Lebanon is just a pawn in a ruefully naïve American game to get to Syria, writes Azmi Bishara
I did not attend the seminar on US policy towards Syria hosted by the Washington-based Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institute on 25 April 2005, but the entire transcript was available on the institute's website. The keynote speaker was Flynt Leverett, author of Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire, the launching of which occasioned this seminar. Following a presentation by Leverett of the main arguments and conclusions in his book, a panel discussion was opened by prominent journalists Seymour Hersh and James Bennet.
Leverett, who formerly held a senior post in the US National Security Council, holds that the US does not have a clear policy vision on Syria and his fellow panelists agree. By policy vision, here, they appear to be thinking in terms of the traditional arts of diplomacy, for which neo-conservatives have neither the understanding nor the patience, and which in this case entails asking, "what does the US want from Syria?" and then, on the basis of the answer, formulating the appropriate blend of carrot and stick measures needed to achieve the desired goal. This, according to Leverett, places Damascus in a quandary, because it has no clear idea what Washington ultimately wants, or what it stands to gain from implementing its demands, because this Washington is unprepared to make clear directives.
One also gleans from the transcript that the participants believe that Lebanon, per se, is not and has never been important to the US, and that its stances on Lebanese issues are no more than a means of leverage for attaining its objectives in the region, especially as pertains to Israel and Syria. Therefore, the US supported -- in 1982 -- the installation of a Lebanese government that was ready to sign a peace treaty with Israel, regardless of how this might affect Lebanese domestic stability. When that backfired for all involved, it accepted the necessity of a Syrian role in keeping the Lebanese powder keg capped as the US put its full weight behind the Lebanese denominational system, churning political capital out of sectarian strife and turning politics into money. Then more recently, the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri became the catalyst for thawing US-French relations, which in turn was useful for getting UN Security Council Resolution 1559 passed, thereby opening a new channel for the US to exploit Lebanon as it steps up its campaign against Syria.
I do not agree with Leverett that the US has no clear policy towards Syria. Syria does not know what the neo-cons in Washington want because the neo-cons have been careful to subordinate their secondary conflicts to their major ones. But it is a grave mistake to take this to mean that Washington appreciates Syria's role. Washington is more firmly in the grip of the radical neo-cons than ever before -- now that there is no longer a force, such as that represented by Colin Powell, to counterbalance them or even to blur the main features of their policy -- and it is palpably evident that Damascus is in their crosshairs. Not that Washington is about to declare that toppling the Syrian regime is its objective. It has no feasible justification for this and no instrument to accomplish it; not even the ever-malleable Security Council. Also, for the moment, it is banking on its ability to generate the conditions that will isolate and debilitate that regime, thereby dispensing with the need for direct military intervention and hence the need to officially declare its policy. Syria is very aware of this.
It is useful here to recall the infamous report entitled, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, signed by, among others, Richard Pearl, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and presented to Benjamin Netanyahu following his election as Israeli prime minister. The document acquired its notoriety during the build-up to the war on Iraq, firstly because it openly urged Israel to intervene in US policy by using its influence in Congress to push for military intervention in Iraq in order to topple Saddam Hussein, an option that was against the policy of the US administration at the time, and secondly because of the lengthy arguments it forwarded as to why this option was an Israeli strategic option in its own right. The document acquired its notoriety only retroactively because when it was written its writers, and their dirty games, were so out of the loop of the American foreign policy architecture and because Netanyahu, on whom they placed such high hopes, was not in power long enough to give their "clean break" a chance. In all events, even during his short rule, Netanyahu had little time for their advice, for he continued negotiations with the PLO, even after the Palestinian uprising of September 1996, and with Syria, in which regard he appeared willing, in theory, to give up large tracts of the Golan Heights. Netanyahu pursued this course for a very simple reason: the type of thinking embodied in that document did not dominate the White House. When it did, Sharon espoused it lock, stock and barrel with no need for an advisory report of any sort, until the situation in the region reached the stage in which it was Washington that was telling Israel not to respond to Syrian overtures so as not to contribute to breaking Syria's isolation.
