is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria."

Friedman and Lesch Argue for US Engagement With Syria

Both Thomas Friedman and David Lesch explain why the US must talk to Syria and try to enlist it as a stabalizing force in the region, rather than as a provocateur. I have copied both opinion pieces in full. Many others have argued the same thing - including EDWARD N. LUTTWAK writing in the Wall Street Journal, "Come Back, Bashar." He concludes:

For France, the U.S. and the U.K., it would, of course, be tremendously embarrassing to recognize that they made a gigantic error in expelling Syria without having put anything its place, thus leaving a vacuum of power in Lebanon that Hezbollah has exploited. But unlike the military option, which is simply impossible, the diplomatic option is merely humiliating. Having massacred their own Islamists very efficiently, the Syrians can do the job again, if sufficiently rewarded.

“Talking Turkey With Syria”
New York Times, Op-Ed
Damascus, Syria

One wonders what planet Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice landed from, thinking she can build an international force to take charge in south Lebanon without going to Damascus and trying to bring the Syrians on board.

Two Syrian officials made no bones about it when I asked their reaction to deploying such a force, without Syrian backing: Do you remember what happened in 1983, each asked, when the Reagan administration tried to impose an Israeli-designed treaty on Lebanon against Syria's will?

I was there, I remember quite well: Hezbollah, no doubt backed by Syria or Iran, debuted its skills for the world by blowing up the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Marine and French peacekeeping battalions. This is not a knitting circle here.

Can we get the Syrians on board? Can we split Damascus from Tehran? My
conversations here suggest it would be very hard, but worth a shot. It is the most important strategic play we could make, because Syria is the bridge between Iran and Hezbollah. But it would take a high-level, rational dialogue.

Dr. Rice says we can deal with Syria through normal diplomatic channels. Really?

We've withdrawn our ambassador from Damascus, and the U.S. diplomats left here are allowed to meet only the Foreign Ministry's director of protocol, whose main job is to ask how you like your Turkish coffee. Syria's ambassador in Washington is similarly isolated.

Is this Syrian regime brutal and ruthless? You bet it is. If the Bush team wants to go to war with Syria, I get that. But the U.S. boycott of Syria is not intimidating Damascus. (Its economy is still growing, thanks to high oil prices.) So we're left with the worst of all worlds ? a hostile Syria that is not afraid of us.

We need to get real on Lebanon. Hezbollah made a reckless mistake in
provoking Israel. Shame on Hezbollah for bringing this disaster upon Lebanon by embedding its "heroic" forces amid civilians. I understand Israel's vital need to degrade Hezbollah's rocket network. But Hezbollah's militia, which represents 40 percent of Lebanon, the Shiites, can't be wiped out at a price that Israel, or America's Arab allies, can sustain? if at all.

You can't go into an office in the Arab world today without finding an Arab TV station featuring the daily carnage in Lebanon. It's now the Muzak of the Arab world, and it is toxic for us and our Arab friends.

Despite Hezbollah's bravado, Israel has hurt it and its supporters badly, in a way they will never forget. Point made. It is now time to wind down this war and pull together a deal ? a cease-fire, a prisoner exchange, a resumption of the peace effort and an international force to help the Lebanese Army secure the border with Israel? before things spin out of control. Whoever goes for a knockout blow will knock themselves out instead.

Will Syria play? Syrians will tell you that their alliance with Tehran is "a marriage of convenience." Syria is a largely secular country, with a Sunni majority. Its leadership is not comfortable with Iranian Shiite ayatollahs.
The Iranians know that, which is why "they keep sending high officials here every few weeks to check on the relationship," a diplomat said.

So uncomfortable are many Syrian Sunnis with the Iran relationship that
President Bashar al-Assad has had to allow a surge of Sunni religiosity; last April, a bigger public display was made of Muhammad's birthday than the Syrian Baath Party's anniversary, which had never happened before.

Syrian officials stress that they formed their alliance with Iran because they felt they had no other option. One top Syrian official said the door with the U.S. was "not closed from Damascus. [But] when you have only one friend, you stay with him all the time. When you have 10 friends, you stay with each one of them."

What do the Syrians want? They say: respect for their security interests in Lebanon and a resumption of negotiations over the Golan. Syria is also providing support for the Sunni Baathists in Iraq. Much as the Bush team wants to, it can't fight everyone at once and get where it needs to go. There will not be a peace force in south Lebanon unless it's backed by Syria. No one will send troops.

I repeat: I don't know if Syria can be brought around, and we certainly can't do it at Lebanon's expense. But you have to try, with real sticks and real carrots. Syria is not going to calm things in Lebanon, or Iraq, just so the Bush team can then focus on regime change in Damascus.

As one diplomat here put it to me, "Turkeys don't vote for Thanksgiving."

Try Talking With Syria
Assad Isn't Going Away
By David W. Lesch
Washington Post, Op-Ed
Thursday, July 27, 2006; Page A25

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been a lonely man in international circles of late. Indeed, one of the few Americans with whom he has had contact in the past few years has been a professor (me) who wrote a book about him -- not exactly high-powered diplomacy.

Assad was a tremendous disappointment to many U.S. officials after a promising beginning when he came to power in 2000. Considering the dilapidated, broken-down country he inherited, however, the expectations were misplaced. And because they were so high, so was the level of disappointment.

Along with accusations of Syrian support for the insurgency in Iraq, Washington began to view Assad as being on the wrong side of the war on terrorism. Indeed, with Syria's neo-patrimonial structure staring down the Bush administration's attempt to spread democracy in the region, the regime was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Thus the long-held disdain among American neoconservatives for the Assads (Bashar and his late father, Hafez) became Bush administration policy, along with the strategic goal of weakening Syria. The young Syrian leader was dismissed as an inept buffoon who wasn't really in control. Regime change in Damascus became U.S. policy in all but name, especially after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in early 2005, in which Syria was seen as the culprit. The Syrian president couldn't even obtain a visa to attend a U.N. General Assembly summit meeting.

Assad has confounded the critics, though. He has survived, despite a few glaring missteps. And it has to be acknowledged by now that one doesn't last six years as president of Syria without being at least somewhat clever, politically skilled and strong-willed.

In fact, Assad is more securely in power and more confident in his leadership today than he has ever been -- although perhaps, as recent events have shown, maybe a bit overconfident. He has weeded out most of the "old guard" from his father's reign, and he funneled the international pressure related to the Hariri assassination and subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon into a nationalistic response that has coalesced in support of the regime.

From Assad's point of view, the United States is stuck in a quagmire in Iraq. It is also deeply concerned about Iran. Meanwhile, President Bush's democracy promotion has hit a brick wall. But Assad continues to talk to practically no one from a Western government.

There are many reasons for the current crisis in the Middle East. It is largely the result of American weakness and perceived illegitimacy, stemming from U.S. folly in Iraq, which has allowed state and sub-state actors to assert themselves.

From Syria's perspective, the crisis is seen as a search for relevance. Damascus needs at least a few arrows in what has been an empty quiver of diplomatic leverage. Assad wants to be taken seriously. He believes the sincere overtures he made to the United States and even Israel in his first few years in power were categorically rebuffed -- and in fact they were. After all, he was seen as being on the wrong side of history.

Once before, an Arab leader felt rebuffed in much the same way. That was in 1973, and the leader was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He launched an Arab-Israeli war to reactivate diplomacy and improve his bargaining position with regard to return of the Sinai Peninsula. The United States was smart enough to recognize these motives at the time, and it engaged in a diplomatic process that led to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

Leaders reach out in interesting, and occasionally lethal, ways. The Bush administration should not, however, react to the current situation by continuing to isolate and threaten Syria. Recognize the situation for what it is, because, like it or not, Bashar al-Assad is sticking around. Just because diplomacy is what he is ultimately searching for should not obviate the possibility of diplomacy.

In coming weeks, one hopes, the Syrian president will be talking with someone from the United States other than a professor who wrote a book about him.

The writer is professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and author of "The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Assad and Modern Syria."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Syria will Emerge Stronger from the Lebanon Debacle

Syria will Emerge Stronger from the Lebanon Debacle
Joshua Landis
July 26, 2006
Syria Comment

The present Israeli campaign in Lebanon will strengthen the Syrian regime. Many analysts are beginning to come to this conclusion. Why?

1. The three states in which the US has promised to create democracy and a better future – Palestine, Iraq, and Lebanon – have experienced chaos, growing radicalism and a decline in their economies. Syrians see this and will cling tighter to their regime, whether they like it or not.

2. Democracy, the American export, has been further discredited in the eyes of Middle Easterners. The US promised Lebanon’s new anti-Syrian democratic coalition that it would be protected and backed by Washington in its struggle with Damascus. This turns out to have been a false promise. Democracy led to weakness and division in the Lebanese government. Washington and Israel lost patience with the Lebanese government after little more than a year and chose to punish it for not showing the characteristics of a powerful dictatorship that can destroy opposition groups. Washington has turned against its own democratic experiment. The lesson is that Washington cannot be trusted, is not sincere about democracy, and will not back its Arab allies against Israel.

3. Authoritarianism as a model of government in the Middle East and Bashar al-Asad’s interpretation of events over the last three years will be strengthened by the fighting in Lebanon and weakening of Lebanon’s democratic government.

a. Iraq: Asad opposed the Iraq intervention, making him an enemy of the US. President Bush explained this was because Asad was evil, did not care about his people, and feared freedom and democracy. President Asad responded to this attack by proclaiming that President Bush did not know what he was doing in Iraq and would bring death, not freedom, to Iraq. Not only would the US fail to bring democracy to Iraq, Asad insisted, but it would cause the breakup of Iraq and civil strife.

b. Syria: Bashar also offered a very un-Baathist interpretation of Syrian society. He argued, in essence, that Syria was too backward to sustain Western-style democracy. He claimed that “tribalism” had haunted Syria for 2000 years and that sectarianism was too deeply rooted and too close to the surface of society to permit Western–style freedoms. If unleashed, these ancient loyalties would cause civil war and chaos. In short, he argued, in contrast to Bush, authoritarianism is necessary in the Middle East, where national consciousness remains weak. Asad’s analysis proved correct for Iraq. Many Syrians, unsure of their ability to live together civilly, believe he may be correct. The failure of America’s Iraq experiment has legitimized and strengthened Asad’s form of government rather than weaken it. The domino theory has redounded in Asad’s favor, re-legitimizing authoritarianism, rather than undermining it.

b. Palestine: The unwillingness of the West to countenance or negotiate with the freely elected Hamas government in Palestine, which has been backed and supported by Syria, strengthens Asad’s stand. It puts him on the side of popular sentiment and America on the side of stifling it. It has increased Asad’s popularity inside Syria and on the Arab street.

c. Lebanon: Asad told Syrians that following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the country would return to sectarian in-fighting and civil war because it was not a nation, but four battling sects. He justified Syria’s occupation of Lebanon by arguing that Syria was the key to stability there and offered Lebanese protection from themselves. It turned out that Asad was wrong about Lebanese society, but not wrong about the war and the benefits of Syria’s defense umbrella. Although the Lebanese factions and sects were not able to agree about most policy decisions or the future direction of the country, they did agree not to return to civil war. The economy continued to grow, foreigners continued to return, and investments in Lebanon grew. The promise was that Hizbullah, although it retained its arms, would be integrated within the Lebanese system and slowly be drawn into the project of rebuilding Lebanon.

When Hizbullah went off the reservation to kidnap two Israeli soldiers, the West abandoned its faith in Lebanon and decided war was a better solution for Lebanon’s problems than nurturing democracy and economic growth. Hizbullah had to be destroyed, not coddled. “The cancer,” as Israel’s chief of staff put it, had to be “spit out” as a malignant, foreign body, not integrated as a part of the nation. In embracing this policy, Washington ironically, also embraced Asad’s interpretation of Lebanon – that it is not a nation and democracy offers no solution to sectarian communalism.

Asad’s prediction that Lebanon would regret abandoning Syria’s defense umbrella for America’s defense umbrella may be correct. Syrians already believe this and now believe that Asad’s prediction was correct. If Lebanon is pushed back into civil war by Israeli and US demands that it disarm Hizbullah, Asad’s prediction that Lebanon is not a nation and will slip back into civil war will turn out to be correct. Many Lebanese had said that Asad would “break Lebanon” in order to make his predictions come true. Ironically, Israel and Washington have broken Lebanon to make Asad’s predictions come true. So far Bashar al-Asad has proven to be a better judge of regional character and politics than President Bush.

4. The Syrian opposition will be silenced by growing dislike of the United States. The Syrian opposition needs America to be an exemplar for democracy just as it needs US moral and political support. Today, US support for the opposition discredits it. As a result, Syrians are less likely to trust the proposals for democratic or pro-Western change being put forward by the opposition. A month ago there was considerable attention being paid to Asad’s crackdown on the opposition. Not today.

5. The further erosion of US popularity and legitimacy will increase regional indulgence of the Asad regime. The use of force by Washington as a first resort for solving regional problems make’s Asad’s justification for using force all the more normal and acceptable.

6. The Saudi Arabian and Egyptian governments have been seriously embarrassed by Washington in Lebanon and will be less able to pressure Syria on America’s behalf in the future.

7. European support for the Bush regime’s policies in the region has been further eroded by the Lebanon fiasco.

8. Lebanon was the major pro-American source for applying moral and political pressure on the Asad regime. It will no longer play that role.

a. The UN investigation into Hariri’s murder, which terrified the Asad regime over the last year and held out the promise that the UN would place economic or political sanctions on Syria, is effectively dead. Not only will it be impossible for the investigative team to make further headway in a country torn by war, but Lebanese politicians will have less interest in antagonizing Syria to further American goals in the region.

b. Lebanon needs Syria more than ever. It needs Syria to be kind to the many refugees who have found protection and safety in Syria. The Lebanese economy will be increasingly vulnerable to Syrian pressure, as will Syrian politicians as they try to restrain Hizbullah’s radicalism and military wing.

c. The weaker the Lebanese government, the more subject it is to Syrian pressure.

d. Morally, the Lebanese will have a harder time accusing Syria of being a failed state and presiding over a failed economy, as they did previously. After all, what is the alternative? Lebanon?

9. Hizbullah’s relative success in blunting Israel’s incursion into Lebanon also blunts America’s threat of force. Its ability to persist in its missile launchings has seriously undermined Israel’s defense posture. It proves that determined non-state actors and “Arab resistance” can alter the balance of power in the region. This will make Syria and Iran all the more confident in challenging the West and Israel, just as it will make them less likely to cower in the face of Washington’s threats.

10. Bashar al-Asad will be seen as the come back kid following this episode. Already many diplomats are calling on Washington to pick up the phone to Asad in order to see what the Syrians can do to help arrange an end to the Lebanon debacle.

But even if President Bush decides not to call Asad, Syria’s young president has proven that he is skilled at dodging American bullets. Washington has tried to bring down his economy through sanctions, twist his arm with UN investigations, and isolate him or make Syria irrelevant in regional politics. So far President Asad has been able to outfox Washington. He has refused to accept the “Qaddhafi-like deal” John Bolton demanded of him last year without paying a price. He has weathered American military threats, economic sanctions, multilateral diplomacy, and now the unleashing of Israeli military might. Washington hasn’t much else to throw at him. If Bush doesn’t pick up the phone to Asad, it is quite likely the next administration will have to.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Damascus Moves Back into the Center as Lebanon is Turned into a Failed State

If the US should have learnt one thing over the last several years, it is that failed and weak states cannot halt militias and "terrorists" from filling the vacuum of absent state authority. They become breading grounds for the widespread anger that has taken root in Middle Eastern societies. Afghanistan and Iraq are the two obvious examples of this.

Lebanon may well join this category. The weak state could not close down Hizbullah. The national dialogue of March and April failed to place the state on the firm footing needed to guarantee that Hizbullah would not provoke the conflict we are seeing today. In fact it did the reverse. It angered Hizbullah and Syria's allies by excluding them from Lebanon's future, without taking any steps to weaken them. This was the worst of all worlds, because it angered the government's enemies without rendering them incapable of taking their anger out on Lebanon's Future Movement.

The other choice for the Future Movement would have been to accept Aoun as the future president of Lebanon, even though he is now slightly pro-Syrian. This would have brought the broad coalition of pro-Syrian and pro-Hizbullah forces into the center of the government and given them a stake in peace and quite. Had Siniora, Hariri and the pro-American forces in Lebanon been able to bridge the terrible divide in Lebanon's political geography, Israel would not be on the march today.

The US must bear some of the blame for Hariri's unwillingness to compromise with the other half of Lebanon, the pro-Hizbullah half. Hariri was being told by the US not to accept efforts by Egypt and Saudi Arabia to patch up relations between Syria and Lebanon. Hariri was being promised US aid and eventual victory over Hizbullah, if he stood fast in opposing Syria. Now look where he stands. The US has abandoned him for an Israeli solution to its problems. One that is surely to fail. And one that will bring the Syrians back into Lebanon - not as a military force, but as a political force. Many Lebanese will forget their anger at Syria in their anger at Israel and America. They will forget the UN investigation into Rafiq Hariri's murder. They will ask themselves if they weren't better off under Syria's protective umbrella, which they exchanged for a US umbrella only to bombed into backwardness by Israel.

The US promised democracy and security, but has delivered death and ruin. This will not be easily forgiven. The Hariri-Siniora government has failed horribly. There will be a reckoning. Many Lebanese will look back at the old sour embrace of Damascus as a better and safer state than the one the US has given them. Bashar al-Asad told Lebanon that it would regret leaving its alliance with Syria for a future with Washington. Most Lebanese believed that Asad would break Lebanon for its betrayal. The Irony is that Syria is not breaking Lebanon. Israel and the US are.

