Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bashar Wins this Round

Apparently my view that few US foreign policy options remain when dealing with Syria disturbed our colleague bolgger Tony from “Across the Bay.” He asked that I examine “the broader perspective and review the facts.” Given my respect for Tony I will do exactly that, hoping to ease his anxiety and spur a positive discussion.

In my opinion, diplomatic pressure is the only viable foreign policy tool currently at the administration’s disposal. The US military is overstretched and there is strong domestic opposition to any new military adventure. Likewise, US economic leverage over Syria is very limited due to inconsequential volume of trade between the two countries. Thus, to effectively pressure Syria, the US administration has little choice but to act multilaterally through the UN Security Council.

Recent developments at the Security Council indicate that there is strong resistance to U.S efforts. France and the UK aside, very few countries of consequence are ready to go down the path of sanctions; even targeted sanctions. Russia is intent on containing US regional ambitions through supporting Syria and Iran, China will oppose as long as Russia does, and even European states are not in favor, fearing that the US will eventually lead Syria down the road to where Iraq is today.

Despite their strong displeasure with Bashar’s actions, Arab States also prefer stability over escalation. All have made their calculations after Hariri’s assassination and now prefer accommodation. The Egyptians are increasingly conscious of the regional balance of power now that Iraq is no longer a threat to Israel’s eastern front. A further weakened Syria introduces instability and further shifts the regional balance in Israel’s favor. Despite grievances with Bashar they prefer to guide him to safety instead of leaving him to dry. As clear from their on-going efforts, they are trying to wrap things up at the expense of the investigation. Frustrated, Jumblat and Sa’ad Hariri rejected this today claiming “the mediation aims to subvert the truth.” Mubarak’s response was swift, warning them of “improving Syrian – American ties.” (Check Al Diyar)

It should also be noted that US Ambassador to Cairo Francis J. Ricciardone came out in favor of the mediation efforts.

The Saudis were especially affronted by Hariri’s assassination, but not enough to advocate regime change or sanction either. In fact, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar played the star role in getting Asef Shawkat off the interrogation list and in replacing Beirut with Vienna as a location. (Read Al Hayat) Frankly it’s no surprise that Mehlis decided to pack his bags and go home after he was pressured to publically yield to Syrian demands.

In short, given limited policy options and growing opposition to sanctions, I wouldn’t be surprised if the US tries to reach a strategic accommodation with Syria. Maybe Blair's overture yesterday was an indication. As Flynt Leverret of Brookings recently argued, “What is the US interest in a few flag waving Lebanese, when we can reach an understanding that saves lives in Iraq, Israel, and even Lebanon? Why ignore deals that can help secure oil pipelines and reign in militant groups?” While Bush might still be committed to “democracy promotion”, such arguments are becoming more prevalent in DC policy circles. Last week US bloggs reported that Condi Rice was exploring a “Libya style deal” until Ambassador Bolton purposely sabotaged it by leaking it to the press. (Check Washington Note) This was then repeated in DC policy circles.

All I’m saying is that there are increasing signs that Syria has weathered the storm. An analyst who recently returned form Damascus put it this way: “Bashar called the American bluff with his war speech at the University of Damascus. He told them that the regime will stick together and is ready for confrontation should the US have the stomach for another Iraq in Lebanon.” The assasination of Tueni on the eve of the Security Council meeting was a literal translation.

So with UN sanctions now unlikely, and limited policy alternatives, it’s not unreasonable for the US to shop around, nor for one to say Bashar might have won this round.


Doha said...

Definitely, Firas, we cannot but agree that UNSCR 1644 was a sigh of relief for the Syrians, because there was no consensus among the Security Council members to impose sanctions on Syria. However, if Bashar won this round, that does not necessarily translate into accomodation and deals struck between the US and Syria.

Yesterday, interestingly, we got news that US ambassador to Syria, Scobey, was returning to Damascus...a rumor quickly denied by the US Administration and was a sigh of relief for the Lebanese.

Yes, we are pushed to perceive that there are deals being struck at all levels: you name it: the Arab League, Egypt, the US, etc...And it is a nerve-wracking situation.

The Syrian regime is trying at best to bargain with time. If the investigation takes around two years, it will be a plus for the Syrians. Bush's term will be over and Chirac as well.

Unfortunately, as much as I support a US President who is a Democrat, my fear is that we'll end up with a US President who will either impose a foreign policy of isolationism or a policy that is the closest to how things were before Bush came to power: maintaining the status quo.

I read in Annahar that the "friends" of Lebanon have their bets on our current government weathering away its storm, namely the Shiite boycott. They have pledged full support at all levels (World Bank?) as long as we stay the course of unity and national consensus.

Our unity is our best bet against what Raja talked about last time: realpolitik...but our unity is still shaken.

hummbumm said...

You may be right, though i hope not! I hope it is only shortlived because for sure there will be no long term stability with this current syrian regime, that to me is self evident. It would have been helpful if the lebanese were united. As always that is our biggest curse.
That Leverett really pisses me off. I hate pundits who casually dismiss the lives of millions, and these are the people that are called pragmatist and intellectuals!

francois said...

it s not the interest of lebanon to overthrown bashar regime at the moment.

yes there is a need to end that regime but it has to be in a pacific way in order to avoid the threat of an islamic revolution.

there is no structured opposition in syria except the islamic one.

an islamic revolution mainly sunnit is a threat to all its neighbours, including lebanon as far it ll be a strong regime that would try to destabilise its neighbours to get more influences.

