Saturday, March 05, 2005

Showdown in Lebanon

Lebanese crisis: Time for showdown

Washington has seized the Feb.14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al Hariri to apply pressure on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. On Wednesday, Bush demanded in blunt terms that Syria get out of Lebanon.

The scene for the ultimatum was set in a joint American-French statement issued in London by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

"Both of them stood up and said loud and clear to Syria, You get your troops and your secret services out of Lebanon so that good democracy has a chance to flourish," Bush said.

The president's forceful words clearly indicated a determination to see the affair through to the point that Syria would be left in a vulnerable position where it would not be able to influence the course of events in the Middle East or to insist on its terms for peace with Israel. In the bargain, Syria would also be pushed into a corner where it would not be able to take advantage of its alliance with Iran, according to the emerging scenario.

It would be naive to assume that Washington is overtly interested in ensuring that democracy prevails in Lebanon without external influence. The objective, as it would appear, is to remove Lebanon from the binding with Syria and make Lebanese-Israeli peace with no say from Damascus and then deal with Syria on its own.

French President Jacques Chirac might have had a personal consideration following the Hariri assassination since the slain billionaire was a personal friend.

Bush might have seen in Hariri a key Lebanese politician with enough influence to push through the agenda of severing the Syrian artery with Lebanon. And his assassination offered the perfect backdrop for stepping in with pressure for a final showdown.

Mounting pressure

That is what is happening today, with pressure mounting on Damascus through various avenues.

Washington and Israel hold Syria responsible for last Friday's bombing in Tel Aviv which killed four people and threatened the delicate Palestinian-Israeli truce that is essential for advancing prospects for negotiated peace in Palestine.

Rice has said that the US has proof that the Damascus-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad group was behind the bombing. Earlier, Israel alleged but reversed it quickly that Syrian-allied Lebanese Hizbollah was behind the attack. Islamic Jihad or Hizbollah, the target of the American-Israeli pressure was and continues to be Syria.

The resignation of the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon this week has set off the chain of events towards an end to the Syrian dominance of its neighour since mid-70s. It sets the course for a total reshaping of the geopolitical realities of the area.

Definitely, the resignation by the government headed by Rashid Karami was co-ordinated with the Syrian leadership which seems to have realised that Damascus has no choice but to succumb to

US and Israeli pressure and quit Lebanon.

Obviously, Assad is seeking a face-saving formula. It is speculated that he might be planning to endorse a government of technocrats and complete a military withdrawal from Lebanon before the end of the year. However, it would not be acceptable to the US and of course the Lebanese opposition because they want to end all Syrian influence in domestic affairs. The opposition wants a neutral government to prepare fair election, find Hariri's assassins and rid country of Syrian occupation.

Isolating Syria

Assad has denied Syrian involvement in the Hariri killing or the Tel Aviv suicide bombing, but those denials are ineffective against the determined American-Israeli drive to isolate Syria.

Washington has of course support from Paris, London and other European capitals as well as from the UN in the form of a firm warning issued by Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Syria complete its withdrawal from Lebanon by April or face international sanctions.

Damascus has responded by announcing a pullback of its forces to the Bekaa Valley and promising to co-operate with the UN team which began investigations into the bombing that killed Hariri and 16 others in Beirut.

It is unrealistic at this point to expect that Damascus could somehow hang on to its dominance in Lebanon. The US-Israeli drive is all too powerful this time around.

If anything, the possibility is real that Syria would face US-engineered international punitive action even it meets the UN demand for withdrawal and dismantling of the intelligence nexus between Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agencies.

Syria could escape the American hook if it were to agree to Israel's terms for peace without seeking the return of the Golan Heights. However, it is an unlikely prospect in the short term.

The US and Israel are not going to let Syria off until they are

satisfied that Damascus has ceased to be a challenge to Israeli domination of the region. The US and Israel are ready for American and allied military intervention in Syria and Assad does not have too many options except a face-saving exit from Lebanon as the starting point.

Assad has indicated in an interview with Time magazine that he would withdraw Syria's 15,000 troops from Lebanon "maybe in the next few months."

It was immediately rejected by US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield.

"Neither this government nor the people of Lebanon will believe anything other than what we see with our eyes," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Lebanese opposition

In the meantime, the Lebanese opposition, riding high on the victory of having forced the resignation of the Karami government, is seeking to enlist the powerful Hizbollah in the opposition camp.

If Iran-backed Hizbollah moves to the opposition, then the demise of Syrian influence in Lebanon will be faster than expected.

"This week is going to be a very critical week," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "Either the country will emerge united in terms of forming a transitional government or ... if there are no concessions between the two sides,(pro-Syrian President Emile) Lahoud will have the choice of resigning or forming a military government," Hamzeh told the Christian Science Monitor.

Hamzeh said he believes that if Lahoud is cornered by the opposition, he may seek to form a military government rather than step down. "If the opposition accepts the resignation of the government as a major victory and is willing to compromise on a neutral government, the country might be saved by the skin of its teeth," he says.

The opposition groups are not backing down either. They are demanding that Lahoud must accept the demands before they would join any discussions on forming a new government.

The opposition position is clear: "The ... step that the opposition considers essential in its demands on the road to salvation and independence is the total withdrawal of the Syrian army and intelligence service from Lebanon," said an opposition statement issued this week.

"This step requires an official announcement from the Syrian president on the withdrawal of the Syrian forces and its intelligence from Lebanon," it said.

Druze leader Walid Junblatt explained that "these are the principles that the opposition defined ... Only if the authorities agree on these conditions we might take part (in talks on government) formation."

Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, a Syrian ally who heads the Shiite Amal militia, has warned against anyone "stepping into (a power) vacuum. Now everyone has to rise to the level of their national duty."

The opposition is insisting that a neutral government should be formed of people not standing in the May general elections and acceptable to most Lebanese.

Anti-Syrian alliance

Washington has offered to help conduct fair and free elections in Lebanon after Syria withdraws. The timing is also crucial here, with questions asked whether Syria could or would complete its withdrawal before the May elections.

It is widely held that fair and free elections, if held, will produce an anti-Syrian alliance that would create new facts on the ground that would not allow Damascus to even hope for a pre-Hariri assassination state of affairs.

However, given the depth of Syrian-Lebanese relations, Damascus does not necessarily have to be hostile to any government in Beirut.

"The crucial time will be from now until the elections," according to Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian political analyst and correspondent for the Arabic Al Hayat daily. "If the Syrians play the game cleverly, they can have good relations with any government in Beirut."

Junblatt has agreed with that.

"The Syrian-Lebanese security agencies should be dismantled next ... and Syrian forces must be withdrawn from Lebanon," he said last month." All this should be done without hostility to Syria. Hostility toward Syria will not be tolerated."

No matter how Damascus tried to play its hand, it is clear that the US remains ready to counter it if the game excludes a clean break in Damascus's authority to call the shots in Lebanon.

Clearly, Syria does not have many options. Under the geopolitical realities of the Middle East today, the only way out of the predicament for Damascus is to comply with the US demands while trying to save face. Otherwise, anything and everything is possible, including an American-French military intervention supported by Israel that would only add to the woes of the Arab World.