The Israeli bombardment is not only destroying Lebanon's economy, it could also have a huge impact on the whole region, writes Massoud A. Derhally in his article The sound of war in Arabian Business, 23 July 2006. He explains how Lebanon is likely to become a failed state and how the present government will be even more incapable of taking control of the country than it was before Israel's intervention.

But for Lebanon, whether Hezbollah succeeds or fails, the government of Fouad Siniora has been proven to be impotent, and is likely to be dissolved at the end of the crisis.

"The weakness of this government has been exposed flagrantly to the entire world. Not only is it weak, its main patron the United States has clearly turned its back on it. The US democracy promotion agenda is false and inconsistent," says Ghorayeb.

"What kind of democracy are they trying to build when they don't give a damn about how our economy in a matter of days has been destroyed? By refusing to call a ceasefire they are not bolstering the Siniora government. It's very much an apocalyptic war, because of the profound impact it's going to have on many levels."

Rami Khouri, editor at large of Lebanon's Daily Star believes Israeli policies are inherently flawed. "If there is a Nobel Prize for promoting terrorism it should be given for the last quarter century to the Israelis. They are the masters at implementing policies that generate a counter policy of increasingly militant resistance, and hard-line Islamist politics," says Khouri.

"We are such a divided and polarised society that it is virtually impossible for any group in Lebanon in such a sectarian society to really cater to all the different sects," points out Ghorayeb. "There is no public in Lebanon. When you talk about a public opinion in Lebanon you presuppose a unified nation. We don't have a nation. We have many publics and Hezbollah has support of its public.

On July 20, the U.S. House of Representatives, by an overwhelming 410-8 margin, voted to unconditionally endorse Israel's ongoing attacks on Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The Senate passed a similar resolution defending the Israeli attack earlier in the week by a voice vote.

Condoleezza Rice has described the plight of Lebanon as a part of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East" and said that Israel should ignore calls for a ceasefire.

Robin Wright in the Post explains that the Saudi ambassador threw a wrench into Washington's go-slow-on-diplomacy tactics and attempt to use the pro-American Arab states against Iran and Syria.
Although the Saudis had initially criticized Hezbollah's actions in triggering the new violence, diplomats say the kingdom's leaders have become increasingly distressed about the growing humanitarian crisis in Lebanon, where Israeli airstrikes have produced numerous civilian casualties and vast devastation.

One senior European diplomat said the Saudis were also concerned that the package they expect the United States to present to European and Arab allies in Rome later this week will be too heavily anti-Iran and anti-Syria.

At a dinner last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, derided Rice's trip as "sitting in front of a mirror, talking to herself" if she does not deal diplomatically with the major players.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, said his country is open to a new dialogue with the United States. "What we are calling for is de-escalation, diplomatic engagement and for the United States to restart playing the role it used to play in the past, the role of the broker of peace," he said.

But that idea was shot down by Bolten, who said the administration had close, direct contacts with Syria in Bush's first term, to little effect. "They continued to allow terrorism to flourish," Bolten said. "They supported Hezbollah."

Meanwhile Syria is moving to center stage as the bombing phase comes closer to an end and the diplomacy stage begins.

Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal warns Israel that a major ground incursion into Lebanon would draw his country into the conflict.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Syria is ready to open a "dialogue" with the United States to resolve the crisis in Lebanon.

July 24, 2006 NEW YORK TIMES
U.S. Must Deal With Damascus and Hezbollah to Ease Mideast Crisis, Syrian Says
DAMASCUS, Syria, July 23 — The Bush administration's approach of indirectly pressuring Syria to end its support for Hezbollah is doomed to failure, a top Syrian minister said Thursday.

Buthaina Shaaban, the minister of expatriates and a close adviser to President Bashar al-Assad, said the chaos engulfing the region could be reduced only if Damascus and Hezbollah were directly involved in any negotiations. Washington has a policy of isolating Syria.

Further, she said, Washington is ignoring reality if it thinks groups like Hezbollah and Hamas can be purged by allowing Israel to bomb at will, or that extremism can be curbed in any way besides solving the Arab-Israeli dispute.

"The United States has to get realistic about addressing issues in the region instead of taking steps that only make things worse," Mrs. Shaaban said in an interview. "They don't have a vision about what is happening in the Middle East. They don't have a plan for the region. They are losing credibility."

Both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have warned Syria that it must rein in Hezbollah, not least by cutting the supply line for the missiles the organization fires into Israel, which they say Iran ships through Syria.

"Do you want to step on the supply line or do you want to solve the big problem in the Middle East?" Mrs. Shaaban said. "That is the main issue. Do they want to end the Israeli occupation of Arab territories, that is the question."

One Syrian official issued a strong warning against a proposal that was gaining momentum on Sunday for an international force to guard the Lebanon-Israel border. Deploying such a force without the cooperation of Syrian and Hezbollah, the official said, will risk repeating 1983. That was a pointed reference to the 241 United States service members and 58 French soldiers killed in attacks on military installations by suicide bombers. It has long been considered likely that the bombers were dispatched by Hezbollah with Syria's blessing.

Support for Hezbollah is clearly swelling across the Arab world, with many people enraptured that the militant organization can still launch missiles across the border nearly two weeks after Israel unleashed some of its fearsome military muscle. Syria evidently feels the tide is running in its favor, particularly since crucial American allies like the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are noticeably edgy about how, in contrast, much of the public in their own countries has scorned them for supporting Washington and criticizing Hezbollah.

The region is drifting away from the Americans and moderate Arab states and toward those supporting Hezbollah, Syrians say, because the United States has showed callousness toward civilian deaths in Iraq, and now in Lebanon.

"It is unbelievable that the U.S. will say to Israel you have one more week to wipe out Hezbollah — can you imagine someone saying you have one more week to kill Americans?" the official asked. "You can't imagine the impact of this on the region."

STEVEN ERLANGER in the NY Times writes that Israelis are beginning to see Syria as a key in the diplomacy that must end this in his article: "Weighing Foreign Forces: Sea Change for Israel." (July 24, 2006)
"The current crisis will create a new situation between Israel and the Arabs," said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University. "Most Arabs and Israelis agree that the previous status quo, including the so-called peace process and Israeli unilateralism, is a failure. The challenge today is how to form a new environment."

Like Mr. Alpher, he said he thought this might be a good moment for Israel to respond favorably to regular calls from Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, for peace talks that could include the Lebanese dispute.

Syria, with a secular government and a Sunni majority, "is the weak link in the Iranian Shia arc," Mr. Alpher said.

Israel’s defense minister says he supports the deployment of an international force sponsored by NATO on the Lebanese side of the border

Israeli airstrikes on Saturday blasted communications and television transmission towers in the central and northern Lebanese mountains, knocking the LBCI off the air and killing one person at the station. "The Israelis are looking to destroy sound and image in Lebanon -- the last weapons this country has -- after bombarding infrastructure," said Minister for telecommunications Marwan Hamadeh.

President Bush said in his weekly radio address that his administration's diplomatic efforts would focus on finding a strategy for confronting Hizbullah and its Syrian and Iranian backers.

Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent

BEIRUT, July 23 (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush may have to set aside his hostility to Syria if he wants its help in ending the war between Israel and Hizbollah in Lebanon.

Here is a smart Israeli analyst on Syria.

Aiman Mansour
Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies
July 23, 2006

The confrontation between Israel and Hizbullah that has unfolded since the abduction of two soldiers on July 12 has prompted considerable speculation about future Syrian policy. One school of thought argues that Syria under President Bashar al-Asad will not stop at the brink and will actively support Hizbullah. However, the regime’s behavior in this confrontation suggests that a rational calculation of vital interests will prompt Asad to adopt a pragmatic stance.

In contrast to the recklessness sometimes attributed to him in Israel and elsewhere, Asad has thus far managed to stop at the brink. Hizbullah has certainly tried to implicate Syria in the conflict by circulating reports that Israel has bombed targets deep inside Syria, by firing rockets at the Golan Heights, and by using Syrian-supplied missiles (Ra’ad 1) against Haifa. But those efforts have failed to achieve the desired result. Determined to avoid a confrontation with Israel, Syria immediately denied that it had been bombed and it has refrained from any direct intervention. Moreover, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal al-Mikdad has strenuously refuted charges that Syria was the source of trucks carrying supplies of ammunition for Hizbullah that were attacked by the Israeli Air Force, and the Syrian regime has even asked that the U.S. and the international community involve it any negotiations to end the fighting. Finally, the political support Syria has given Hizbullah has been relatively restrained and, as Syria’s behavior at the Arab Summit Conference suggests, whatever support is does provide stems largely from the regime’s desire to preserve its ties with a leading element in domestic Lebanese politics. Maintaining a link with Hizbullah allows Syria to remain a relevant actor in the Lebanese system.

Syrian behavior points to two main conclusions. The first is that the regime is determined to continue playing a major role in domestic Lebanese affairs, consistent with the Syrian belief that developments in Lebanon are critical to Syrian national security as well as the historical conviction that Lebanon is actually part of Syria. The second is that Syria wants to show a pragmatic face that could help extricate it from the international isolation it is currently experiencing and eventually even from the Iranian bear-hug. It is possible that Iran, through its commitment to come to Syria’s aid in the event of an Israeli attack, was trying to prompt Asad’s regime to intervene more actively to defend Hizbullah, lest its missile capabilities be destroyed (according to some analysts, Hizbullah missiles are a component of Iran’s deterrent against an Israeli or western attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure). If so, Syria’s refusal to become actively involved in hostilities indicates that the regime is not prepared to sacrifice itself for the sake of either Hizbullah or Iran.

Notwithstanding the criticism leveled by Israel and the west at Asad’s leadership and decision-making, the very fact that he heads a secular and minority regime under domestic threat forces him to behave with a certain degree of restraint and to confront domestic extremists who aspire to replace his regime with an Islamic republic, and in this he shares a common interest with Israel. If the regime were overthrown, its successor would not be led by enlightened liberal democrats. Any political vacuum would almost surely be filled by the same sort of extreme Islamists now embittering the lives of Iraqis. And even if this scenario does not oblige others to come to terms with the regime’s support for Palestinian and Hizbullah terror, the current Syrian reality nevertheless appears preferable to the reality of Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Alawi-controlled regime in Syria is in a very delicate position. On one hand, the Alawis are widely perceived as heretics among the Sunni majority, which would like to replace them with a Sunni-dominated regime. At the same time, the regime is very sensitive to regional developments, and especially to the Lebanon issue. There is a basic understanding in Syria that if the regime becomes too closely aligned with one faction in Lebanon, it will invite more vigorous opposition from the other factions (and their external backers). Various considerations do not permit the regime to cut Syria off completely from Hizbullah; that explains the expressions of verbal encouragement and the organization of public demonstrations of sympathy. But even if Syria has sent some weapons to Hizbullah, that falls far short of the openly-declared and uncompromising assistance one might expect for a real strategic ally. At the same time, moreover, Syria refuses to sever links with all other factions and confessional groups in Lebanon.

Israel will find it difficult to completely disarm Hizbullah through its own military means. Accomplishing that objective will require a determined effort by the Lebanese army, and the chances of that happening are minimal. Furthermore, the mere introduction into Lebanon of another multi-national force is unlikely to persuade Hizbullah to voluntarily give up whatever weapons it retains, and the attempt to do so may well stimulate Hizbullah to step up terrorist attacks against western targets in Lebanon and abroad.

The withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon led Hizbullah to build up its forces and, at the ideological level, to stress the Islamist character of its activities, and the idea of exporting the Islamic revolution to Lebanon will not fade away if Hizbullah, as seems likely, survives the current Israeli military campaign. Consequently, there is not a high probability that Hizbullah can be disarmed without active Syrian intervention. What could prompt Syria to undertake such an intervention is a package of incentives, of which the most appealing would be the reassertion of Syrian political hegemony in Lebanon, while preserving the domestic balance as outlined in the Ta’ef Agreement (although those who agree to such a “carrot” might well demand that Syria disarm the Palestinian militias along with Hizbullah). However, the moment for a Syrian intervention of this sort may be “ripe” only if the domestic Lebanese contest between the Christian-Druze-Sunni coalition and Hizbullah turns violent.

Rice continues to insist that Syria is the problem and not the solution

With Israel and the United States saying a real cease-fire is not possible until Hizbullah is reined in, Arab heavyweights Egypt and Saudi Arabia were pushing Syria to end its support for the guerrillas, Arab diplomats in Cairo said. Israel signaled a policy shift, saying it would accept an international force -- preferably from NATO -- on its border to ensure the peace in southern Lebanon.

On route to the region, Rice discussed the possibility of working with Syria on a solution. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has blamed Syria, along with Iran, for stoking the recent violence by encouraging Hizbullah to attack northern Israel.

"The problem isn't that people haven't talked to the Syrians. It's that the Syrians haven't acted," she said.

"It's not as if we don't have diplomatic relations," she said. "We do."

Rice has tried to walk delicately between supporting the Lebanese government, while also not dictating to its ally Israel how it should handle its own security. Her posture has frustrated numerous allies.

"We all want to urgently end the fighting. We have absolutely the same goal," Rice said. But she added that if the violence ends only to restart within weeks, "then all of the carnage that Hizbullah launched by its illegal activities -- abducting the soldiers and then launching rocket attacks -- we will have gotten nothing from that."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

U.S. Plan Seeks to Wedge Syria From Iran

The NY Times claims that the US seeks to wedge Syria from Iran. It is difficult to see how Syria will be able to abandon the allies it has cultivated for 20 years. The first two questions Syrians may well ask themselves is: What is in it for us? and What convinces us to trust the US?

Washington has just let down the Lebanese. Moreover, both Clinton and Uri Sagi, the head of Israeli intelligence for the IDF in the 1990s, have said that the US let Syria down during the Golan dealings. Uri Sagi, as quoted a few days ago on these pages, said: "The United States did not stand by its word to Assad and Barak got cold feet at the last minute." Finally, the US promised it would bring democracy and prosperity to Iraq. It did not. Why should Asad believe that Bush can deliver?

What would Syria need Bush to deliver? Syria would have to be promised a healthy economic package for abandoning its allies and supporters. It would need assurances that all efforts to isolate it will be stopped. It would need to have guarantees that Israel will return the Golan. The US cannot make such promises. President Bush will not reward Syria for good behavior. He has made this clear for years. It has been a cardinal principle of his policy.

It is hard to see how the plan in the following New York Times article, which mentions no quid pro quo, will convince Syria to split from its traditional allies and set out on an adventure of such risk. The Syrian regime is extremely conservative.

U.S. Plan Seeks to Wedge Syria From Iran

Published: July 23, 2006

WASHINGTON, July 22 — As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Israel on Sunday, Bush administration officials say they recognize Syria is central to any plans to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, and they are seeking ways to peel Syria away from its alliance of convenience with Iran.

Turmoil in the Mideast
Go to Complete Coverage » In interviews, senior administration officials said they had no plans right now to resume direct talks with the Syrian government. President Bush recalled his ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005. Since then, America’s contacts with Damascus have been few, and the administration has imposed an array of sanctions on Syria’s government and banks, and frozen the assets of Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri’s killing.

But officials said this week that they were at the beginning stages of a plan to encourage Saudi Arabia and Egypt to make the case to the Syrians that they must turn against Hezbollah. With the crisis at such a pivotal stage, officials who are involved in the delicate negotiations to end it agreed to speak candidly about their expectations only if they were not quoted by name.

“We think that the Syrians will listen to their Arab neighbors on this rather than us,’’ said one senior official, “so it’s all a question of how well that can be orchestrated.’’

There are several substantial hurdles to success. The effort risks allowing Syria to regain a foothold inside Lebanon, after its troops were forced to withdraw last year. It is not clear how forcefully Arab countries would push a cause seen to benefit the United States and Israel. And many Middle Eastern analysts are skeptical that a lasting settlement can be achieved without direct talks between Syria and the United States.

The effort begins Sunday afternoon in the Oval Office, where President Bush is scheduled to meet the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, and the chief of the Saudi national security council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to Washington until late last year and often speaks of his deep connections to both the Bush family and Vice President Dick Cheney.

Ms. Rice is delaying her departure to the Middle East until after the meeting, which she is also expected to attend, along with Mr. Cheney and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser. The session was requested by the Saudis, American officials said.

The expected outcome of the session is unclear. “We don’t know how patient the Saudis will be with the Israeli military action,’’ said one senior official. “They want to see Hezbollah wiped out, and they’d like to set back the Iranians.”

But in the Arab world, the official added, “they can’t been seen to be doing that too enthusiastically.’’

Several of Mr. Bush’s top aides said the plan is for Mr. Bush and other senior officials to press both Saudi Arabia and Egypt to prod Syria into giving up its links with Hezbollah, and with Iran. The administration, aside from its differences with Iran over nuclear programs and with Syria over its role in Lebanon, also has objected to both nations’ behavior toward their common neighbor, Iraq.

“They have to make the point to them that if things go bad in the Mideast, the Iranians are not going to be a reliable lifeline,’’ one of the administration officials said.

Another said, “There is a presumption that the Syrians have more at stake here than the Iranians, and they are more exposed.”

The American officials are calculating that pressure from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan may help to get Syria on board.

But so far, there appears to be little discussion of offering American incentives to the Syrians to abandon Hezbollah, or even to stop arming it. The Bush administration has been deeply reluctant to make such offers, whether it is negotiating with Damascus or with the governments of Iran or North Korea.