The document I am discussing is not important in and of itself. Nor do I believe that we should credit the individuals who wrote it with an extraordinary ability to control US global policy. Its most prominent author, Richard Perle, that shining star of the American neo-cons since the Reagan years, was forced to resign as director of the Council of Defense, a semi-official advisory agency appointed by the secretary of Defense. The question, thus, is not one of a group of individuals who by a stroke of luck manoeuvred themselves into positions from which they could pull the strings of American foreign policy. The question is one of approach. The importance of the paper, therefore, resides in the ideas it espouses, for these ideas, when circumstances proved propitious for securing the cornerstones of US global hegemony, evolved into the modus operandi for implementing a common US-Israeli strategic vision towards the Arab world.
Beneath the headline, "Securing the northern borders", by which is meant Israel's northern borders, of course, the paper urges Israel to "seize the initiative" by engaging Syria, Hizbullah and Iran, which it regards as the principle agents of terrorism. It recommends striking at the infrastructure of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and if that proves insufficient to strike at targets inside Syria. It then advises: "Given the nature of the regime in Damascus, it is both natural and moral that Israel abandon the slogan 'comprehensive peace' and move to contain Syria, drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction programme, and rejecting 'land for peace' deals on the Golan Heights." With artless cunning it adds that the effort to contain Syria "can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq -- an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right -- as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions." Then, in order to better entice Israel into meddling in American politics and address their priorities so as to generate a climate favourable to waging war against Iraq, the report speaks of liberating the Shia of Lebanon from Iranian influence by helping to create conditions that would restore their historic ties to the Shia leadership in Najaf. Needless to say, those conditions entailed toppling Saddam and installing a leadership in Iraq that "could use their influence over Najaf to help Israel wean the south Lebanese Shia away from Hizbullah, Iran and Syria." In short, the paper counselled that "weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria" should be Israel's highest priority and that the most direct route towards this end began with "removing Saddam from power in Iraq". The foregoing puts in context US-Israeli efforts at a later stage to persuade the Arabs to support the containment of Syria as a step towards containing Iran, which is the priority of some Arab countries, especially the Gulf ones.
During the Saban Center panel discussion on US policy towards Syria, Seymour Hersh confirms something that to me seemed obvious, but this time he gives it straight from the mouth of a US official who told him, "It doesn't matter [who killed Al-Hariri]. Why are you worrying about the fact there's no empirical evidence for who killed him? ... It doesn't matter what reality it is. It's -- Syria did it. That's all we say and that's all the world wants to believe and that's it." Indeed, why bother about the facts when the objective is to level the finger of accusation against Bashar Al-Assad?
Naturally, the panelists are keen to refute the various theories and game plans that dominate the thinking of the ruling establishment in Washington. Such euphemistic slogans as "the velvet revolution" in Lebanon are baseless to them, and they refute such fabricated images of Al-Assad as a weak leader or not the real decision-maker in Damascus. They also insist that the veneration Al-Hariri acquired in death simply did not exist in life, when the wealthy politician used Saudi and other connections to funnel money here and there. More importantly, Leverett claims that the US policies that are based on these assumptions and tactics will achieve the opposite of what the neo-cons set out to achieve. He believes that Syria may actually emerge stronger for the challenge. It is a curious deduction coming from the author of Inheriting Syria, who is far from being a neo-con but who nevertheless initially supported Security Council Resolution 1559. He explains that initially he thought that this resolution would give the US some "real leverage" over Syria on questions pertaining to the Syrian-Israeli track. Eventually, however, he discovered that Washington was using it to press for an immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and that that goal had become "the be-all and end-all of our Syrian policy at this point."
Here is where the American and French approaches to Syria radically depart. Unlike the French, the neo-cons in Washington believe that Lebanon is so crucial to Syria that any failure there -- of the sort that would force it to withdraw -- would serious debilitate the regime in Damascus. The so-called "old guard", and those with vested interests in the status quo in Syria, these strategists think, would perceive the Al-Assad leadership as too weak to protect their interests. On top of the political fall out, the thousands of Syrian workers returning from Syria would generate an unemployment crisis that would build up a tide social discontent. (So in thrall is that clique of neo-cons with the conspiracy theory that they plan with to such details as aggravating unemployment).
