Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lebanese pay the price for something they never bought

Nov.6, 2007
Lebanese pay the price for something they never bought

by pv vivekanand

THE simmering crisis in Lebanon appears to be ready to boil over, with the US and Syria warning each other not to meddle in Lebanese affairs and with little sign of a breakthrough in efforts to find a consensus candidate to be the next president of the country. However, the US could easily defuse the situation if it were to engage Syria in its proposed effort for peace in the Middle East.
All the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle are highly visible and within reach, but only if the powers that matter in Washington and European capitals are wise and matured enough to recognise them as such and pick them up. So far, we have seen little sign of such wisedom and maturity. Murkeying the scenario further is the Israeli drive to have its own way without compromising over any of what it sees as its interests.
Some pessimistic observers that the political deadlock in Lebanon could lead to yet another round of violent confrontation between Lebanese groups in favour of and opposed to Syrian influence in the country. That need not be an accurate assessment, given that the people of Lebanon are matured enough to realise that a civil strife would be too disastrous for themselves.
At the same time, the political crisis should not be allowed to continue because the central issue is not Lebanese interests but a powerplay of mainly the US and Syria in a broader scenario involving Israel and Iran as well as France, the former colonial power in the country, among others.
An important development this week was a show of force put up by Hizbollah that is interpreted as a warning to Israel against Israel from repeating its 2006 invasion of the south. Reportedly conducted under the direct supervision of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the manoeuvres held near the border with Israel were designed to allow the Jewish state to know more about its capabilities in a new deterrence strategy, according to reports.
It is highly unlikely that Hizbollah and its supporters are looking for a fight with Israel.
While the Lebanese government described the exercises involving unarmed Hizbollah fighters as merely "simulations on paper," it should not be forgotten that Israel would have received the Hizbhollah message, which according to sources quoted in the media, was that the group has regrouped with more strength than the case was before last year's Israeli invasion of the south. In sum, the message is a warning to Israel that any further military adventure into Lebanon would cost it more than what it paid last year.
One of the bottom lines in the broader picture is the Israeli-Syrian tug-of-war over the Golan Heights, which is under Israel's military occupation (never mind that Israel "annexed" the strategic area in 1981) since the 1967 war. The entire scenario in Lebanon would shift positively if there was to be genuine movement towards Israeli-Syrian peace.
Notwithstanding the tensions sparked by the recent Israeli air strike against a "mysterious" Syrian facility, it is clear that Damascus is ready for peace.
It is against this backdrop that Israeli Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has posed the question whether whether Israel or the United States is ready for peace with Syria.
"We have information indicating that Syria is mentally prepared for a peace process with Israel. The question is whether we or the US are prepared for it," Dichter said at a public forum this week.
That was the reaffirmation of the international community's understanding of the situation. The Syrian leadership has declared, in public comments as well as behind-the-scene diplomatic exchanges, that Syria is willing for a honourable, just and fair peace agreement with Israel, but not without the return of the Golan in its entirety to Syrian sovereignty.
Well, the current Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Ehud Barak has signalled it is ready to discuss peace with Syria when its unofficial representatives engaged the Syrians in secret dialogue two years ago. However, the effort had to be called off under American pressure before it entered the stage of discussing the most serious issues at stake. Obviously, the hawks in Washington do not want any dealing with the Syrian leadership under President Bashar Al Assad.
It is also known that the US had actively encouraged and supported the Israeli war against Hizbollah last year, and even pressured the Jewish state not to halt its offensive even as Hizbollah was proving itself to be a formidable foe.
Washington had in fact made a strategic error by convincing itself that Israel could successfully eliminate Hizbollah as a military threat in the event of US military action against Iran.
However, the opportunity has presented itself for Washington to put itself right. The Bush administration could and indeed should formally invite Syria to the US-sponsored Middle East conference to be held in Annapolis later this month. The Syrian response would definitely be positive and would definitely include cancellation of a meeting planned to be held in Damascus as a parallel forum to the Annapolis conference.
However, the US does not seem to be in a mood to take note of the Syrian willingness to make peace with Israel. That was reflected in the latest Washington move — the imposition of sanctions on four Lebanese political figures, including a member of the Lebanese parliament, charging that they are undermining democracy in Lebanon by agitating for and promoting Syrian influence in the country. The US Department of the Treasury said it was freezing US-based assets belonging to Asaad Halim Hardan, a member of the Lebanese parliament and chief of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP); Wi'am Wahhab, a former member of Lebanon's parliament; Hafiz Makhluf, a colonel in Syria's General Intelligence Directorate; and Mohammed Nasif Khayrbik, a key advisor to President Assad.
Against such obvious hostility as reflected in the US move, it would be naive to expect to Syria to make any compromise gesture on its own.
Lebanon is caught in the middle with no end in sight for the political crisis. Without genuine movement towards Israel-Syria peace, there is little expectation that the Lebanese would be spared from paying part of the price for the Washington-Damascus confrontation.