Nor did President Bush sound any conciliatory notes in his radio address on Saturday. “For many years, Syria has been a primary sponsor of Hezbollah and it has helped provide Hezbollah with shipments of Iranian-made weapons,’’ he said. “Iran’s regime has also repeatedly defied the international community with its ambition for nuclear weapons and aid to terrorist groups. Their actions threaten the entire Middle East and stand in the way of resolving the current crisis and bringing lasting peace to this troubled region.”

The State Department lists Syria as a country that sends money to terrorist organizations. Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, has spent a lot of time on television in recent days, but he is often described as one of the loneliest ambassadors in Washington.

In the months after 9/11, Syria provided important assistance in the campaign against al Qaeda. But relations soured as American officials complained that Syria did little to crack down on associates of Saddam Hussein who funneled money to the insurgency in Iraq through Syrian banks, or to stop the flow of insurgents across its border to Iraq. The United States imposed sanctions on Syria in 2004, and took further measures after Syrian officials were accused of involvement in Mr. Hariri’s assassination.

The idea is to try to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, who have recently been drawn closer together by standoffs with Washington. Syria and Iran have been formally allied since the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, but historically they were suspicious of each other.

“Historically and strategically, they are on opposing sides — the Arabs and the Persians,” Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview on Thursday. Now, he added, “the only Arab country to ally with Iran is Syria,” a position that has angered Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Syria, along with most of the Arab world, is largely Sunni. Iran and Iraq are largely Shiite.

One Western diplomat said Arab leaders had had trouble getting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to come to the phone when they called to express concern about Hezbollah’s actions.

In 1996, when Israel and Hezbollah were fighting each other and bombs rained down on civilian populations, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spent 10 days shuttling around Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem before brokering a cease-fire that got Israel and Hezbollah to agree to leave civilians out of the fighting.

Ms. Rice has said she has no intention of duplicating Mr. Christopher’s approach. “I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling and it wouldn’t have been clear what I was shuttling to do,” she said Friday. “I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante.”

Rather, the administration’s declared aim is the implementation of United Nations resolution 1559, which calls for the disarming of Hezbollah and the deployment of the Lebanese army to southern Lebanon. Syria, which was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon last year, may well balk at efforts to enforce it.

But while analysts say it is possible for the Bush administration and Israel to work out a solution without including Syria in the diplomatic wrangling, it would be difficult to do. Some Bush administration officials, particularly at the State Department, are pushing to find a way to start talking to Syria again.

Here is an anonymous note I received from a reader explaining why he believes the Lebanon-Israel confrontation may spin into a regional war


I do not pretend to be an expert, but as a casual observer, and frequent reader of your column, I have the feeling that what we are witnessing today in the middle-east, is a gathering storm. The climax of which, is a perfect storm.

In order for a perfect storm to happen, a lot of factors have to be in the right place, and at the right time.

I am arguing here that all the regional actors, as well as the international actors, that can have an impact on where things are heading, no longer can accept or afford the status quo, and they believe that escalation and confrontation is the way to change the status quo.

1. America:

1.1. American plans for the middle-east, and the war on terror are not going according to the administration's plan. The war in Iraq, and to some extent Afghanistan, are not going very well, and therefore the American public support for wars is declining, and the window of opportunity for any military adventurism, is closing rapidly. Therefore, if anything needs to be done, it needs to be done now.

1.2. Bush ratings are at their lowest, and the odds are that the democrats will come to power. It could be as early as this fall by capturing the congress, House or Senate, or both. Or it could be in two years by capturing the white house. Another reason why the neocons need to push their agenda now, or never.

1.3. Even if Republicans maintain control on congress and Whitehouse, the Neocon faction of the republican party are losing their grip due to the performance in the first term. Yet another reason for the urgency to do something now.

1.4. There are currently 130,000 US troops in Iraq. That number will certainly go down over the next 12 months, and the next 2 years, as we come closer to US elections. Therefore the time for any military adventurism is now.

2. Israel:

2.1. The failure of the peace plan, prompted Israel to come out with its own unilateral disengagement plan, similar to what happened in Lebanon in 2000. However, the whole plan falls apart when the opposing party continues to lob rockets even after the disengagement. Furthermore, we are seeing that these rockets are becoming more lethal, and can attain increasing distances. Therefore, the status quo needs to change before it is too late.

2.2. There is an administration in Washington that can only be described as the most friendly administration to Israel ever. A big part of this very close relationship, is the president own religious beliefs, and we know that is going to change in 2 years. Thus the urgency to do something.

2.3. Iran is gaining more strength due in large part to the Iraq war, and the removal of the Iraqi thereat, as well as the rise to power for the Shiites. Its own nuclear program is progressing at a worrying pace. Another reason why something needs to be done before Iran goes Nuclear.

2.4. Forces hostile to Israel are on the rise in the region. Hamas won elections in the Palestinian territory. Hezbollah won more seats in the Lebanese parliament, than ever before, an indication of a growing popularity among Shiites. Muslim brotherhood party won seats in the Egyptian parliament. All these Islamic forces, although they were present 10 and 20 years ago, have never been as popular as they are today. The trends indicate that fundamentalist Islam is on the rise everywhere. Therefore something needs to be done now, before the opposing force gather too much steam.

2.5. There is a new leadership in Israel that is not proven. Both the Prime Minister, and the Defense Minister do not come from a military background, and therefore they have to cede the decision making to the military, which is why this war is called the "generals wars".

3. Syria:
3.1. Economically Syria, is isolated, and under siege, regionally and Internationally. The economy is suffering as more and more suffocating measures are enacted by the US and its allies. Syria cannot withstand the impact of all these measures, as it is not rich in petroleum, like Iraq or Iran. The decision makers in Syria do not want to repeat the Iraq experience, where 12 years of sanctions, reduced Iraq's economy to tatters, despite its vast petroleum resources.

3.2. Politically Syria has never been as isolated as it is today. Not only it is isolated internationally, but also regionally, as evidenced by the Arab league meeting last Saturday.

3.3. The impact of Lebanon debacle, and the Hariri investigation that ensued, have still to play out completely. There is the economic impact of all these Syrians losing their jobs. There are strong indications that the Hariri investigations will end up with indictments of high level Syrian officers.

3.4. Syria has reached the conclusion that it cannot reach out to the US, even if it closes the borders, and pull out of Lebanon, and stop fermenting problems in Lebanon, because the US is not interested in reaching an accommodation with Syria.

4. Iran:
4.1. Iran is facing a major showdown with the west over its nuclear program. The Security Council is moving towards imposing sanctions on Iran.

4.2. Iran wants to engage Israel and America, in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, rather than Iran.

4.3. Iran is fighting for the leadership of the whole Moslem word. If it was to back down now, it will loose all credibility in the Moslem world.

4.4. Hezbollah is an extension of Iran. Hezbollah, although a totally Lebanese party, was in fact supported and started by Iran. Hezbollah is in fact the only triumph of the Iranian revolution, in its quest to export the revolution. Furthermore, Iran is counting on Hezbollah to create trouble for Israel, when the showdown over its nuclear weapons comes to a boil. Therefore, Iran will not let Hezbollah lose, in this showdown with Israel.

5. Hamas:

5.1. Clearly with the isolation and economic siege that they were under, they could not go any more. Something needed to happen, to break with the status quo, and produce a new reality.

5.2. Even though Hamas was not a party to the peace process, they were sitting back and waiting to see if Mahmoud Abbas can deliver. If he can they were ready to jump on board. However, the peace process died, and was buried, and there is no alternatives.

6. Lebanon:

6.1. The dialog was going nowhere. They could only agree on things that are controlled by others, such as for Palestinians to disarm, and Syria to exchange embassies, and mark the border. There was a deadlock, and an external event was needed to break the deadlock.

6.2. Hezbollah needs to prove that they are relevant in the new Lebanon.

For all the above reasons, I see this confrontation evolving, albeit slowly, into a major regional war.

Israel military encouraged by the neocons in the US administration may attack Syria, thinking that Syria is too afraid or too weak to respond, and that the outcome would be to bring Syria to heel.

Syria will respond as the regime cannot sit idly by, and retain any semblance of legitimacy.

Iran will get involved, and, we have a regional war.

I do hope I am wrong, and that this whole issue will get resolved diplomatically very soon.

I just wanted to know your opinions.

Friday, July 21, 2006

How Far Will the War be Broadened? Will the Lebanese Side with HA

Israel readying major ground offensive in Lebanon Top Israeli officials met Thursday night to decide how big a force to send in, according to senior military officials. They said Israel won't stop its offensive until Hizbullah is forced behind the Litani River, 30 kilometers north of the border – carving out a new buffer zone.

The Lebanese Defence Minister has said the country's army will join the battle, if Israel launches a full-scale invasion of Lebanon as part of its massive offensive against Hezbollah, according to ABC news.

An Israeli Defence Force spokesman, Brigadier Ido Nehushtan, says the military operation will continue until Hezbollah is destroyed.

IDO NEHUSHTAN: We have all forces - air, sea and ground, and our ground forces are ready and prepared. And as we speak, by the way, ground operations take place. On the borderline, we have no intention of occupying Lebanon. We left Lebanon six years ago, nevertheless the ground forces are ready and prepared to do whatever it takes.

BARNEY PORTER: The Lebanese Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora, has now accused the United States of encouraging Israel's offensive on Lebanon.

Israeli forces have also resumed shelling the southern suburbs of Beirut after nightfall, local time.

And it seems there'll be no immediate let-up in the violence.

Today, the Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, emerged from hiding to declare the two Israeli soldiers captured last week will only be freed in a prisoner-swap.

Earlier this week, Israeli warplanes dropped more than 20 tonnes of explosives on a suspected Hezbollah bunker in southern Beirut, believing senior leaders of the Shi'ite group were inside, including Sheikh Nasrallah.

However, in an interview on Al Jazeera television, he's insisted the group's leadership structure is intact; that more "surprises" are in store for the Israelis, and the fate of the two Israeli prisoners is up to their government.

(sound of Hassan Nasrallah speaking on Al Jazeera)

HASSAN NASRALLAH (translated): If the entire universe comes it will not be able to take back the two Israeli soldiers, except through indirect negotiation and the exchange of prisoners.

I can confirm that Hezbollah has so far remained steadfast. It has managed to absolve the strike. It has managed to move to the stage of taking the initiative, and to offer some surprises which it always promised.

There are still a number of surprises which we reserve to ourselves in the next stage.

BARNEY PORTER: The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has criticised both sides in one of his strongest speeches since taking office.

KOFI ANNAN: While Hezbollah's actions are deplorable, and as I've said Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned.
Reuters reports
that elite Israeli forces are finding Hizbollah guerrillas entrenched just inside southern Lebanon a tough adversary as they try to clear them from the hilly frontier and cut rocket attacks on the Jewish state.

Hizbollah killed four Israeli soldiers in fierce clashes in the southern Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras on Thursday, Al Jazeera television said. The army has said there were eight casualties, but has not been more specific.

The army said the firefight took place not far from where Hizbollah killed two soldiers and wounded nine on Wednesday.

Michael Young of the Daily Star highlights the Lebanese lose-lose situation. He urges the Lebanese not to join the resistance against Israel and to use the war to eliminate Hizbullah military power once and for all by deploying Lebanese troops, backed up by a UN force, along the border. All the same, he fears that if the non-Shiite Lebanese sects gang up with Israel against Hizbullah this will re-ignite civil war in Lebanon. He writes:
One thing remains most disturbing. In bombing the daylights out of Shiites, while leaving Sunni, Christian and Druze areas mostly unharmed, the Israelis may have created years of sectarian resentment. Nasrallah can play on this to rouse his coreligionists out of their stupor. Look, he might say, where our fellow Lebanese were when the Israelis came after us; they criticized the resistance, and by extension all Shiites. Such thinking might help save Nasrallah's skin, but it could push Lebanon over the brink.
A number of Israelis, worried that Tel Aviv will come out the loser if it misses the opportunity to broaden the war are urging an attack on Syria.

Michael Oren, a classmate of mine from Princeton and author of "The 1967 War”, is urging war with Syria in (2006-07-20) "Attacking Syria Would Ensure Cease-Fire in North":

The answer lies in delivering an unequivocal blow to Syrian ground forces deployed near the Lebanese border. By eliminating 500 Syrian tanks -- tanks that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad needs to preserve his regime -- Israel could signal its refusal to return to the status quo in Lebanon. Supporting Hezbollah carries a prohibitive price, the action would say.

Of course, Syria could respond with missile attacks against Israeli cities, but given the dilapidated state of Syria's army, the chances are greater that Assad will simply internalize the message. Presented with a choice between saving Hezbollah and staying alive, Syria's dictator will probably choose the latter. And the message of Israel's determination will also be received in Tehran.

Any course of military action carries risks, especially in the unpredictable Middle East. But if the past is any guide and if the Six-Day War presents a paradigm of an unwanted war that might have been averted with an early, well-placed strike at Syria, then Israel's current strategy in Lebanon deserves to be re-thought. If Syria escapes unscathed and Iran undeterred, Israel will remain insecure.
American intelligence on Hizbullah is weak. Much of it comes from Israel. Anthony Cordesman says, "I'll be perfectly blunt: Israeli intelligence is political, and you can't trust it." With this warning, US papers then explain that Israel claims Hizbullah is really a Syrian and Iranian operation and not Lebanese at all.

Hezbollah nourished by Iran, Syria roots


WASHINGTON -- The Hezbollah military machine that has been attacking Israel draws much of its strength from two shadowy sources that are proving difficult to cut off: Syria and Iran.

The two countries, which President Bush blames for fomenting terrorism and destabilizing the Middle East, provide Hezbollah with training, weapons and financing, according to Western intelligence officials who are working to stem the flow of aid.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., a House Intelligence Committee member who was briefed on the Middle East situation during a recent trip to Iraq, said Syria has more than 1,000 agents in southern Lebanon, working either directly for Syrian intelligence or compensated by Syria for information. He says they are there "to cause trouble" and help prop up Hezbollah militarily.

Lebanon is two-thirds the size of Connecticut. In a country that small, Rogers said, "a thousand intelligence agents is unbelievable. It's huge."

Along with Syria's agents, Iran's well-trained Revolutionary Guard is believed to be providing military advisers to Hezbollah, with some level of coordination with Syria, according to U.S. officials and Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.

Cordesman said the Iranian role has evolved over time. Earlier, significant numbers of Iranians could be seen operating at terrorist training camps in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Syria provided them safe haven in the region. "Now, what you have is people who are less visible," he said.

While intelligence agencies may try to pin down such details with spies, eavesdropping equipment and overhead surveillance, the details are among any government's most classified secrets. And some of what is public may be misinformation.

"I'll be perfectly blunt: Israeli intelligence is political, and you can't trust it," Cordesman said.

The Daily Star believes Israel is losing. Its staff writers give these quotes:

"It is undeniable that Israel is in a bind. The army has again been over-confident and underestimated its abilities to break Hizbullah," said Israeli military analyst Reuven Pedatzur.

The risk now is for Israel to invade South Lebanon. That would make its troops vulnerable to Hizbullah fighters.

For the moment at least, the specter of sliding back into the quagmire of Lebanon has put the brakes on a ground offensive. Yet Olmert has approved intensified ground operations, described by the Israeli Army as "pinpoint."

General Alon Friedman said the military was "operating to destroy Hizbullah infrastructure and underground bunkers in particular," and that enough troops were on the border to launch a large-scale operation.

"Hizbullah seems to be holding strong and its morale seems intact," said Shaul Mishal, a Tel Aviv University specialist in Islamic groups. "It's an illusion to think that with force alone we can destroy the weapons of a movement like Hizbullah, which has widespread support from Shiites in Lebanon."

Israel's Haaretz daily wrote Thursday: "Despite the media euphoria and the patriotic spin, the aerial war ... is not heading for victory. In the best case, it is heading for a limited military achievement ... The air force's hammer blows are hitting Lebanon harder than they are hitting Hizbullah ... Even in the best-case scenario, Hizbullah will rise from the rubble ... One way or the other, the illusion of a magic solution is about to burst." - Agencies

"My City, on Fire Again" by Zena el-Khalil

The Lebanese are getting their story out much more quickly than did the Iraqis. Their multilingualism, cosmopolitanism, and ability to speak in the introspective vernacular of the West makes for compelling reading. Here is the best of the outpouring of personal stories that I have read.

My city, on fire again

As Israeli bombs rain down on Beirut, the people of the city are once again living with the horror of war. In an intimate diary, 30-year-old Lebanese artist Zena el-Khalil describes helping foreigners escape, the nightly rocket attacks - and how she couldn't leave her sick friend behind

Wednesday July 19, 2006
The Guardian

July 14
At 3.28am I woke up to the sound of Israeli jets flying low over our skies in Beirut. I was just beginning to finally fall asleep, had racing thoughts in my mind all night, cramps in my stomach, fear ... Then the sound of jets, followed by one explosion after another. It has calmed down now. I hear morning prayers in the distance.

I am at home with some friends who have taken refuge with us. A lot of them are foreigners. We are trying to explain ... who, what, why. But we are also trying to be normal, because being normal is what got the Lebanese people through some 20 years of war. We are joking about how the airport is on fire because of all the alcohol in the duty free.

Up until now, Israel has done the following: blown up our international airport, runways, gas reserves for planes (no one can leave or enter the country); blown up small military and domestic airports (both in the north and south); blown up all bridges and roads linking Beirut to the south; blown up villages in the south, everything from the deep south to Sidon; blown up - as I type this now, another jet is flying by, it is so loud - blown up the suburbs (Dahiya); blown up the Beirut to Damascus road at several points. We are surrounded by sea as well.