Iran failed this as far there were differences btw persians and arabs among shiits, syria wouldnt have that problem being surrounded by arab countries and with strong sunnits implementations.

besides all, syria is in trouble since they left lebanon, their regime is dead since that time. i dont really care about them, their threats etc... do have any meaning compared to that possible islamic threat

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

"Likewise, US economic leverage over Syria is very limited due to inconsequential volume of trade between the two countries. "

Yes but not the EU. Here's where France becomes useful. As I said before, it is this France-US alliance that will be devastating for the Syrian regime. No more playing the EU against the US.

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

" I wouldn’t be surprised if the US tries to reach a strategic accommodation with Syria. Maybe Blair's overture yesterday was an indication."

The diplomatic language can be shady but this is pretty clear for once:
"after British Prime Minister Tony Blair cautioned Syria against meddling in Lebanon. "It is a very, very serious situation for Syria because there can't be any justification whatever for interfering in the internal affairs of Lebanon."

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

I'll let Tony comment on Leverret, but I want to say this:

-Gone is the time when you struck deals concerning entire countries. If this were to happen, the US would expect something huge in return and Syria doesn't have the political currency to pay for Lebanon. It has lost most of its cards and its influence in the region is quicly decreasing.

-I don't see why the Americans will renounce to Lebanon's democracy, especially since it's an easy move. Democracy in Lebanon is more or less established and, unlike the rest of the Arab world, can easily stand on its own feet, provided minimal international support. It would be stupid to renounce to this opportunity.

-Iraq is already on track and Syria's behaviour will do little difference.

Syria's window of opportunity is closing fast. All we have to do is to sit and wait.

Doha said...

I agree with Vox that Syria's has burned most of its political cards in Lebanon. The Lebanese, except for a few groups, will not allow another round of Syrian tutelage. They will go out on the streets once more; the wall of fear and silence have been broken on March 14th.

JoseyWales said...

Very depressing. None of this would matter: US, EU, Bashar, Arab League, trade, regional politics etc.. if the Lebanese had their priorities straight.

And since they are NOT straight, political players ought to try to set them straight, by putting pressure on Syria's allies and trying to sharpen the debate.

Maybe, just maybe, Joumblatt, Hariri, (and Aoun?) are starting to get it by blasting Syria's actions (terrorist) and by attacking Amr Moussa (Wael Bou Faour).

Pols and the press should squeeze the crap out of Salloukh for his move to recall our guy at the UN (Assaf??)

Hezbo/Amal need to be put on the spot if dialogue fails and they need to tells what do they want from Assad.

They need to be reminded publicly of what the constitution says re gvmnt decisions.

Bashar needs to be called a murderer daily.

Amr Moussa and the Arab League need to be told to go to hell. Better yet, get the freak out of the Idiot League, under further notice. What good has ever come from this despicable, corrupt, and outright shitty institution?

The Idiot League was involved in 75/76 with disastrous results. (Not sure but weren't they also a Taif guarantor? Horrible results again)

If this is not the time for big words and bold action, it never will be.

The bottom line is you have to make irreponsible actions and words by your opponents VERY costly. Otherwise, you get more of the same.

Syria's allies have not paid a penny yet.

Raja said...


Strong post. We have to keep in mind that 1559, 1595 and all the other resolutions are still out there. We also have to keep in mind that despite the fact that the investigation appears to have lost momentum, it is also still going on.

Lebanon was on the offensive. It is now on the defensive. Hariri, for example said on his al Arabiya interview that "we do not want to change the Syrian regime," eventhough they want to change the Lebanese regime.

Back in Lebanon, the new key phrase that all the politicians are using is "war." All of the March 14 political leadership, without exception, are declaring that they are "in a state of war with syria". To be honest with you, it's about time they came out and just said that.

My point is that we appear to be on the defensive. There are still calls for the "haqiqa" and for "justice", but a lot of the calls have turned into preventing Syria from taking us back to the status quo ante.

We'll have to see what happens in the next days or weeks. But as Josey said, this turn of events is dissapointing and quite depressing.

Anonymous said...

"In short, given limited policy options and growing opposition to sanctions, I wouldn’t be surprised if the US tries to reach a strategic accommodation with Syria"

"Russia is intent on containing US regional ambitions through supporting Syria and Iran, China will oppose as long as Russia does, and even European states are not in favor, fearing that the US will eventually lead Syria down the road to where Iraq is today.

There's still an international inquiry going on. It has already good element against Syria, but if it gets something that is more marketable to the public opinion, that Syria is in deep trouble.

Anonymous said...

It is all very nice to finger point Syria for all the murders and the instability in the regions. Yet, the weakness of Lebanon is more apparent then ever. A country split by religions, allegeance to groups or western or other regional power, a country with many politicians leading the country now who are responsible for hainous murders during the civil war(hastily forgotten with that abusrd amnisty). How can a country whose roots are so rotten and where the corruption is rampant can stand in front of Syria who hold the regional key card of Irak's stability and thus remain an important player in the US political. Instead of opening more cans of worms, the Lebanese should try to look at themselves, some introspection that they have always refused to do, and face the tradition of murders, settling scores and vengeance that has taken roots in their psyche and that they must get rid of before they can make this country reborn as a nation...