What would happen if, just for the sake of example, the Syrian regime were to think democratically, and draw the conclusion that connection between the "old guard" in Syria and the post-Taif pro-Syrian ruling elite in Lebanon, which has now become the opposition, was one of the major sources of corruption in both Lebanon and Syria? In fact, something of this nature began in 2000, clearing the way for important Lebanese figures to assume a lead in that system while the Taif leaders lost their Syrian allies and receded into the background as their base of social support dwindled for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with opposition to the reform of the Syrian- Lebanese relationship and the conflicts between the Lebanese elite over the alliance with Damascus and their shares of the political and economic benefits to be gained from that alliance and the military mentality which looks for collaborates rather than real allies. But then the war against Iraq changed everything. Along came Resolution 1559 and the assassination of Al-Hariri and the convergence of forces behind restoring the old sectarian order that prevailed before the civil war in 1975, but without the nationalist movement that at least challenged it.
In promulgating their reductionist takes on the Syrian- Lebanese relationship, the neo-conservative wunderkinds can pretty much bank on the fact that their audiences in Nebraska and Illinois have no idea where to locate Lebanon and Syria on a map. The odd thing is that these theories have recently acquired more intensive airtime in the Arab media than in the US counterpart, in spite of the fact that the audiences here know where Lebanon and Syria are.
The Syrian-Lebanese relationship that Al-Assad sought to alter since 2000, and which sunk into the mire of its own corruption, was more of a burden for Syria than many would like to admit. The Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon can be used to reshape Syria's understanding of its own sources of strength, both at home and abroad. If it is to happen, Syria, through a rapid withdrawal from Lebanon, will have to rid itself of a weakness not a strength, as long as, of course, it ensures that Lebanon is not transformed into a launching pad for attacks against Damascus. In addition to discovering and drawing on new sources of strength, therefore, Syria will also have to alter the mode of its relations with Lebanon; it will have to start looking for allies not agents, and among those potential allies are parties who were harmed by Syrian policies in Lebanon. It would be mistaken to think that with the Syrian withdrawal Syria's political role in Lebanon will have come to an end and that Lebanon will turn its back on the Arab world or that the Arab world will turn its back on Lebanon, or that either of these two alternatives would be possible without an arrangement with Syria. However, Syria will have to formulate a new and more flexible policy on Lebanon, and with Lebanon. Even Syria's adversaries in Lebanon will want that, for they do not like to contemplate the consequences of Syria's relationship with Lebanon going informal, and they fear what the Americans like to call "a political vacuum" in the country.
From the US policy perspective, the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon would presumably be a positive development, but the dismissive attitude Washington has taken confirms that Lebanese interests are far from its heart. The withdrawal from Lebanon is just one more step towards the Bush administration's target, which is Damascus. Which is why no sooner had Syria announced its withdrawal than the US came up with new demands. Nor are the aims of these demands what Washington declares they are. They are all part and parcel of the game plan of waiting until the time is ripe to remove the Syrian regime, coming up with excuses for this afterwards.
The US's overwhelming military superiority and its military achievements have, up to now, masked the irrationality of the policies of the neo-cons, and even trample under foot their gross miscalculations. Policies are gauged by their results and, so far, the results have seemed proof of rational planning, even though that planning involved no more than using the US's massive military might to bulldoze everything in Washington's way and to threaten others with the same fate. What the results would be if the US were unable to avail itself of the full force of its military is another question entirely. Syria is precisely such a case. The US wants either to totally alter Syrian politics or to overturn the regime, but it is not in a position to roll in with tanks. Therefore, it comes up with demand after demand, adding pressure upon pressure, not so much in order to win concessions from Syria but rather so that these concessions, which in a certain light could be considered wise moves, are construed as signs that Damascus is losing its grip. The idea is to create an image of a regime falling apart at the seams, which, Washington hopes, will encourage adversaries of that weak regime to take action.
Soon every force that opposes US policy in Lebanon, and does not see eye to eye with the US ambassador's meddling in every little detail, will be called, as Shimon Peres called Hizbullah, an occupation force. That would comprise more than half a million Lebanese of all religious denominations who would declare their opposition in the polls, if the electoral system in Lebanon were altered to a nationwide proportional political, not sectarian, representation system.