Everything that is happening now is because Israel is trying to wipe out any trace of Hizbullah in Lebanon. In the process of doing all this, they are wiping out our infrastructure. Our roads, bridges, civilian homes, innocent lives.

It's 4.32am and I have a knot in my stomach. I am praying they don't hit the electricity. I want my internet. I think it's the only thing that will help me stay normal.


Latest update: nine missile raids into Dahiya in the last hour. There are now several parts of Beirut without electricity. The sky is glowing red. I am praying for the people in Dahiya ... Another really really loud bomb. I guess that makes it 10 now.

I am angry now. The things that cross your mind ... I just set up a new art installation last week, and now no one will get to see it. I was just about ready to launch an international residency programme here - not going to happen now. We were just planning to start a family. Who wants to get pregnant now?

We are under attack by Israel. It is so unjust and unfair. Everything we've worked towards for the past 10 years is gone. We had so many events planned for the summer: exhibitions ... concerts ... plays. All gone.


Lebanon cannot be occupied again by Israel.

Believe it or not, the sun is beginning to rise and I actually hear birds chirping.

July 17

3.23am. I have started coughing, but I don't know why. I am not sick. I think it is a reaction I am having to stress. My mouth is always dry, no matter how much water I drink. And I'm afraid to drink too much water because I don't want it to run out!

Last night was probably the most frightening night I have ever experienced. We counted at least 15 bombs falling into Dahiyeh in the Beirut suburbs. I have not slept in days. I know I have to be strong, and I will be, but I cannot deny what I am going through. So many of us are working hard to fix things - we are running around Beirut trying to get food and water and medicine to people, we are doing things online, but it doesn't mean we are not scared, sick or tired.

So, last night, amid the worst shelling we have had so far, I realised that I was not afraid of the noise any more; how quickly you get used to it. I realised what was hurting the most was the unknown. What is going to happen tomorrow? When will this all end? How are we going to start rebuilding again? Are the refugees going to be OK? How are the people in the south? And why punish a whole country? How much worse is it going to get?


My husband and I have been housing foreign "refugees", helping them to find their way out of the country. Two managed to leave this morning, a German and a Swiss. The other two are British and American. The craziest thing is that out of all people, the American embassy has been the least helpful to its citizens here. The phone line to the embassy has been practically out of service. My American friend, Amanda, had to hire a cab to take her to the embassy, which is a ride out of Beirut, and all they could tell her was to keep checking the website. And the only thing she has got from the website is that if there is an evacuation, then she is going to have to pay for it.


The question is, what would I do if I had the opportunity to leave? Would I leave? What would I do with my friends? My family? My art studio? What would happen to my best friend Maya? She has a very rare and bad case of cancer. We thought it was untreatable, but ironically, the day the shelling started, her doctor told us her tumours had shrunk. A miracle. I can't leave Maya.

I would have to leave behind all my artwork in my studio. What about all my brushes and paints and glitter and books? (All my books!) What about our photo albums? Our family pictures? What about the doodles I drew on my balcony a few summers ago when I was suffering from a bad break-up? What about all the love letters I have saved? Letters that document my youth that I wanted to someday give to my daughter.


Biggest cynical statement of the day: Israel has told people to evacuate from the south because they are going to annihilate the south of Lebanon. However, the people cannot leave because all the roads have been destroyed or blocked. And yesterday, when people did try and leave, the Israelis opened fire on them.


Israel is trying to bring Lebanon to its knees. Israel is trying to destroy the Lebanese spirit. Israel is trying to turn the Lebanese against each other, to turn us into animals scrounging for food, water and shelter. Israel and the United States of America are trying to drag Syria and Iran into this too. They are using Lebanon as bait. We are stuck in the middle.

We are a peaceful country. People of all religions coexist peacefully here.

I am not leaving. And there are many of us who are not leaving. We love Lebanon. We love what we have spent our lives building.

There are thousands like me here, who build culture and tolerance, who work for peace and understanding, to educate. Who work to promote love and compassion. What about us?

Did I mention that Maya's tumours are getting smaller?

Did I mention there was a wedding across the street yesterday?

July 18

Today I drove through downtown on my way to visit my parents. I was driving alone and was a bit nervous. My first time in a car alone since this whole thing started - but I had to see them.

I came across a red light and stopped. The streets were empty, and I caught myself wondering why I stopped and didn't just go through. Then I remembered my latest policy to keep me sane: that even under attack, we should not lose our manners.

Then I looked into my rear-view mirror and saw other cars approaching. I closed my eyes and in a fit of prayer wished that they would stop too. That if they didn't cross the light, it would somehow indicate that we are all thinking the same. You must have heard about Lebanese drivers: they never stop at red lights! Well, today they stopped.

I opened my eyes and burst into tears. All the cars had stopped. Everyone was behaving. The little things that make you happy.

I don't want to write about all the miserable moments I had today. I don't want to write about the tears that fell when I heard about how the Israeli army bombed wheat silos and vegetable stores. Now they want to starve us to death? I don't want to write about how they are now targeting Lebanese army outposts and barracks, when the Lebanese army are not even fighting them. About the planes that are flying so low. About how my house starts to shake every time a bomb drops. About my worries now about food and water shortages. About the refugees who have lost so much, who are now living on the streets.

I don't want to write about the cramp in my heart every time I hear the death toll rising. So many children! I don't want to write about how everything I have spent my whole life working for has disappeared in a matter of days. A matter of days ... my whole life has changed.

My whole life has changed and I did not ask for it. My whole life has changed because someone, not me, decided they were going to change it. Who said they could? Why didn't they ask me? I was supposed to be camping in the mountains this week. I was supposed to be working on a proposal to bring a New York artist out here next summer. It was supposed to be a surprise; I was going to set the whole thing up, get the funding and surprise him with it. People bought artwork from me. I am supposed to cash my cheques.


Israel has changed my life because Israel is targeting me as a civilian. And who said Hizbullah could take a decision on my behalf and provoke the monster?

Two bombs just went off. My windows are shaking. Stupid me, I closed them to stop the mosquitoes from coming in. Thank God they didn't just shatter. My heart is another story.


I want to tell Israeli citizens what their government is doing to us. Remind them that Lebanon is their neighbour and that coexistence is possible. How are we ever going to reach an understanding through violence? We were so close ... We were so close.

A troubled city: Beirut through the ages

· The Phoenician city of Beirut is named on cuneiform tablets dating from the 15th century BC. Phoenician merchants operating from Lebanon's Mediterranean coast dominated maritime trade during the first millennium BC, exporting glass, textiles and cedarwood. The city later came under the influence of Rome and was home to a prestigious law school, which was evacuated to Sidon following a series of earthquakes, which devastated the city in AD551.

· Beirut was under Arab control from 635 until 1110, when the city fell to a Crusader invasion. The city remained part of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem until 1291, despite the best efforts of Saladin, who led a siege of the city in 1182.

· Beirut was later absorbed into the Ottoman empire, which ruled over the city from 1516 until 1918. The rapid decline of Turkey's imperial reach in the wake of the first world war created a vacuum that was quickly filled by western European powers. France was granted a mandate over Lebanon and Syria in 1920. French troops left the country in 1946, when Lebanon gained its independence.

· The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 brought thousands of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon, who made homes in refugee camps around the country, many of which are still standing. Violence broke out in 1958 between Muslims supporting the pan-Arab ambitions of Nasser, Egypt's president, and Christians allied to the west; US marines landed in Beirut, marking the first US intervention into the country.

· During the 1960s, Beirut was at the centre of Arab intellectual and cultural life. Variously nicknamed "the Paris of the Middle East" and "the Arab world's answer to Monte Carlo", the city was famously dynamic and cosmopolitan and a popular holiday destination with Arabs and Europeans alike, including the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot.

· Civil war broke out in 1975 when Christian Maronite forces clashed with PLO guerillas, who had moved their headquarters to Beirut in 1970 after being driven out of Jordan. Syrian troops arrived in the country in 1976 and Israel invaded southern Lebanon in 1978. Beirut descended into anarchy as militias formed, taking control of the city street by street. Lebanon's diverse population quickly broke down along confessional lines, turning Christian against Muslim, Sunni against Shia, and neighbours against old schoolfriends. The city's hotel district was laid to waste and the National Museum came under sniper fire. The singer, Fairuz, universally adored in Lebanon, refused to perform while her country was in such turmoil.

· Whatever was left of this once beautiful city was subjected to catastrophic destruction during the Israeli invasion of 1982, which left the city under siege for three months. The most shocking incident of a brutal war was the massacre of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the camps of Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangist militias, for which Israel's Ariel Sharon was found to bear "indirect responsibility". The west, meanwhile, was preoccupied with the abduction of hostages by Shia groups, including Terry Waite and John McCarthy, which began in 1984.

· The Lebanese civil war officially came to an end in 1991. The magical voice of Fairuz was heard in Beirut once again in 1994 and the artefacts of the National Museum were released from their protective concrete casing and put on public display in 1997. Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Syrian troops withdrew from the rest of the country in 2005. The hotels were refurbished, the downtown area restored and the airport modernised.

· On July 12 2006, Hizbullah captured two Israeli soldiers. The next day, Israel bombed Beirut's international airport and blockaded Lebanese ports. Israel's chief of staff, Lt Gen Dan Halutz, told Israel's Channel 10: "If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Support for US and Israel Declining Rapidly Outside of US

Robin Wright gets the important story in today's Washington Post (copied below). Europe is abandoning America, or, rather, Washington is abandoning its allies in Europe once again in order to use force in the Middle East as an instrument of its policy to transform the Greater Middle East. The US has been able to buy Israel time with its European allies, but that time is limited. The US congress has voted overwhelmingly to support Israel.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned that Israel would launch a full-scale ground operation if it considered it necessary.

"Let no terror organization feel we would cower from any operation," he said. "We have no intention of conquering Lebanon, but... we will do it without thinking twice."

Rice headed for the UN today, which she herself calls a waste of time! America opposes sending a beefed up UN force to Southern Lebanon. Then she will head to Indonesia in order to waste some more time. All of this to hold off the Europeans and give Israel another week to degrade Hizbullah and get better bargaining terms for the moment when negotiations will start.

Syria, in contrast to the US, does not want to play the UN waiting game. It turned back Roed-Larsen, the UN envoy, from visiting Syria. John Bolton, the US ambassador at the UN, went ballistic and claimed this was bad. In some respects, it is more honest than the American approach to the UN, which is to waste its time and make a mockery of it.

The Israeli tactic is bound to backfire, however. Anyone reading Middle East blogs can see the steady wave of repulsion at Israel is growing ever stronger. Tel Aviv's hope that it can turn the rest of Lebanon against Hizbullah is in vain. The Lebanese are closing ranks. Not because they love Hizbullah, but because they are all being bombed and must stand common ground if they want the bombing to stop. So long as the World believes the notion that Arabs want Hizb to be bombed, the Israelis will have more days to bomb Lebanon. Last week, many Lebanese politicians and commentators were happy to lambaste Hizbullah. Today, it is considered a form of bad faith. Hizbullah's critics in the Arab World are going silent.

Adnan Abu-Odeh, a former adviser to the late King Hussein of Jordan. “In fact, historically, this episode is another example of how Israel embarrasses the moderate regimes in the region.”

From the New York Times:

“Everybody understands the Israelis want to degrade Hezbollah’s ability as a military fighting force and as an organization capable of launching missiles into Israel,” said Theodore H. Kattouf, a former American ambassador to Syria.

“I believe they want to turn the Lebanese people — those outside of the true believers within the Shia community — against Hezbollah,” he added. “I think they are quite misguided in the policy they are following. These attacks are, if anything, making people feel somewhat less hostile to Hezbollah and more convinced in their dislike of Israel.”
The Jewish Forward quotes Richard Murphy, who suggests that the US should be speaking to Syria. Like Kattouf, he is an ex-Ambassador to Syria:
The Bush administration has lost influence in the region because of its diplomatic standoffishness, said Richard Murphy, a former secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Reagan administration. Murphy was also a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. The current crisis may open new opportunities for a peace process, he said, but the administration seems uninterested in exploring them together with its international partners. "Without our trying to mold things, things will not go anywhere," he said.

This was even true of Lebanon's anti-Syrian Prime Minister who said:
Mr. Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, said that he favored a release of the two Israeli soldiers. But he coupled that call with other requirements.

Any solution to the crisis, he said, should include Israel’s withdrawal from the disputed Shebaa Farms area of the border, the release of Lebanese detainees in Israeli jails and a return to the terms of the 1949 armistice between the two countries.

He suggested the Lebanese Army would move to southern Lebanon once these conditions were met. He backed the idea of a more robust international force, but only after “all the issues” were put on the table, and he stopped short of condemning Hezbollah for inviting the Israeli attacks on the rest of the country.
Although Siniora does not join Hizbullah in all of its demands from Israel, he is demanding Shebaa Farms be returned and a cessation of Israeli over flights of Lebanon, which is what the 1949 armistice part implies.

Here are Hizbullah demands as quoted in al-Quds al-Arabi:
Well-informed Lebanese sources had quoted Hezbollah officials saying that the resistance had placed its own terms, in order to release the captive soldiers and end the bombing of Israeli cities with Katyusha missiles. “The sources indicated that these terms included the withdrawal of the forces of the occupation from the occupied Shaba’a Farms and their surrender to the Lebanese government, … the release of all the Lebanese and Arab detainees and that of a large number of Palestinian detainees in the prisons of the occupation. The terms also stipulate that the government of the occupation pay for all the material damage to the infrastructure and the Lebanese towns, as well as allocate compensation to the citizens, for their homes and lands that were destroyed by the Israeli attacks. “Moreover, the resistance demanded that the government of the occupation solve the issue of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and ensure their return to the Palestinian territories from which they were displaced.” - Al Quds Al Arabi, United Kingdom Click here for source
U.S. at Odds With Allies on Mideast Conflict
Citing Civilian Casualties, European Nations and U.N. Eager for Cease-Fire

By Robin Wright and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A17

The United States faces growing tensions with allies over its support of Israel's military campaign to cripple Hezbollah, amid calls for a cease-fire to help with the mounting humanitarian crisis.

European allies are particularly alarmed about the disproportionately high civilian death toll in Lebanon. They are also concerned that the U.S. position will increase tensions between the Islamic world and the West by fueling militants, playing into the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and adding to the problems of the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq.

"What there needs to be now is a cessation of hostilities," U.N. Deputy Secretary General Mark Malloch Brown told reporters yesterday. "The Middle East is littered with the results of people believing there are military solutions to political problems in the region." He said civilians are "very unfairly bearing the greatest brunt of the conflict."

The fragile Lebanese government has pleaded for a cease-fire, and France has urged the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution calling for an end to hostilities, proposing political and security measures. France also has called for "humanitarian corridors" to guarantee safety for civilians fleeing areas under fire.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will head to the United Nations tonight to begin talks on the crisis and a possible stabilization force along the border. Few specifics have been developed about the goals, size, location and timing of such a force, U.N. and European officials said.

The United Nations has floated the idea of expanding a 2,000-strong U.N. force that has been in Lebanon since Israel's first incursion, in 1978. But Israel and the United States say that option is not viable.

Rice is now expected to travel to the Middle East as soon as this weekend, but with a limited listening mission in Israel and Egypt. The United States is still struggling to define the timing and purpose of her mission. She is tentatively expected to leave a team behind in Israel, head on to Malaysia for a conference of Southeast Asian nations, and possibly return to the Middle East for further negotiations if her team can put the right "building blocks" in place, a U.S. official said.

The United States is increasingly out of sync with key allies, however, because it remains content to allow Israel to pound Hezbollah, both to remove it as a threat and to undermine the region's extremist movements and hard-line regimes.

European nations and U.N. officials are eager for a cease-fire or "pause" to allow Lebanese civilians to move to safer areas and investigate diplomatic avenues, as well as prevent other Middle East hot spots from becoming inflamed, European envoys said.

"The one thing that is guaranteed to send the Arab world and the Persian world over the edge is for the U.S. to be seen ultimately to be doing what they always believed -- to be fully in cahoots with Israel," said a European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic relations. "The danger of allowing it to continue is that the United States is more and more despised. It's not like the U.S. had a good reputation within the region to start with."

The White House vehemently denied it is coordinating with Israel or "sitting around at the war map saying 'Do this, this and this,' " press secretary Tony Snow said. "We're not colluding, we're not cooperating, we're not conspiring, we're not doing any of that," he told reporters. "The Israelis are doing what they think is necessary to protect their borders."

The State Department also tried to stress the basic international agreement on Hezbollah as the cause of the conflict. "I don't think anybody disagrees on the desire to end the violence in the region, but let's remember what the root causes of the violence are," spokesman Sean McCormack said.

But underscoring the differences with Europeans and other allies, a senior administration official said yesterday that the time is not yet ripe for a diplomatic solution. "The conditions that the G-8 [Group of Eight industrialized nations] talked about are not in place to get a real and permanent cease-fire that addresses the fundamental problems of the region," he said.

The official said Washington is privately advising Israel to consider the dire humanitarian situation and avoid civilian casualties. He said the Israelis "have a terrible problem" because Hezbollah is placing a lot of equipment in civilian neighborhoods. "They make mistakes, and there are accidents," he said. "It is impossible for them to avoid all the collateral damage."

U.S. support for Israel is also taking a toll on close coordination between the United States and France, which has been critical in fostering stability in the former French mandate country. That cooperation included a joint resolution that called for and achieved an end to Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon.

The two countries now appear seriously divided over the next step in resolving the crisis.

