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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Middle East politics: Assad overkill


The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, seems to have made a calamitous misjudgement in his choices of targets to attack in his first major commentary on the war in Lebanon. In particular, his attempt to portray the political front that holds the majority of seats in the Lebanese parliament as a fifth column working in the interests of Israel has been widely seen as a crude attempt to foment civil strife in Lebanon at a time when the government and Hizbullah are making strenuous efforts to maintain a sense of national unity. Anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians reacted with fury to Mr Assad's speech, as might have been expected; perhaps more significant was a statement from a Hizbullah-affiliated MP rejecting the Syrian leader's allegations.

Mr Assad has also further damaged his standing with the EU--an important source of economic aid for Syria--by delivering diplomatic snubs to Spain and Germany, which were seeking to find ways to shore up relations between Europe and Damascus. Finally, his insulting remarks about pro-Western Arab states will merely add to the strain in his relations with his fellow Arab leaders.

In a speech to a conference of Arab journalists, Mr Assad claimed that most of the Arab states and their leaders, whom he sarcastically referred to as "wise men", had blundered in their approach to the Middle East peace process by closing off any option of exerting coercive pressure on Israel, with the result that the Arab side has made repeated concessions, but with nothing of substance in return. "That is why we see the Palestinians paying the price now, and that is why Syria refused, through its vision, to abandon any of its rights." He argued that the only situation in which the Western powers will take the rights of the Arab seriously is when "Israel is in pain", and that this can only occur when the Arabs exert effective pressure. He said that "the countries concerned with the peace process, and they are mostly European, are responsible for what is happening" owing to their refusal to exert any pressure on Israel to change its behaviour.


In this respect, Mr Assad maintained that the continued deployment of the "resistance"--in other words, Hizbullah--in South Lebanon after Israel withdrew from the area in 2000 was essential as "a deterrent to Israeli aggression", and that the recent Israeli attacks had been prepared long in advance in order to neutralise this threat. He suggested that the May 17th group (a derogatory reference to the March 14th movement that emerged after the Ferbuary 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, linking them to the 1983 attempt by the Amin Gemayel government to signed a bilateral peace treaty with Israel) had colluded with Israel in its plans to seek the disarmament of Hizbullah by force. He also implied that certain Arab states had also been party to the conspiracy, whose latest manifestation was UN Security Council 1701, which was passed on August 8th and laid the basis for the eventual ceasefire. "Now we can establish the correlation between resolutions 1559, 1680 and 1701, the assassination of Hariri and the last war, on the one hand, and the role of these Lebanese forces and certain Arab forces on the other," he said.

The implications of Mr Assad's speech are that he will strive to prevent the full implementation of Resolution 1701, so as to ensure that the Arab side can derive full benefits from what he termed the victory of the resistance. "As a bottom line, we have to change the military victory into a political victory, at least in the peace process." In other words, there is no question of Syria consenting to the disarmament of Hizbullah unless there is substantive progress towards a peace settlement based on a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories. In practice, this means that Syria is likely to keep up its pressure on the government of Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister, which is based on the March 14th bloc, but also includes two Hizbullah ministers and three from Amal, the other mainn Shia party.

His disdain towards Mr Siniora and his associates was made plain in his speech: "Before the blood of the victims dried, before anything else, and before even the displaced headed back to their villages, the May 17th group members started to talk about disarming the resistance movement," he said "This means that one of their future tasks after the war failed is saving the current Israeli government and Israel's domestic front." He predicted that they will fail in this effort and that "their fall is looming".

The severity of Mr Assad's tone towards a political alliance encompassing a large part of Lebanon's Sunni, Christian and Druze communities suggests that the risk of civil war erupting once more in Lebanon can by no means be discounted, although Hizbullah at present appears to be resolved to prevent such an outcome. Mr Assad's position is also likely to be of deep concern to countries contemplating the dispatch of troops to take part in the UN force that is supposed to oversee the South Lebanon ceasefire and ensure the disarmament of Hizbullah. Syria played an important part in forcing the pull-out of the ill-fated multinational force deployed in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, in co-ordination with Hizbullah and Iran, and it seems likely that it will seek to repeat this performance with respect to the proposed new force.

"The French functionary"

If, as has been suggested, France accounts for the bulk of the UN force in Lebanon, it will add spice to the personal animus between Mr Assad and the French president Jacques Chirac. The Syrian leader made a passing reference to Mr Chirac in his August 15th speech, referring to him as "that French functionary bursting constantly with enthusiasm towards Syria" and asking whether he will call for a commission of inquiry in the killing of civilians by Israeli in its bombardment of Qana on July 30th and other such incidents as he did after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. Mr Assad has consistently maintained that the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister was the responsibility of those involved in weaving the conspiracy against Syria and the Lebanese resistance. However, the UN commission of inquiry set up to investigate the matter has focused on the role of Syrian intelligence services.

The first effective reaction to the speech came from the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who abruptly cancelled a visit he was planning to make to Damascus the same day. One week earlier, the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, had told a press conference in Damascus after holding talks with Mr Assad that the Syrian government wanted to be "part of the solution" to the Lebanese conflict. The Syrian government proceeded to deny that any such remarks had been made, and the Lebanese reporter for Agence France Presse who quoted the Spanish minister was summarily deported.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, the denizens of the March 14th movement heaped scorn on Mr Assad. Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister, accused him of seeking to exploit the blood of Lebanese civilians for his own gain, while Marwan Hamadeh,victim of a failed assassination attempt in Octobe 2004, accused the Syrian leader of incitement to murder. The Druze leader, Walid Junblatt said that Syria was using Lebanon as a substitute battleground for pressing its own quest for the return of the Golan Heights. He also suggested that Syria had an interest in stoking the conflict in Lebanon as a means to undermine the UN investigation into the Hariri assassination, while Iran had been using Hizbullah to bolster its position in the nuclear dispute with the West. Hussein Hajj Hassan, an MP close to Hizbullah responded by rejecting any suggestion that the March 14th bloc could be acting in Israel's interest.

Thus far, Lebanese national unity has held fast in the face of Syria's apparent efforts to stir divisions. However, this will be subject to sterner tests in the coming period as the Lebanese army establishes itself in the south and as international forces seek to verify that, at the very least, Hizbullah is not being resupplied with weapons from Syria and Iran.

Source: ViewsWire Middle East

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