Following Syria's full withdrawal from Lebanon, implementing the terms of a flagrantly prejudicial UN Security Council resolution in record time and in full, without the prevarications, procrastination and general disregard for keeping one's word that characterises politics in today's world, the Americans turned the screws on Syria a notch tighter. This took the form of a curious demand, and one all the more amazing given the norms of international relations today. The demand was for Syria to remove all its intelligence operatives from Lebanon. It is natural for a country to want foreign powers to withdraw their intelligence agents from the country. It is also perfectly natural for those foreign powers to play innocent as though they would never stoop so low as to have intelligence agents to begin with, let alone those that everyone is aware are operative in the country in question. It takes little stretch of the imagination to picture how the US would react if Lebanon asked it to remove its intelligence agents from Lebanon, or better yet how Israel -- whose agents perpetrated countless assassinations in Lebanon -- would take umbrage even as it boasts of the accomplishments of its operatives in Arab countries. Yet, now the US, of all countries, is telling Syria to get its intelligence operatives out of Lebanon when the whole world knows that the CIA was directly responsible for military coups in Syria and had a direct hand in tampering with electoral results in Lebanon in the 1950s.
What would the Americans think if they were to conduct a house to house and body by body search in Lebanon in order to root out all operatives working for Syria and found that most of them are Lebanese, just like those that cooperate with the CIA but in far larger numbers? Would all these Lebanese have to leave Lebanon as well? It really is the story of Alice in wonderland. The intelligence file has always been, and remains, the worst way of perceiving and regulating the Syrian- Lebanese relationship. Do those who are going down this route think that the American ambassador will fill the vacuum? Hardly likely. Regardless of who rules Lebanon, there will never be a vacuum in Syrian-Lebanese relations. There is historic, geographic, demographic and cultural depth to these relations, and there are a host of Syrian-Lebanese agreements that have assumed considerable importance at this historical juncture in particular when international relations between independent nations are run in accordance with agreements that they presume all parties will honour.
Geography, history and culture cannot, somehow, be cast as the opposition or treated as though they were extraneous factors. Nor will any foreign embassy succeed in marginalising the Lebanese poor of various denominations who, by organising themselves in institutions founded upon a spirit of resistance and national consciousness, have moved from the fringes of society to the very centre. Those are not servants of the rich Lebanese or of political feudals whose jobs have ended with liberation. They have come to represent the image of Lebanon to Lebanon, and that image is a far remove from the one that is so widespread in the Gulf. They are far more modern and better organised than the culture of debauchery, and less traditional in their views on women than that culture. They are more democratic in terms of their concrete role in Lebanon than the patterns of family power bases and denominational government, for at least they have created a ladder for social advancement and given their country a sense of pride far more solid and lasting than the pride that can be gained from offering media, entertainment and consultative services to oil money. They are not waiters, not in politics nor in anything else. And it would be mistaken to think that they can be handled as easily as some Arab official who only has to be given the wink that he will win the favour of Washington's imperial will in order to be persuaded to raise his country's oil production. Such are the ethics of those who give out marks for good behaviour to those who do their bidding in the international and regional arenas and in Lebanon. They will always be able to find allies shaped in their own image, ready to spout their lies and myths and to sing their praises in Lebanon. But they will also find in Lebanon many who do not find lying, deceit and treachery an acceptable form of shrewdness, and who disagree that "Lebanon was always like that." There is another Lebanon that all Lebanese know.
If US policy towards Lebanon is just part of the build-up for striking Syria, and if the US continues to have its hands bound militarily, that policy will quickly be exposed for the dangerous folly it is. Only too late will the US learn that dominating the 10,000 kilometres squared that is Lebanon is, in a sense, harder than dominating all of China. For every ally it finds in Lebanon there are three who see things differently. This heterogeneity inherent in Lebanese society and politics is what prevents homogeneous control. Nevertheless, in their diabolical single-mindedness combined with their current desire to do things on the cheap in this round, US policy-makers are bent on using Lebanon, instead of their own armed forces, to accomplish their ends in Syria, regardless of whether this plunges Lebanon once more into civil war. It is the duty of all concerned for the welfare of Lebanon -- and the region -- to forestall this spectre, which in turn requires a mentality that rises above sectarian, tribal and personal profit-loss calculations.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
Lebanon is just a pawn in a ruefully naïve American game to get to Syria, writes Azmi Bishara