France proposed that the Security Council adopt a resolution that could call on Israel and Hezbollah to show "utmost restraint" and begin consideration of a reinforced U.N. peacekeeping presence in the region. The resolution would condemn unnamed "extremist forces" who are threatening Israeli and Lebanese democracies, and call for the release of Israeli troops by Hezbollah and the negotiation of "comprehensive and lasting cease-fire." It also proposes the disarmament of Hezbollah and support for Lebanon to exercise authority throughout the southern part of the country.

U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton challenged France's proposal. "I am not sure that conventional thinking about a cease-fire makes any sense when you are dealing with a terrorist group that fires rockets at civilian populations and kidnaps innocent Israelis," he said.

George Friedman of Stratfor writes:
Our analysis therefore runs as follows:

1. Only an invasion on the ground can provide Israel with the solution it wants to the threat Hezbollah has posed.

2. A diplomatic or political settlement not only cannot guarantee this outcome, but it would make later Israeli responses to Hezbollah even more difficult. Israel has more room for maneuver internationally now than it will have later.

3. The internal politics of Israel will make it very difficult for Olmert to come out of this with a less-than-definitive outcome.

4. Israel will seek to deal with Hezbollah without undertaking counterinsurgency operations in the long term. This means attack, sterilization of the threat, and withdrawal.

There has been much speculation about diplomatic solutions, the possibility that there will not be an invasion, and so on. But when we ignore the rhetoric and look at the chessboard, it is difficult to see how this conflict ends without some action on the ground. When we examine the behavior of the Israelis, they are taking the steps that would be needed for an invasion. Obviously we could be wrong, and clearly the invasion has not come at the earliest possible moment, as we had predicted. Nevertheless, when we step through the logic, we keep coming out with the same answer: invasion.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"Syria Can be a Stabilizing Force" by Uri Sagi, Ex IDF Intelligence Chief

Haaretz interview with Uri Sagi who headed the IDF Intelligence Corps for four years (1991-1995) [Kindly sent by Camille-Alexandre Otrakji]

If you talk to [Syria] and convince the Americans to provide them with economic aid and perhaps to gently back off on Assad regarding the Hariri assassination, Syria, with all its weakness, can be a stabilizing force in the region."

Negotiations with Syria

A question about the fighter planes that buzzed over Syrian President Bashar Assad's palace elicits a chuckle from Sagi. "That was pompous behavior that does not in any way enhance our deterrent ability. Assad doesn't need these displays to know that Israel is a lot stronger than him. He has gotten enough hints. If you want to shoot - shoot, don't talk."

It is not that he is suggesting taking aim at Syria. On the contrary. Sagi, who headed the Israeli team negotiating with Syria and spent hundreds of hours talking to key Syrian figures, defines the break with Syria as "a fatal error."

According to him, Israel is blindly following the Americans, who think that because there has been a decline in Syria's importance, it can be totally ignored.

"I told Dan Kurtzer (the previous U.S. ambassador to Israel), that hatred is not a policy. His answer was 'so go ahead and talk to them and we won't object.'" Unfortunately, since the negotiations were stopped during the Barak government's tenure, Israel has not seen fit to establish a channel for dialogue with Damascus and lost the most important leverage it had with the Lebanese government. "Israel was insulted and is using military force in Lebanon, and that's important and perhaps even necessary," continues Sagi, "but without a new arrangement in Lebanon the benefits of this operation will go down the drain. Everyone understands that the only ones capable of changing the order are Syria and Iran, or a determined international equivalent. Lebanon will not be able to do it alone."

Sagi believes that six years ago, Israel missed a rare opportunity to sign a peace treaty with Syria under Hafez Assad. "The United States did not stand by its word to Assad and Barak got cold feet at the last minute." He wants to believe that the day is not far off when the younger Assad will finish the job and even surpass his father. He is convinced that the key to Israel's long-term security problems lies with Syria: the options of neutralizing the actual Syrian threat, a road to an arrangement with Lebanon and even opening a window through it to Iran are all in Syria. He notes that the Iranians in 1991 gave Syria a green light to join the Madrid Conference and promised not to disrupt the negotiations with Barak.

Sagi has argued for years that it is easier to reach an agreement with the Arab countries, including Syria, than it is to reach one with the Palestinians, because the conflict with them involves fewer holy sites and less messianic fervor.

"Imagine if we were to wage a fight against Hamas and Hezbollah when we have a peace agreement with Syria, Jordan and Egypt," he says. Sagi points out that during the negotiations with Syria, it was agreed that upon the signing of a peace agreement, they would close all offices of Palestinian terrorist organizations. He notes that Assad was tough to work with, but after he signed an agreement, he upheld it down the last letter.

"I don't want people to gather from my remarks that I think that the Syrians are real saints," Sagi concludes, "but if you talk to them and convince the Americans to provide them with economic aid and perhaps to gently back off on Assad regarding the Hariri assassination, Syria, with all its weakness, can be a stabilizing force in the region." In the midst of a war of missiles, Sagi insists that peace and stability are "a security factor of the utmost importance." To those who don't believe it, he suggests taking a walk along the border with Egypt and Jordan.

A Former US Ambassador Speaks Out

From a former US ambassador to an Arab country writing to Ray Close, the former CIA bureau chief in Saudi Arabia, who kindly sent this to me. Here it is:

First, the US is in a weaker position to influence the outcome of this crisis than any time in the last three decades. Our influence in the region couldn't be lower. Our identification with Israel couldn't be higher. And our ability to work with Arab moderates and have them defuse the situation seems nonexistent. Does anyone really believe that Hezbullah or Hamas are going to listen to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia?

Second, I do not see how Hezbullah can be defeated, much less dismantled. Israel is liable to realize the limits of air power and be sucked into a major ground operation that would turn into another quagmire. Or it will be compelled by world opinion to reduce drastically its military objectives in Lebanon and effectively abandon plans to destroy Hizballah. At that point, its U.S. support will also "go wobbly", you can be sure.

Clearly, Israeli military power and deterrence do not work with nonstate actors like Hezbullah. After all, the entire Israeli army could not gain control over the Gaza Strip in almost forty years of futile efforts --- with no holds barred!

I see no way under these circumstances how any of the proposals being discussed can work -- a beefed up international force, deployment of the LAF to the south, etc --- unless Hezbullah agrees. And I cannot imagine what national government(s) or assemblage of international diplomats would be able to persuade them to do so voluntarily. An international fighting force? Forget it!

Third, the Bush Administration looks at what is happening in the region through the narrow prism of terrorism. As Rami Khouri makes clear, Arabs do not see it that way. For many Arabs, what Hezbullah and Hamas are doing is something that Arab countries have been incapable of doing -- standing up to Israel. They are winning admiration for that.

I fear that our policy has become so misguided that we will end up only making matters worse. We don't know what the situation will look like in a month, but it is liable to be very bad for Arab moderates and for the US.

Siniora's Appeal: Save our Democracy and Respect Human Life

Here is Siniora's address to the Diplomatic Corps in Beirut. It needs no commentary or introduction. He clearly believes that his government is doomed and that America has been hypocritical in its support for democracy. This is clear. Democracy is not a one-year wonder. It cannot be built in a day. If Washington had been serious about nurturing the Arab World's one democracy it would have protected the Hariri-Siniora government, as it promised to do, and would have found a diplomatic solution to this problem rather than urging Israel to solve it militarily. At the very least, it would have discouraged Israel from going after the Hariri government and Lebanon's infrastructure. As Siniora says, the only long term accomplishment of this opperation will be to produce more radicalism and fanaticism.

Address to the Diplomatic Corps
By the Prime Minister
H.E. Mr. Fuad Siniora
Grand Serail, Beirut, July 19, 2006

I have convened the diplomatic corps in Lebanon today to launch an urgent appeal to the international community for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and assistance to my war ravaged country. You are all aware that seven continuous days of an escalating Israeli onslaught on Lebanon have resulted in immeasurable loss: the toll in terms of human life has reached tragic proportions: over 1000 injured and 300 killed so far; over half a million people have been displaced; in some areas, the hospitals have been crippled and are unable to cope with the casualties; there are shortages of food and medical supplies; homes, factories and warehouses have been completely destroyed; UN facilities in Maroun El Ras and Naqoura have just been shelled, so have been army barracks and posts of Joint Security Forces; a civil defense unit has been wiped out and foreigners are being evacuated.. As I speak, the trauma, the desperation, the grief and the daily massacres and destruction go on and on. The country has been torn to shreds.

Is the value of human life in Lebanon less than that of the citizens of other countries?

Can the international community stand by while such callous retribution by the State of Israel is inflicted on us?

Will you allow innocent civilians, churches, mosques, orphanages, medical supplies escorted by the Red Cross, people seeking shelter or fleeing their homes and villages to be the casualties of this ugly war?

Is this what the international community calls self defense? Is this the price we pay for aspiring to build our democratic institutions? Is this the message to send to the country of diversity, freedom and tolerance?

Only last year, the Lebanese filled the streets with hope and with red, green and white banners shouting out: Lebanon deserves life!

What kind of life is being offered to us now?

I will tell you what kind: a life of destruction, despair, displacement, dispossession, and death.

What kind of future can stem from the rubble? A future of fear, frustration, financial ruin, and fanaticism.

Let me assure you that we shall spare no avenue to make Israel compensate the Lebanese people for the barbaric destruction it has inflicted and continues to inflict upon us, knowing full well that human life is irreplaceable.

You want to support the government of Lebanon? Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, no government can survive on the ruins of a nation.

On behalf of the people of Lebanon, from Beirut, Baalbeck, and Byblos, to Tyre Sidon and Qana, to each and every one of the 21 villages at the southern border, declared a no-go zone by Israel, to Tripoli and Zahle, I call upon you all to respond immediately without reservation or hesitation to this appeal for an immediate cease-fire and lifting the siege, and provide urgent international humanitarian assistance to our war-stricken country. I would also like to thank the international organizations and the friendly countries that have already extended their valued help and thank as well those who are preparing to do so.

We the Lebanese want life.
We have chosen life.
We refuse to die.
Our choice is clear.
We have survived wars and destruction over the ages.
We shall do so again.
I hope you will not let us down.

Some Landis Quotes in the News

I can be heard on NPR on The Business Report this evening, July 19.

Bush says someone should get to Syria; why shouldn’t that someone be him?
Nieman Watchdog has just published this article.
July 19, 2006

Thanks to an open microphone, we know what President Bush genuinely thinks would put an end to the sudden crisis in Israel and Lebanon. A Syria expert, professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University, thinks reporters should ask what he’s waiting for.

By Dan Froomkin

In a private moment that quickly became very public, President Bush told British Prime Minister Tony Blair over lunch the other day: “See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

But who is this “they” Bush was talking about? Is the United States just a bystander here? I asked a Syria expert, professor Joshua Landis at Oklahoma University, what he thinks reporters should be asking.

Q. Why hasn’t Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Syrian President Bashar Assad to talk?

Bush apparently would rather send United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to talk the Syrians, but “that’s like sending your butler to do the job,” Landis says. “Damascus isn’t going to talk to Kofi Annan because Kofi Annan doesn’t run the show. It’s America that runs the show. What Bush was telling Blair was: I’m not doing anything.”

Syria would be happy to talk to the United States, Landis says. “But the United States has refused to talk to Syria for the last two years, and for three years has been squeezing Syria, trying to ruin its economy.”

Landis says that American diplomats are strictly forbidden from talking to their Syrian counterparts; even the U.S. attaché there (the ambassador was withdrawn last year) is not allowed to talk to any Syrian officials.

“Of course, if they talked to Syria, they’re going to have to do it politely,” Landis said. “It would have to involve a deal. And that means the U.S. recognizing Syria as a player in the region.”

Landis says the Bush administration doesn’t want to give Syria that kind of recognition. But “America can either bomb Lebanon into the stone age [via Israel], or it can use diplomacy.”

Q. What happened to our commitment to Lebanon and democratic government? And what’s the message to potential reformers in the Middle East?

Bush has built his foreign policy around encouraging democracy and reforming the Middle East. Up until now, the democratically-elected Lebanese government was his greatest success story.

Here’s Bush in March 2005: “And any who doubt the appeal of freedom in the Middle East can look to Lebanon, where the Lebanese people are demanding a free and independent nation. In the words of one Lebanese observer, ‘Democracy is knocking at the door of this country and, if it's successful in Lebanon, it is going to ring the doors of every Arab regime.’….

“Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands, and by your courage, Lebanon's future will be in your hands. The American people are on your side. Millions across the earth are on your side. The momentum of freedom is on your side, and freedom will prevail in Lebanon.”

Landis says that Bush promised the Lebanese government that he would help protect it against Syrian influence – and against Syria, if need be. “Bush went out on a limb. And they went out on a limb.” Part of the deal was that the Lebanese government had to take on Hezbollah, Landis says. But as soon as Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack into Israel, “the U.S. pulled the plug” on the Lebanese government, Landis says.

“The Bush administration has two parallel policies: Bomb terrorists and encourage democracy in the Middle East,” Landis says. In this case they were mutually exclusive in the short run. But rather than try to find a way to achieve both, Bush opted for attacking terrorists over encouraging democracy.

By giving Israel the green light to bomb Lebanon – and not just Hezbollah strongholds, but critical Lebanese infrastructure – Bush has dealt a heavy blow to his own democracy initiative. Rather than have patience and make some sacrifices – rather than calling off Israel and calling up Damascus – the U.S. “sacrificed these great exemplars of democracy,” Landis says.

“It sends a clear message to every Arab reformer and every Arab politician who’s thinking of allying with the United States and going out on a limb in order to push reform. And that message is: Don’t count on the United States. They don’t really mean democracy. What they really mean is ‘I want you to go and hunt terrorist for me. And if you don’t hunt those terrorists for me, I’m going to bomb you.’”

Dan Froomkin is the deputy editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project.

Syrian President May Hold Key To Mideast Crisis
As Diplomatic Steps Begin, Assad's Choices Could Fan Or Defuse Regional Violence
Wall Street Journal

By KARBY LEGGETT in Jerusalem, MARIAM FAM in Damascus, Syria and NEIL KING JR.
in Washington
July 18, 2006; Page A1

Some analysts have begun speculating that the U.S. may seek to throw Syria a lifeline. Under one scenario, the U.S. would end Syria's international isolation and possibly offer it some kind of aid package, in return for cutting ties with Iran and ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas.

"There is no military solution to the current problem, unless you kill every single Hezbollah and Hamas member. So reality for the U.S. is there is no end game unless you sit down and talk with the bad guys," says Joshua Landis, a professor at Oklahoma University and a expert on Syria politics. "And so the choice is between Damascus or Tehran."
A Divide Deepens in Arab World
By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer
July 17, 2006

The decision by President Bush not to support the Lebanese government's plea for a cease-fire, even though that government has been backed by the United States, has dealt a further blow to public feelings about the U.S. in the region.

Members of the governing bloc in the Lebanese parliament, led by Saad Hariri, "are the most pro-American Arabs in the Middle East. They have promised, 'America will protect us if we stand against Syria,' " said Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert and professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Now Israel is "blowing the hell out of them, and America isn't taking one step to protect them," Landis said. "The whole Arab world is going to look and see that Hariri has been sacrificed on the altar of Israeli power. For the Arabs, this just rips the face of democracy right off."
Crisis May Put Syria Back in Political Mix
Damascus, urged by the U.S. to use its influence to help end the conflict, appears eager to reassert its claim to be a regional power broker.
By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer
July 18, 2006
But the upshot is that Washington has been left in the current crisis with fewer negotiating levers, said Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

The Syrians are "playing a very dangerous game. But until the first bomb starts falling on Damascus, everything's going Syria's way," Landis said.

Syria backed Hamas when it was a fledgling Islamic resistance movement, only to see it triumph at the polls this spring and take over the Palestinian government, he said.

"Last week when all hell broke loose in Gaza, the [Palestinian administration] was sending negotiators to Damascus to try to get the release of this [captured] Israeli young man," Landis said. "A year ago, those people would all have been sent to Cairo.

"Now Egypt has been replaced by Syria as the major broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict," he added. "Bashar has outfoxed them."

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Will Syria Get Respect?

At the most basic level, the present conflagration in Israel and Lebanon is all about gaining "respect" in the tough and nasty street wars of the Middle East. The region's leaders, many of whom are new and untested, are seeking to demonstrate where true authority and might lies now that the tide of American power that swept over the region following 9-11 is draining away. A tectonic shift is taking place as local actors who have had their ears pinned back for several years are beginning to assert themselves anew.

Sami Moubayed clearly and concisely lays out the motivations of Hamas' and Hizbullah's leaders in sparking the present escalation of war with Israel in his article, "Its war by any other name."

Khalid Meshal, Hamas' Damascus based leader, intended to assert his authority over Hamas and its new Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya, who was voted into office earlier this year. Haniyya "wants to run a country" and "needs to bring money into the Palestinian territories," Sami writes. "Haniyya made several gestures of goodwill toward Israel (much to the displeasure of Meshal), to improve the livelihood of the Palestinians" and ensure the survival of a Hamas government. "Meshal had other plans for the Hamas-led government," Sami assures us. He wants it to fail and Hamas to return to the opposition, where it does not have to make concessions. That is why he ordered the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier on June 25 - to scuttle Haniyya's plans and bring down the Hamas government.

Meshal's tactic worked perfectly because Olmert shares his desire to see Hamas moved back into the opposition. He will not grant concessions to Haniyya and did not like his advances any more than Meshal did. Israel's new Prime Minister has taken refuge with his hawks in order to assert himself and build his tough guy credentials.

Olmert's re-occupation of Gaza, destruction of Hamas' infrastructure, and round up of Hamas government ministers and parliamentarians, who he had dragged before a military court bound hand and foot in chains, was a stunning display of Israeli strength. It enflamed Arab passions and opened the door for Hizbullah's coup.

Nasrallah, in carrying out his cool cross border operation, could act as if he was coming to the aid of the Palestinians, while really intending his fury for Siniora's ineffectual and paralyzed government. Like Olmert, Nasrallah is demonstrating to the world that Hariri and his men are nothing. They do not have an army, they cannot defend themselves. They cannot defend Lebanon. All their cozying up to the United States these last few years got them nothing. Washington will not stand by its new friends in Lebanon when Israeli bombs are falling. Nasrallah has dramatically and irrevocably underlined for the Arab World that the United States is not on the side of Arabs and not on the side of Lebanon. All Washington’s honeyed words about standing by Lebanon's side in its tough battle with Damascus, Hizbullah and terrorism were nothing but cotton candy. With a small summer rain, they melted away.

Nasrallah has been waiting for just such a moment to display the stunning new power Hizbullah has amassed with its longer range rockets and well trained militia. He has surprised Israelis and Arabs alike in his ability to cause pain.

For this reason, Saad Hariri's people have been unable to unequivocally condemn Hizbullah as a terror organization that has started this outburst and deserves the blame for Israel's destruction of Lebanon. Hariri is caught in Hizbullah's logic. Enough of Lebanon still thinks Arab, making it impossible to put the blame squarely on Hizbullah, which is posing as the Arab champion. Israel is refusing to fall for the old Lebanese line - "indulge me while I have an identity crisis for another decade." Olmert is cutting Hariri and Siniora no slack. If the government cannot rein in Hizbullah, Israel will have no patience for Hariri. Those who cannot rule will get no respect when the bullets start flying -- not from Israel, not from the US, and most importantly for Hariri and Siniora, not from the Lebanese.

Ynet News writes that Israel has given Syria's Asad 74 hours to bring a halt to Hizbullah and get its soldiers released. It also reports that Al-Hayat reported that

“a senior Pentagon source warned that should the Arab world and international community fail in the efforts to convince Syria to pressure Hizbullah into releasing the soldiers and halt the current escalation Israel may attack targets in the country.”

Al-Hayat quoted the source as saying that “the US cannot rule out the possibility of an Israeli strike in Syria,” this despite the fact that the Bush administration has asked Israel to “refrain from any military activity that may result in civilian casualties.”

'Hizbullah made the same mistake'

al-Hayat reported that President George W. Bush has repeatedly put much of the blame for the recent escalation on Syria.

“It is no coincidence that the Hizbullah operation comes at a time when the international community is working to impose sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear program and settle the score with Syria by establishing an international court to try those behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri,” the Pentagon source said.

According to the source, Hizbullah made the same mistake as Hamas when it did not predict the ramifications of its actions and ignored the regional and international changes since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The source said that Israel has indicated that it “will not end its military activity until a new situation is created that will prevent Syria and Iran from using terror organizations, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, to threaten its security.”
Some credibility is given this report by the fact that the Defense Department has asked congress to allocate close to $300 million for jet fuel to be supplied to the Israeli air force.

Clearly the Defense Department is running with this and is prepared to use Israel as its stalking horse in the Middle East. How far Washington is willing to go in this game or how far Israel is willing to go is anyone's guess. My guess is that cooler heads in Washington will not allow Israel to drag the US into strikes against Syria or Iran. Both Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian authorities have said that US soldiers will be targeted if Syria is hit. This is an election year. The US is trying to get itself out of the Middle East quagmire, not into it. The US was led down the garden path by Rumsfeld and Cheney once, it will not allow itself to be so easily led by the nose again. This time there is no believing that western bombs will be met by Arabs with flowers or eager democrats. I don't buy the Defense Department's bluster.

There are plenty of tough talkers in the US. The New Republic has come out swinging in its editorials, calling for the US to get tough with Syria. The Weekly Standard has done the same in an article by Jeffrey Azarva of the Enterprise Institute, entitled, "Getting Serious About Syria." Michael Young, the Lebanese commentator, has done the same in a New York Times op-ed, "Middle East II: Israel's invasion, Syria's war." He writes: "Unless something is done to stop Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, from exporting instability to buttress his despotic regime, little will change." He advises the UN to send troops into Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah, Israel to call off its invasion, and the US to talk tough with Asad. This all sounds reasonable, but the UN will never send troops to disarm Hizbullah. Israel has already been down that road with little success. If Israel cannot get Hizbullah to cry uncle, no one else will be able to. We will see how much success Israel has along these lines in the next week or so.

A secondary debate about Syria's role in Lebanon is being hotly contested. Does Hizbullah take its marching orders from Syria? Paul Pillar, a leading CIA analyst who got fired for giving bad news to Bush on Iraq, claims that Syria is not Hizbullah's master in the LA Times.

Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said that Iran and Syria "subcontract" terrorist attacks through Hezbollah.

My own take on this question is that Hizbullah's relationship to Syria is much like Israel's with the United States. As Bush said yesterday, the US does not tell Israel how to defend itself. Nevertheless, no one would suggest that Israel does not run major foreign policy moves by its friends in Washington before launching them. It would not like to get too far out ahead of Washington and lose cover. The same goes for the relationship between Hizbullah and Syria. The two have a close relationship and in something as big as the present escalation, Hizbullah would not want to lose Syrian or Iranian support. Doing so would leave it very exposed. The three powers need to coordinate very closely in the coming weeks. If they can be divided, they will be easy prey.

Israel is attempting to cut Lebanon off from Syria so that Hizbullah will be isolated and unable to resupply itself. This Israel may be able to do. The majority of its targets so far have been aimed at cutting off Lebanon's communications with the outside world.

The Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said the air strikes would continue until the Israeli soldiers were returned and the Lebanese government took responsibility for Hezbollah’s actions. Israel, he said, also wanted to deliver “a clear message to both greater Beirut and Lebanon that they’ve swallowed a cancer and have to vomit it up, because if they don’t their country will pay a very high price.” Asked about possible Syrian intervention, General Halutz said, “There’s no reason for the Syrians to jump into a pool they might drown in.”

Such talk sounds tough and good, but how exactly does Israel expect the Lebanese government to "take responsibility for Hizbullah’s actions? How is it supposed to vomit up Hizbullah? Young has suggested that the UN should fly to the rescue, but that cannot happen until Hizbullah cries uncle and asks it to send in peace keeping troops. Hizbullah is not like the Palestinians who could be shipped off to Tunis. It is Lebanese.

Anyway, Hizbullah is intent on trumpeting its own tough talk. After his house was bombed by Israeli jets, Nasrallah exclaimed, “You Zionists, you wanted an open war and you will have it,” and he promised “to reach Haifa and even farther.” He continued: “You want your government to change the rules of the game? This game will change. Now you know whom you’re fighting with. You are fighting the sons of Muhammad and Ali.”

Helen Cooper, writing an analysis piece, "U.S., Needing Options, Finds Its Hands Tied," in the New York Times, explains how the US has hamstrung itself by refusing to talk to high ranking Syrians or Iranians. She writes,
The United States does not talk to Tehran, and its communications with Syria are few; Mr. Bush recalled his ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005.

That has left the administration to subcontract its diplomacy to others — the United Nations, Europe, Egypt, Jordan. None are superpowers, and their influence has been limited.
Robert Fisk, an old Middle East hand, believes that the US will be forced to talk to Damascus when the dust begins to settle. He writes:
Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's affable Prime Minister, may have thought he was running the country but it is President Bashar Assad in Damascus who can still bring life or death to a land that lost 150,000 lives in 15 years of civil conflict.

And there is one certain bet that Syria will rely on; that despite all Israel's threats of inflicting "pain" on Lebanon, this war will run out of control until - as has so often happened in the past - Israel itself calls for a ceasefire and releases prisoners. Then the international big-hitters will arrive and make their way to the real Lebanese capital - Damascus, not Beirut - and appeal for help.
Fisk may well be right. If Washington and Israel do have to settle this by going to Damascus, then Bashar will have sent his message loud and clear: I am here. I demand respect. Cut out all the silliness about isolation and the blind eye doctor. Syria is an important player. Anyone who wants to do business in the region will have to address me politely and be ready to trade in kind. Syria is not a charitable organization.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Syria and Hizbullah on the Attack

The Hizbullah incursion into Israel to capture two Israeli soldiers to be used as a bargaining chip for the release of Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel was carried out smoothly. Ostensibly, it was an operation that had only limited goals. Hizbullah has been announcing for over a year that it would kidnap Israeli soldiers if Lebanese prisoners in Israel were not released. As Anthony Shadid writes from Lebanon:

The attack Wednesday was almost sure to bolster the martial reputation of Hezbollah, which probably enjoys more support in the rest of the Arab world than in Lebanon itself, where other sectarian factions have pushed for it to disarm. Nasrallah has vowed on numerous occasions to seize soldiers as a bargaining chip for the Lebanese prisoners; in one speech, he said it would happen this year.
But in the larger arena of the Middle East, Hizbullah's attack on Israel was clearly timed to increase pressure on Israel and the US when they are most vulnerable. Passions in the region have been inflamed against Israel and the US by Israel's aggressive incursion into Gaza and attempt to force the rapid collapse of the Palestinian Authority led by Hamas.

Normally, Hizbullah would have to be very cautious about embroiling Lebanon in another round of fighting with Israel for fear that Lebanon's other sects would condemn it. But with the Gaza situation having aroused general anger against Israel, Hizbullah felt free to jump into the fight on the side of the Palestinians, knowing that even its Christian enemies in Lebanon could not condemn it for sacrificing Lebanon's infrastructure and all important tourist season.

Syria is thrilled by the opportunity to undermine America and Israel's general policies in the region. For years, Asad has insisted that the US is following contradictory, hypocritical and unrealizable policies in the region and has opposed them. The United States has condemned Syria for terrorism and being a force of evil in the region because Syria not only refuses to help the US achieve its goals in the region, but has been actively working to frustrate them. Washington has asked Syria to help build a strong Hariri led government Lebanon, build a strong pro-American government in Iraq, and help Israel tame the Palestinians in the occupied territories while it establishes the wall through the West Bank as its border.

The US has sought to isolate Syria, cut off its regional trade, push it out of Lebanon, and starve it of international funds and assistance. Syria believes it must hurt the US where it can in order to force Washington to rethink its anti-Syrian and general regional policies. Syria insists that Washington must engage it if it wants even a modicum of Syrian cooperation. It will continue to encourage its allies to attack American interests in Lebanon and Israel until it gets that engagement. With the United States on the run in Iraq, frustrated by the Hariri government's weakness, extended in the UN by its losing showdown with Iran, and embarrassed by Israel's aggressive anti-Palestinian policies, Syria is feeling strong. It can now go on the offensive. Damascus feels confident that Washington cannot counter-attack at this time. It has few arrows left in its quiver.

So far it looks like Israel may be playing into Syria's hands by holding the Hariri government responsible for the Hizbullah attacks and not just Hizbullah and its backers. The New York Times quotes Prime Minister Ehud Olmert:
"I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason,” Mr. Olmert said. “The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region.” Israel is demanding that all three soldiers be returned and that militants stop firing rockets at Israelis from Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north. But both Hamas and Hezbollah are holding out for an exchange for a large number of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners held by Israel.
The New York Sun, quotes Israel's army's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, saying that the military operations being planned would "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years" if the kidnapped soldiers were not returned.

Israel threatens to reoccupy and strip of Lebanese land in the South. This will only relegitimize Hizbullah, which claims it is a legitimate Lebanese resistance movement fighting occupation. The bombing of the Beirut Airport will also serve to undermining the Lebanese government, not to isolate Hizbullah. By attacking the central government, Israel will push ordinary Lebanese onto Hizbullah's side, not deepen the divide between the two. This will speed up the collapse of Washington's Lebanon policy, which is to strengthen the central government and Hariri's Future Party. Olmert's need to prove his military toughness will undermine the West's standing in Lebanon and undermine its allies there. The central government in Beirut has no means to discipline or disarm Hizbullah, nor does the United States. George Bush tried to defend the Beirut government as Israel attacked it. This is not a good sign of unity. Syria and Hizbullah will play on this lack of unity for all they are worth in an effort to bring out the contradictions in Washington's policy: one-sided support for Israel and support for pro-American Arabs.

The US will expect pro-American governments in the region to condemn the Hizbullah action. But Saudi Arabi, Egypt, and the Lebanese governments will find themselves condemned by their own people if they take Israel's side in this fight.

Robin Wright of the Washington Post, who explains how the several Middle East crisis are all linked, explains that:
The White House said it is holding Iran and Syria responsible for the flare-up along Lebanon's border because of their long-standing support for Hezbollah. It charged that the seizure of two soldiers was deliberately timed to "exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence.

"Hezbollah's actions are not in the interest of the Lebanese people, whose welfare should not be held hostage to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes," a statement said.
Robert Malley, of the international Crisis Group, explained why the US has so little leverage to stop the violence this time around. "By cutting off its relations with states such as Syria and Iran it has very little ability to convince them to do favors for Washington."
The Bush administration has few ways of directly pressuring Iran on any of the three fronts [Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria]. "They have sanctioned themselves out of leverage on Iran," Malley said. "They have cornered themselves out of a lack of influence on any of the parties that are driving this -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran. Counseling restraint or condemning actions is pretty meager when you think of the influence the United States should be wielding."

The United States reached out to Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- to weigh in with Syria and, through Damascus, to Iran. In Paris for talks on Iran's nuclear program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on all sides to "act with restraint." She also talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

But the U.S. options stand in stark contrast to the U.S.-brokered cease-fires in 1993 and 1996 between Israel and Hezbollah, via Syria.

In the coming months, we can expect Syria to move more forcefully to the counter-attack. Syria feels confident that it has the upper hand for the first time since 2003.

Syria wants to show Washington what a failure it is. Thus, it will turn up the pressure on Washington just as Washington turned up the pressure on Syria over the last two years. Damascus is determined to demonstrate to Washington that there is a price to be paid for not dealing with Syria as a respected power in the region.

Washington thought it could roll Syria out of Lebanon, destroy Hamas, and force the Iraqi government to boycott Damascus. Asad will do what he can to demonstrate that Washington does not have the power to do this and will fail in its anti-Syrian policies. Only by cutting deals with Damascus can Washington hope to run a successful Middle East policy. This is Asad's goal.

Now that American influence and power in the region is on the decline, Asad's is on ascendant. He will make trouble for pro-US politicians in Lebanon and support Hizbullah, he will do what he can to keep Hamas alive, and he will try to broaden his relations with Iraqi politicians in an effort to get trade deals and oil flowing through the Syrian pipeline again. In Iraq, Syria has little interest in promoting violence, which it has little control over and which can come back to hurt it. But it will try to make itself useful to the Iraq government and powers on the ground in order to get trade flowing to strengthen Syria.

He must prove to Washington that only a policy of engagement, not isolation, will work.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Asad Interview in al-Hayat 29/06/06

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: We are not anxious about an Iranian-American settlement. If it happens, it will serve the cause of stability, and Syria… The Beirut-Damascus Declaration harms national security and individuals were warned, then the judiciary moved. (Part II)

Ghassan Charbel Al-Hayat - 29/06/06

DAMASCUS - Here is the second and final part of an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Hayat: President Ahmadinejad sent a letter to President George Bush, inviting him to hold dialogue. Can you invite President Bush to do the same?

President al-Assad: We have always called for dialogue, regardless of the form of the invitation, whether via a letter, a third party, or statements in the media. In most of our political discourse, we discuss the necessity of dialogue, and specifically with America. However, is this administration capable of dialogue? This is the more important question. Until now, it doesn't appear capable (of dialogue).

Al-Hayat: Is the door completely closed at present? There is no exchange of letters or signs, and Syria is skilled at such signs.

President al-Assad: There is an exchange of letters, but this type of letter gives an opportunity to the official side to say that it has nothing to do with these letters. Meaning, they claim no relationship to them so that they don't have to change their positions of support for a policy of isolating Syria, or not dealing with Syria. However, in fact, an American delegation came to us last week, and for example, asked that the meeting not be made public, and we agreed. They sat down for two hours and said, the administration will listen to our opinion. Perhaps half of the delegation stems from the administration, God knows, but they come under different names.

Al-Hayat: Do you feel that Syria is in a state of isolation, as a result of the tough international pressure upon it?

President al-Assad: No, in fact the issue of isolation was discussed by me during my recent speech at the Arab Lawyers' Conference. The issue of isolation is one of form; if we search for a formal role today, we are in a state of isolation. Syria is not seeking a formal role; we always seek a true, effective role. As for the Arabs, their role has become limited in recent years, especially after 11 September 2001, in terms of form. There is no true Arab role. Currently, Syria appears to be isolated in form, but in content, nothing at all has changed. We continue to have the same role, and in fact, the Syrian role has now become much better than it has been in years. The reason for this is that the Syrian view has proven itself to be correct.

Al-Hayat: Are you worried about the Iranian issue? Do you think that there's the possibility of war, between Iran and the US?

President al-Assad: If we think about this logically, we don't see such a possibility, because there are no clear horizons for such an event. No one can determine how far things will go, not in terms of geography or destruction; in qualitative and not geographical terms. I don't believe that anyone in the US, or elsewhere, who is sane thinks that we can settle matters with this kind of war. In the beginning, dialogue was rejected, and now there is talk about dialogue, and I hope that dialogue actually begins. Things are moving in the right direction, as far as we can see.

Al-Hayat: Doesn't Syria have fears about a US-Iranian deal that would involve seeing Iran considered a major regional player, meaning the marginalization of the Syrian and Arab role in the region?

President al-Assad: No, particularly with regard to Syria. I don't want to speak about the rest of the Arabs. Syria has a role in various matters, particularly regarding Iraq, and it will have a positive role, for the benefit of Iraqis, of whom we have received many. One cannot ignore the role of Syria, as an Arab state, and a neighboring state. Maybe I shouldn't use the word deal, since it has a negative, or sometimes opportunistic meaning. Let us say, settlement. What kind of settlement would there be between America and Iran? I believe it would be something positive, because it would serve the cause of stability, and the Syrian situation, in all its dimensions. Thus, I can say that we are not worried at all, and we say dialogue is a good thing. Dialogue in the end has the goal of arriving at a settlement, it's not dialogue for the sake of dialogue.

Al-Hayat: Can you see one day Syria entering into dialogue with America, via Iran?

President al-Assad: No, in fact dialogue with America should be direct. I'll go back to the same notion, if America is ready for dialogue with Iran than it is able and will be able to have dialogue with the entire world. Today, it is unable to have dialogue with its European and Arab allies. This is what we hear from the allies, who are unable to have dialogue with America. When you reach dialogue with Iran, then you can certainly be able to have dialogue with Syria, or others.

Al-Hayat: Some people are talking about a disastrous scenario for the region, meaning that people here will awake one day to find American planes striking Iranian nuclear facilities. The completion of the scenario says that Hizbullah in Lebanon will rain down its arsenal of missiles on Israel, and Hamas will complete things in the occupied territories. Does Syria fear such a scenario of this kind will jeopardize the security of oil and the region?

President al-Assad: Certainly.

Al-Hayat: Is Syria a part of this scenario, one of responding to an American attack on Iran?

President al-Assad: No, we are not a part of it. However, with all certainty, when the region becomes so chaotic, it is unreasonable to think that things will be stable with you. Perhaps events will push you toward becoming part of this chaos, when the issue is a huge and very dangerous one. But there is a more important question, in isolation from the military scenarios. When you carry out such an operation, where do the radioactive materials go? What will happen? If you think about striking a state with a nuclear capacity, imagine the chaos in a nuclear state - what does it mean? The issue is much more dangerous than a mere case of a military response here, and the launch of a missile there. It's much more dangerous than discussing the issue of the Strait of Hormuz.

Al-Hayat: If Iran manufactures a nuclear bomb, this means that the Arabs are between two bombs, Iranian and Israeli. Do you fear that the new Middle East will be a division of roles among Turkey, Iran and Israel?

President al-Assad: We should not draw parallels among the three states, in terms of role or objectives, but this returns us to the first question. If there is no desire for an Arab role, then we will not be present. This is what determines the picture you are talking about. If we want to be marginal, we cannot ask others to remain marginal, so that we remain strong. We should be strong, and then we won't worry about the roles you're talking about. However, it appears that these countries have a desire to play a role. I mean Turkey and Iran, and not Israel, which is another subject, since it is a state of occupation and has different principles. This is something patriotic, for these countries to play a regional role. Each state should wish to play such a role, but not in contradiction with one another.

Al-Hayat: Is the topic of Iran present in your meetings and contacts with Saudi officials?

President al-Assad: We talk about it as well as others. Certainly, and in the same logic as the way we discuss it with President Mubarak. In talking about the issue, I always say that the problem is the Arab role, and not the nature of the Iranian role, regardless of whether we praise, attack or defend the Iranian role. The issue is: where is the Arab role?

Al-Hayat: However, there is Arab rebuke for Syria because it went too far with Iran and signed security agreements with it, in light of the crisis and fears about nuclear aspirations.
President al-Assad: If isolating Iran is what is demanded, why did a stampede of Arab officials toward Iran take place recently? That's first. Second, this means that we see the way things are heading, and I was subjected to a fierce attack when I visited Iran last July.

Al-Hayat: From whom?

President al-Assad: From various media. Let's say that it wasn't from the media, but from the criticism of some Arab officials in some of their meetings, and now they're doing the same thing that we did. Thus, we knew where events were headed. The issue isn't whether we go with Iran. We're not going with anyone. Syria has its position, and Iran has its position, and we have Iraq between us. Today, Iraq is the most important topic in the region. We are all trying to play a role, without conflicting with each other, and it's not necessarily the case that one of us is attached to the other (in a dependent fashion). But we should not isolate Iran, so that we can say that Syria is playing an Arab role. We are playing an Arab role in coordination with Iran.

Al-Hayat: In the 1980s, Syria played a role in reducing the tension between Iran and the states of the Gulf. Is Syria playing this role now, or trying to play it, or do Gulf-Iranian relations require no mediator?

President al-Assad: We are playing this role and notice at the same time that there is awareness by the Arab countries that a clash with Iran is in no one's interest. So, they are moving. We are always trying, in every meeting or discussion on Iran, and in every meting with Iran and discussion about the Arab states, to pay attention to this subject. Having good and positive Arab-Iranian relations is necessary for the stability of the region, and we are trying to play this role, but as I said, Arab states are exhibiting awareness about this point.

Al-Hayat: Is there the possibility of returning to the Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian triangle, which was considered a kind of guarantee to control any Arab collapse?

President al-Assad: This triangle is important, and plays a role; perhaps it is not via a tripartite meeting, such as a summit, or foreign ministers' meeting, but through Syrian-Saudi, and Syrian-Egyptian, and Egyptian-Saudi coordination, which is present today regarding the same issues. We coordinate on a continuing basis, and in terms of content, this exists today, although the form is different.

Al-Hayat: How would you describe Syrian-Saudi relations today?

President al-Assad: Good, particularly with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz. He hasn't changed with Syria; despite what is rumored about impressions last year that King Abdulah was angry with us when he was Crown Prince. Of course, this wasn't true. Relations with King Abdullah specifically haven't changed at all.

Al-Hayat: Are there now Saudi-Syrian contacts underway? What are the issues discussed in these contacts?

President al-Assad: Of course, there are contacts about all Arab issues, and Iraq first of all. Today, the topic of Palestine, after the clashes began in recent weeks, has become one of the renewed and urgent topics of discussion.

Al-Hayat: Iranian officials say that they're ready to assist America in getting its troops out of Iraq, because this would be in the interest of the Iraqi people. Is Syria ready to help the US as well in this regard?

President al-Assad: Syria opposed the war to begin with, from day one until the exit of occupying forces from Iraq in open fashion. It also goes without saying that we are providing all possible assistance in order to see the exit of occupying troops, or let us say facilitating everything that we can, since assistance might be taken to mean something else. Certainly, we are ready for this.

American Offers

Al-Hayat: If we return to the topic of Syrian-American relations, Washington says that it doesn't want to change the regime in Syria, but wants a change in behavior; in your opinion, where is the problem? Is it Iraq, or Lebanon, relations with Hamas or Islamic Jihad? Where is the problem?

President al-Assad: I prefer to discuss a fact, and not an opinion. An opinion might involve analysis, but a there actual things being asked of Syria. First, we were asked to participate in the Iraq war, and we refused. Then, we were asked to disarm the Palestinians in Lebanon and Hizbullah, especially during the period between the issuing of UN Security Council Resolution 1559 and the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This phase involved bargaining, so that Syria could remain in Lebanon, but it would have to do this and that.

Al-Hayat: Who requested this? The Americans?

President al-Assad: The Americans, of course. (UN Envoy Terje-Roed) Larsen. Some Europeans, in the form of mediation, would relay American messages to us.

Al-Hayat: So that Syria could remain in Lebanon?

President al-Assad: This was the meaning of the proposal, also during a later phase. After the war, Syria was requested to promote the Road Map. Syria didn't oppose it, but didn't agree to it either. They wanted Syria to give them the cover, to say that the process was good, and that the proposal was good. We weren't mistaken. At the least, in terms of Syria the proposal wasn't good. We were asked to lay siege to Hamas, strike at Hamas, this was the change in behavior requested of Syria.

Al-Hayat: Is Syria ready to change its behavior?

President al-Assad: If we were, we would have done that a long time ago.

Al-Hayat: Regarding the international situation, has the wager, if the term is correct, on a Russian and Chinese role, shown its benefit in assisting Syria in general?

President al-Assad: In general, there is no doubt. These states stood with us during difficult times, in a clear and decisive manner. However, this was also part of Syria's policy to expand relations with various states. These states are important because they are permanent members of the Security Council, but we are also expanding our ties with countries in Asia in general, and Latin America, and these relations are important today, under current international conditions of America's going it alone to lead the world.

Al-Hayat: It's been said that Syria is ready to make efforts to convince Hamas to accept the Arab Peace Initiative.

President al-Assad: Let me clarify this point, against the background of the Egyptian-Saudi Summit, which asked Hamas to approve this initiative. We met with the leaders who are present in Syria, and consulted with them, and asked them what they thought. You know that Hamas, as an organization, has objections to the initiative. It rejects it, and has objections to many other things that perhaps Syria approves of.

However, our question was the following: How does Hamas, now that it is in office, deal with the proposals and what does it think? Of course, we didn't expect a quick answer, since the matter requires dialogue, and you know that part of Hamas is outside (Palestine) and the biggest portion is inside. There must be dialogue between those inside and outside (Palestine), especially since they hadn't taken a clear position on the matter.

We are now awaiting dialogue within Hamas about these proposals, but on the other hand, the idea being put forward is that Hamas is not flexible. Let's first ask something else, before the issue of flexibility. The natural question is on what basis should we advise Hamas or convince it, or pressure it, regarding the Arab Peace Initiative, which Israel doesn't accept in the first place? When we give advice to someone, we should have an answer about this point. Up to now, we still don't have an answer to this in Syria. What should we say to Hamas? Let's assume that it agrees - the initiative remains stillborn as long as the other side doesn't recognize its existence, and will not do so, it seems.

We are exerting pressure on something that might appear to be ephemeral or vague at times, so we should specify the response to this point. Another issue is that Hamas, in its new position being in office, has yet to abolish the (peace) agreements. Of course, it is not responsible for the agreements that have been signed, and we believe that there has been a type of flexibility in Hamas' position until now. Therefore, before talking about advice or pressure on Hamas to have dialogue, we should see what Hamas' opinion is, and give it the chance to hold dialogue, because they are an organization and have various rules, before we pronounce a final opinion on this matter.

Al-Hayat: It's been noted that the head of Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, has visited Damascus many times. Is Hamas the central topic in discussions with Suleiman?

President al-Assad: This topic was in order to prepare for topics that would be raised with President Mubarak at the summit, and as we said, the discussion was about the Palestinian and Iraqi situations, and how we could move in the Arab arena. During my visit to Egypt, we followed up the discussion and prepared ideas regarding these two topics.

Al-Hayat: I understand from this that there is consensus between Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa and Khaled Meshaal (of Hamas) about a number of points, as a basis for Syrian efforts with the Arab League. What are they?

President al-Assad: Yes, of course one of them is based on Hamas' opinion of the Arab Peace Initiative. However, it's something that relies on what Hamas says, first of all. The second point is the topic of expanding the Palestine Liberation Organization, since it is the sole representative of the Palestinian people. In this case, in the event that Hamas and the rest of the Palestinian factions join the PLO, there are chances of a dispute between various groups; the PLO will be the container in which all Palestinian points of view would be gathered; it will take the correct decision, or what the Palestinian people believes to be correct. There is also consensus about support for inter-Palestinian dialogue and efforts to form a national coalition government.

Al-Hayat: Do you fear that a Palestinian civil war will break out?

President al-Assad: Yes, and this is not something that is new. I raised the matter when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began talking about "Gaza First." I said to them, this is a plan for a Palestinian civil war, regardless of the conditions that will arise. We didn't know that Hamas would compete in elections and we didn't know that it would win. But the Israeli goal conforms with what is taking place today, or what is being prepared today, under different circumstances. We believe that some Palestinians are giving Israel, via these clashes, what it has never dreamed of.

Al-Hayat: How is your relationship with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas?

President al-Assad: Good. The good thing about Mahmoud Abbas is that he's clear. There's a clarity, even if we don't agree about political issues. For example, Syria still believes that, regarding Oslo, and the Palestinian track of the peace process since it began, but we don't discuss these things. What concerns us most is the unity of the Palestinians, before these other things.

When I saw President Mahmoud Abbas during various events in Syria, and at the Arab Summit, I told him, "What concerns us is the Palestinians' unity. "We deal with President Mahmoud Abbas on this basis, and he's comfortable with this, I think, and we are trying to have equal relations with all sides.

Al-Hayat: Is Syria fearful about a protracted civil war in Iraq, that will have a regional attraction among people in neighboring countries?

President al-Assad: Of course. We bring this up on a continual basis, especially when explain to foreigners the repercussions that take place against a background of such things in Iraq; all other countries in the region that have such a social environment will see a long-term impact, and Syria will be affected, certainly. We always warn people about this point.

Al-Hayat: Has something practical come up in discussions among Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, some type of effort to see a recovery in Iraq?

President al-Assad: Currently, at least Syria has begun to do something. We proposed to our brethren in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that we act, since the meeting of Iraq's neighboring countries didn't achieve the desire results. Of course, there's an upcoming meeting of these countries, which Syria will attend, but after three years, what has this meeting of countries achieved? Statements. Statements will not solve the problem of Iraq; there must be certain foundations for our efforts. We now meet with many Iraqi delegations, especially in an unannounced fashion. We receive proposals from them and search for something that we share, and regarding this joint item, the Arab countries concerned with the issue should create a political formula that conforms to this joint item, the unity of Iraqis. We hear many objections to the political formulas that are out there now; some people object to the Constitution, or other things, and there are groups in Iraqi society that believe that they have lost, and won. There are groups that see themselves as oppressed, and this is very dangerous for the future of Iraq, regardless of the presence or absence of the occupation. We should unify these issues, and we in Syria believe - we always use this point as the introduction to our political discourse - that the Arabism of Iraq should be the basis, and everything should be based on this Arabism.
For example, Sayyed Muqtada Sadr has proposed a document containing a number of principles, and we believe that most Iraqis agree with these principles. Therefore, we should move based on these proposals, to create dialogue. At the same time, there was a meeting that was going to take place in the coming days, and was delayed. There was Iraqi-Iraqi dialogue, and Syria was taking part in it. We are now taking these steps in an active fashion, to strengthen relations with the Iraqis and help them create a strong dialogue process among them. This is in principle. However, this dialogue will determine the mechanisms for the future. We can't set down a comprehensive vision for the future; we only have preliminary information at the moment, nothing completely clear yet.

Al-Hayat: It had been decided that Foreign Minister Walid Moallem would take part in an Iraqi National Accord meeting in June, and it's now being said that there is an upcoming, separate visit by the minister to Baghdad. Are there contacts underway to resume diplomatic relations between Syria and Iraq?

President al-Assad: We have begun contacts, first, to restore diplomatic ties, which will be followed by appointing an ambassador or opening an embassy. Then, there is talk of moving toward meetings between ministers. Of course, the details of these dates haven't been settled, but it's there in principle. We aren't saying, no to diplomatic relations, but it's still early, because we're talking today about political relations and are looking forward to establishing diplomatic ties with Iraq.

Al-Hayat: It's been observed recently that the clashes between Syrian intelligence and Takfiri groups have been increasing. Are these clashes related to the climate in Iraq? Are there groups resembling al-Qaida, or what exactly?

President al-Assad: The relationship is a direct one, and in its essence involves what is taking place in Iraq. This is what we've learned from investigations, and not an analysis. According to these investigations, a big portion aren't linked to al-Qaida, or anyone. Most of them are cases that have developed due to the situation in Iraq; some of them via television, and others involve who went there and interacted even more, and returned with completely different ideas. Sometimes, these involve a mix of hatred of Americans, who are killing Iraqis, and those who are extremists and have left behind their religion for extremism. This of course is a case of leaving behind your religion, when a person becomes extreme in this way, and becomes a terrorist, who leaves behind their religion. They believe the issue is the same, and they sometimes bring in a third thing, which is that they must fight everyone who is not like them, regarding peoples, and states. The issue of al-Qaida is brought up as if it's an organization with a structure, or a party. As for the small groups, the only thing linking them is Takfiri thought. This is thought, as I have said, which is affected by what's happening in Iraq.

Al-Hayat: Do they receive assistance from certain quarters?

President al-Assad: No, most of them no. Most of them try to obtain money to fund their operations, because they are Mujahideens, as they believe, in the path of Islam.

Al-Hayat: Does it bother Syria if it turns out that al-Qaida has found a foothold in Lebanon?

President al-Assad: This is something that has become a reality.

Al-Hayat: Does al-Qaida have a presence in Lebanon?

President al-Assad: When Syria was present in Lebanon, al-Qaida was there, but in a restricted scope. The Dinnieh events of 2000 were a clear sign of this.

Al-Hayat: Does Syria have information about the growth of al-Qaida's influence in Lebanon following the Syrian withdrawal?

President al-Assad: Of course. It's natural for us to make this connection, and today there are many groups that we are pursuing; some of them flee from Syria to Lebanon, because it's closest, and easiest, and there are mountain roads. Certainly, some of the information that we have confirms this.

Al-Hayat: Mr. President, why has reform been so tardy in Syria? Is it because of pressing regional conditions, from Iraq to Sharon's presence in office for a long period of time? Is it difficult to change mentalities in Syria?

President al-Assad: Who has set the pace of reform, so that we can talk about being late? This is a natural question. I have always asked this, and never receive an answer. What is the speed of reform? Reform means going as fast as possible with as few losses as possible. The person who can determine this is responsible for reform in the first degree, the highest official in the state. This is if we want to call reform slow or fast. I think that these kind of evaluations are a waste of time.
Slow or fast, this is something subjective.

The important thing is whether or not we're moving forward. This is number one. We are moving forward, with big steps. The proof, or one of the numerical indicators, is that growth in 2000 was nearly zero. Today, according to the IMF report, growth in the non-oil sector is 5.5 percent. Without reform, we wouldn't have been able to reach this number, in terms of the economy. However, we must determine the priorities of reform, which for us have always involved the economic situation, and we are focusing all of our efforts in this direction.

Another aspect is - do political conditions serve our cause. Of course, they don't. The political conditions in Syria and around it involve pressure over the last year, and the clear and direct obstacles from America and some European countries regarding the reform process in Syria. All of this means that we were able to carry out reform despite these conditions. How would it have been if the situation had been normal, or if there had been regional or international support for reform? In fact, there is no such support; there are direct obstacles, in addition to obstacles that are due to various political conditions.

Reform requires creativity, and creativity can't exist if we are closed to the outside world. By this I don't mean extremism, or terrorism, since the distance between them is small. We are carrying out reform; what determines the speed are the tools that we possess. You are on a boat or ship, but you're not the only captain. The ship is the region, and there are many people who participate in steering, domestically and externally. Therefore, the reform process is not something you lead, in absolute fashion, or are asked about in an absolute fashion. These surrounding conditions should be taken into consideration.

Al-Hayat: Regarding the 10th Five Year Plan, which was approved by Parliament, can you say that this represent Syria's vision for the coming years, politically and economically? Are you optimistic that it will be actually implemented?

President al-Assad: Of course, as a vision, it is certainly Syria's vision for the future. However, the possibility of implementation depends on the implementing plans that will be proposed and ratified. In one of my recent meetings with the Cabinet, I stressed this point.

This issue depends on the possibility of creating dialogue among various parties that are concerned with this topic in Syria, especially the federations, unions and organizations, in addition to the state, and various chambers. Perhaps we sometimes agree on a general principle, but we don't agree on the mechanism, especially when we know that the mechanism used to arrive at a given point will affect certain interests, sometimes, or requires a bit of belt-tightening, and perhaps it will be rejected. Therefore, it's not enough to be optimistic just because we've ratified this plan. This isn't enough. We must set down mechanisms for dialogue.

Al-Hayat: You said, in your recent PBS interview, that priorities have changed, and that now the priority is security, due to the conditions existing in Syria. To what extent does this affect reform? What does this mean in practical terms, on the ground?

President al-Assad: I hope that it won't be affected. However, I think that there will be an effect, since the priority is for it to move as quickly as possible, and as strongly as possible in a certain direction. This direction, which is being determined, is based on two things. The first is what is the possibility of accomplishments on this front? It's natural for the priority to be in an easy area. Second, how much insistence is there, and how much hurry, in the sense of danger? What is the dangerous impact on this front? Regarding this aspect, we say that the repeated terrorist acts in Syria, and the security forces' confronting these acts, has made this area difficult and urgent, meaning it should be treated quickly, as a priority. I can't say that this area is more important than the economy, more important than food and people's material conditions. However, I think it is equally as important. What's the use of being well-off today and hungry tomorrow? One needs in order to get his fill, to survive, and get your fill and live to be able to achieve development in other areas; this is logical.

Islam and Arabism

Al-Hayat: Recently, there have been indications in official Syrian rhetoric about an "accord" between Arabism and Islam.

President al-Assad: When I spoke at the conference of Arab political parties, I said that Arabism is linked to Islam. We cannot forget that Arabic was the language of Christ, meaning that it links various groups. When we support Arabism and Islam, they are complementary. After the independence of Syria and most Arab states, there was a western plan to strike at Arabism and Islam, and thus there was division in society. These forces would exploit such unrest. Linking the two issues is very important, to create stability in these societies.

The second point is that some of those who talk about Islam do so as if Arabism doesn't exist. This is dangerous, because it is Arabism that binds various segments of our societies, whether in religious, sectarian, or ethnic terms. I always say that Arabism is not a chauvinist idea, as it is said, or a racist idea. The idea of Arabism is a civilized one. What brings together various segments is that the foundations upon which Arab society is based involve Arabism and Islam, so these elements must be stable, so that other areas remain stable.

Al-Hayat: How did the Syrian leadership and Syrian authorities receive the establishment of the National Salvation Front?

President al-Assad: With contempt.

Al-Hayat: Why contempt?

President al-Assad: Any action for change must be based on the people. We live in Syria. I live with the people and I know exactly how the Syrian people sees these people. Whoever claims that he's able to undertake action for change should have the people, first of all. As for setting up fronts outside the country, and international support, all of this is meaningless. It's received with ridicule at the popular level as well.

Al-Hayat: Do you believe that the National Salvation Front enjoys international support?

President al-Assad: Yes, in one way or another.

Al-Hayat: Financial or political?

President al-Assad: I don't know if there's financial support. Political support in principle, yes. But financially, I don't know.

Al-Hayat: Were you surprised by Abdel-Halim Khaddam's being a part of it this group? Did you expect this?

President al-Assad: No, we weren't surprised. We didn't necessarily expect it. The performance and the (political) program are the same, it doesn't matter what the form is.

Al-Hayat: Has the storm passed?

President al-Assad: No, we think it's a long one.

Al-Hayat: The threat to the regime doesn't appear to be worrying, or is this just an impression?

President al-Assad: There's a difference between saying that the attack has tapered off, and our knowing how to deal with this attack. To begin with, Syria's vision has been clear. In terms of content things are continuing, we have more confidence and are better able to deal with new events or a new attack.

Al-Hayat: Since Syria trusts itself, why were there arrests recently?

President al-Assad: First, when we carry out something internally, the policy directive involves our internal situation, meaning that situation is what concerns us, and we don't worry about reactions. We don't allow anyone to intervene in something internal.

Second, we don't view this topic from the standpoint of whether we are confident about ourselves or not. When this topic is broached, it's broached as if the regime is afraid, and in fact it's not. The people were warned because the statement harms Syrian national security, and there has been cooperation with Lebanese groups that are hostile to Syria, in secret and openly. Therefore, this is illegal and goes beyond our national situation. It's natural for the law to be implemented on them and be tried, and there are now ordinary trials, not extraordinary tribunals.
END of Part II

Al-Qa'ida and the Hariri bombing – many interesting questions remain (by t_desco)

Let me begin by stating the obvious: a group that plots to blow up a truck in the Holland Tunnel in New York is also capable of blowing up a truck on Beirut's seafront.
I don't want to suggest that Assem Hammoud had anything to do with the Hariri killing, but I am not so sure the same can be said of his associates:

"The security officials told Newsday that Hammoud had contact with at least two of 13 men who were arrested by Lebanese authorities in December for belonging to al-Qaida and planning attacks from Lebanon. The officials said Hammoud was in touch with Hassan Nabaat, a Lebanese, and Hany Shanti, who has both Lebanese and Jordanian nationalities."

Other targets in mind, Mohamad Bazzi, Newsday, July 9, 2006

Hassan Mohammad Nabaa has been described as the "Emir" of the terrorist cell (Arrestation de membres proches d’el-Qaëda venus de Syrie ?, L'Orient-Le Jour, 11 Février 2006). He had already been involved in the (al-Qa'ida related) Dinniyeh uprising in early 2000.

L'Orient-Le Jour describes Hani Hachem al-Chanti as "palestinien naturalisé, ingénieur informatique". According to Addiyar, Hani al-Shatti is Jordanian and was born in 1980 (Addiyar, February 11, 2006, 18th Year, Issue No. 6182, translated by Nibras Kazimi).

The same article reveals that the men "formed the nucleus of an Al-Qaeda Organization in the north" and that "Malik Muhammad Nab’a, brother of Hassan, would bring suspicious bags to Hani Al-Shatti and to Khalid Taha, who is in hiding after having fled to ‘Ain Al-Hilwa Camp". (Assem Hammoud also confessed that he "had already undergone training in light weapons in Ein El-Hilweh", AP, July 8, 2006 ; see also this report by the Daily Star).

Khaled Midhat Taha is a "religious associate" of Ahmed Abu Adas (first Mehlis report, §174) and he is suspected of involvement in the Hariri killing.

There had been numerous reports that Khaled Taha was also associated with the terrorist cell, but there is still no official confirmation, as far as I know.

First, as-Safir had reported that Taha himself was among the detained:

Entre los detenidos figura Jaled Taha, supuestamente implicado en el asesinato en febrero pasado del ex primer ministro libanés Rafic Hariri.

(translated by EFE, "Detenidos trece presuntos miembros de Al Qaeda en el Líbano", 13-01-2006).

An-Nahar reported that Taha narrowly escaped arrest:

Khaled Taha, one of the ring members who remains at large, is believed to have recruited Ahmed Abu Adas, the militant who made a dubious taped confession about his involvement in the Hariri murder.

An Nahar quoted a source as saying police was close to arresting Taha but his capture was impeded by Friday's report in as Safir about the arrest of the remaining members of his cell.

Lebanon Cracks Qaida Cell Coming from Syria, Naharnet, January 15, 2006

The Daily Star quoted an article by Al-Hayat saying that Khaled Taha was the original targed of the raid:

Al-Hayat sources said the suspects were arrested during a search for Palestinian national Khaled Midhat Taha, whose name was mentioned in the report of the international commission investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. ...

The sources said the Lebanese security authorities collected information revealing that Taha returned to Lebanon a few weeks ago.

The authorities located two of Taha's relatives, including Abdullah Hallaq, who was arrested with the ring in Sidon.

The sources said security forces raided the ring's hide-out based on Hallaq's confession.

Al-Qaeda suspects may not be linked with terror group: report
The Daily Star, January 21, 2006

AKI quoted yet another article by as-Safir saying that Taha was the "head of the Lebanese al-Qaeda cell":

The alleged head of the Lebanese al-Qaeda cell, a Syrian national (sic; t_d) named Khaled Taha, was not captured in the December raid and is still at large, the sources told as-Safir.


L'Orient-Le Jour quoted a report by LBC saying that Khaled was one of the two most dangerous members of the group:

Citant des sources informées, la LBC a révélé que les membres de ce groupe étaient en relation avec un Syrien connu sous le nom de Jamil ... .
Les mêmes sources ont en outre révélé que les deux personnes les plus dangereuses de ce groupe, Bilal Zaaroura et Khaled Taha, seraient toujours en fuite. Ces derniers sont entrés au Liban en décembre dernier.

Arrestation de membres proches d’el-Qaëda venus de Syrie ?
L'Orient-Le Jour, 11 Février 2006

I still think that Khaled Midhat Taha may be the key to solving the Hariri case. In any case, there are many interesting questions for investigative journalists:

They could demand an official statement on Khaled Taha and his relation to the other members of the terrorist cell.

They could look into Taha's family background and confirm if he is indeed related to Sheikh Abdullah Hallaq, the founder of the Islamic Struggle Movement which is currently headed by Sheikh Jamal Khattab, the imam of Al-Nour Mosque in Ain al-Hilweh who is also suspected of being close to al-Qa'ida.

Finally, they could start looking for "the individual named “Mohammed” whom Mr. Abu Adass had befriended at the mosque"(second Mehlis report, §62) and who is suspected of being involved in the disappearance of Abu Adas.

They met at the mosque, that means that many people must have seen him (Adas was a relatively prominent figure at his local mosque, I believe):

Enquiries carried out by the Mission established that approximately three years ago Ahmad Abu Adas changed from being a carefree teenager to becoming a religious fundamentalist. Approximately one month prior to going missing Ahmad Abu Adas informed his family that he had met a new friend at the Al-Huri mosque, where he sometimes led the prayers. (Fitzgerald report, §41)

There is another interesting passage in the Fitzgerald report:

Information from the investigation showed that Mr. Abu Adas had a computer at his home, which was seized as part of the investigation. The seized items included 11 videotapes, 55 CDs, 1 floppy disk and a computer hard drive. Other than subversive information/ data allegedly found on the hard drive, there was very little indication that Mr. Abu Adas had subversive or violent tendencies. (Fitzgerald report, §42)

Just like Assem Hammoud:

Mother, neighbor describe terror suspect as 'peaceful', The Daily Star, July 10, 2006; Attack plans tied to suspect's computer, AP, July 10, 2006.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

"Democracy in the Arab World" in The Economist

The Economist in this week's issue surveys the pervasive shoring up of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. A year ago, Washington was able to claim some success in its campaign to intimidate local potentates into allowing elections. This year it is the potentates who are intimidating their opponents. Opposition parties throughout the region have taken a beating as Washington's ardor for elections has cooled. Elections proved to Washington that the undemocratic rulers of the Middle East are more responsive to US interests than their people.

Democracy in the Arab world: Not yet, thanks

Jun 29th 2006 | CAIRO
The Economist

Recent hopes for the steady advance of democracy are being widely stifled
TWO years ago, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, told fellow Arab leaders to reform, or risk being swept away in a global tide of democratisation. "Trim your hair now," he warned them, "or someone will shave it for you." Turning words into deeds, Mr Saleh, who has ruled since 1978, promised to retire at the end of his current term. Last week he changed his mind. Bowing to what he called "the people's pressure", orchestrated in nationwide mass rallies, he declared his candidacy for elections in September that are likely to prolong his tenure until the end of 2013.
Mr Saleh has a better flair for theatrics than most of the region's other rulers-for-life, but their survival instincts are just as keen. A few years back, and especially in the wake of America's invasion of Iraq, many of them also found it politic to sound responsive to mounting pressure for reform. It was partly internal, inspired by factors such as demography, the fading potency of long-ruling ideologies and the impact of harder-to-control new media such as satellite television. External forces helped, too, most notably the Bush administration's loud championing, echoed by other Western governments, of political freedom as the ultimate foil for extremism.

Responses across the region varied. The leaders of Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt all went to the bother of getting themselves re-elected in contested votes, and Saudi Arabia ran its first ever municipal polls. The legal status of women improved nearly everywhere: Qatar and Kuwait joined most Arab countries by inviting them to vote and run for office. Press freedoms widened notably in some countries, while others, such as Bahrain and Morocco, empowered judicial bodies to look into past human-rights abuses. With Iraqis and Palestinians voting enthusiastically before the world's cameras, even laggards such as Oman and Syria felt obliged to embrace the rhetoric, if not the practice, of political reform.

But now the tide appears to have turned. Syria's leader, Bashar Assad, no longer bothers with any talk of reform; his police have lately arrested dozens of dissidents. Since last year's parliamentary and presidential elections, Egypt's government has backtracked too. Among other measures, it has cancelled some municipal polls, imprisoned the runner-up to President Hosni Mubarak in last year's vote, arrested 600-odd members of the main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, sent police goons to beat up peaceful protesters, passed laws enshrining executive authority over the judiciary and banned two Washington-based institutes that promote democracy from working in the country. The kingdom of Bahrain, once touted as a model reformer, also recently expelled the representative of one of these, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

That's not your funeral
Police in Jordan, another relatively open country, last month summarily jailed four MPs. They had given condolences to the family of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a provocative but hardly criminal act. Morocco, also a star reformer, has lately slapped heavy fines on critical journals. Stiffened rules in Algeria, too, are restricting press freedom. Its president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, fired his prime minister in May in what was seen as a move to bolster support for changes to the constitution that would let him run for a third five-year term. Though polls were held in Saudi Arabia last year to elect town councils, these have yet to meet. Hints by senior princes at further reform have yet to be translated into action.

Kuwait, where an exuberant general election is under way, seems an exception. Yet the polls were called only after the country's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved his legislature in a fit of pique after it threatened to alter districting rules that have long favoured government-backed candidates. With its similar tradition of democracy and openness, Lebanon is another apparent exception. Yet while last year's so-called "cedar revolution" shook up politics, and shook off much of neighbouring Syria's influence, it has not reduced the crippling dominance of sectarian and clan leaders.

Several factors explain the waning of reform momentum. One is the high price of oil. Exporters, from Algeria and Libya to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, find themselves so flush with cash that they can again buy off dissent. But a bigger factor is the advance of Islamist opposition groups. In the past year, religious parties have crushed secular rivals in Iraq, Hamas has captured the shaky government of Palestine, Islamists have performed strongly in Saudi Arabia's polls, and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has won an unprecedented fifth of parliament's seats. More stunning yet, though without any recourse so far to the ballot box, the nascent Islamist movement in Somalia (a non-Arab member of the Arab League) appears close to uniting much of that chaotic country.

The Islamist surge has frightened not only the region's governments, but also foreign promoters of democracy. In particular, the quandary posed by Hamas has chilled American enthusiasm for change. Amr Hamzawy, who assesses Arab political reform at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, DC, describes with dismay how Western officials and academics at a recent conference appeared to "wash their hands of supporting democracy in the Arab world". During debates in America's Congress over proposals to slash aid to Egypt as a penalty for failing to reform, numerous speakers cited the danger of empowering Islamists and undermining a government which, though distasteful, has served American interests.

Similar signs of a return to realpolitik have been noted with relief by Arab governments. Concerns over Iran's nuclear plans have restrained Western criticism of democracy-shy but pro-Western neighbours like Azerbaijan and the countries of Central Asia. America restored ties with Libya, rewarding its government for scrapping weapons programmes while for the most part overlooking its appalling treatment of its own people. Even Syria, forced out of Lebanon and diplomatically isolated, has escaped severe punishment for defying a long list of Western demands.