Sunday, August 01, 2004

Response to Michael Young: Will Syria ever leave Lebanon?

Michael Young very kindly published my opinion piece, "Creating a Syrian Dream," He then did me the honor of writing a thoughtful e-mail critiquing it, which I posted two days ago. I here respond to him in what I hope will be seen to be in a spirit of happy jousting friendship. Any reader who is just stumbling on this exchange will do well to read first THIS and then THIS as background.

First, let me summarize Michael’s main points.

1. Asad is not serious about Lebanese sovereignty.
2. Syria will never leave Lebanon unless it is compelled to.
3. Bashar is a weak ruler, who can’t control those around him. He can’t settle for less than his father.
4. He will become expendable and at some stage be replaced.
5. That Bashar is no longer a Baathist means nothing because Baath ideology is dead. The party is only about patronage and power.
6. Bashar is not Western oriented; rather, he is a “second-class Oriental modernizer.”
7. To be ideologically close to the west, Bashar would have to be working for true democracy, and he is not.
8. Don’t read your desires and sympathies into Bashar’s actions.

Michael’s basic argument, as I understand it, is that nothing has changed in Syria. It doesn’t matter whether Syrians believe in Baathism; the country remains a corrupt and rapacious power. Only force will drive it from Lebanon. Bashar is window dressing. What he says means little because he doesn’t hold real power, and anyway, he is a cynical rhetorician, who would rather have Lebanon than the Golan. Syria remains controlled by dark oriental forces.

I agree with Michael that Syria will not withdraw from Lebanon without a struggle. Where we disagree, is how nasty that struggle will be and whether Bashar is making it less likely to be nasty.

What kind of state is Syria
Syria is an autocratic state that is trying to become a liberal autocratic state. The vast majority of Syrians – powerful and weak – wish to be more like Jordan or Egypt and less like the Syria of old. This means allowing for NGOs to form and civil society to operate, all be it, at a very unthreatening level. It means greater pluralism (minor party activity as in Egypt), freedoms of speech, a modicum of human rights, and hopefully a bit more due process. Most importantly, I believe, Bashar wants administrative reform so he can begin modernizing the country. Even if it is “oriental” modernization; it is modernization, which is better than nothing, even if not as good as democracy.

Bashar has to do this for regime stability and to control social pressures that will soon become intolerable at present anemic economic growth rates. He needs growth of at least 6% to begin employing the gobs of young people who are being dumped into the system. It is good for Lebanon that Syria is trying to become less autocratic.

The economic argument: (MacDonald’s for the Middle East or Crony capitalism will be better than crony socialism.

Unlike his father, who was content to keep his country in lonely and backward isolation and to cling to the dwindling number of “samud wa tuhaddi” states, Bashar has shown considerable flexibility and eagerness to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world and the larger capitalist world. Why? Not simply because he was educated in the West or because he grew up in an era in which old-school Arabism was not cool, but more importantly because he must feed his people. Only by increasing trade and foreign investment in Syria can he get the country out of its present stagnation trap. (Whether he can succeed is another question – but he is trying.) At no time in Syria’s history have relations with Turkey, Jordan, and perhaps now, also Iraq, been so congenial and free. 250,000 Iraqis came to Syria this summer, using only their identity cards!

If Bashar is responsible for this opening to the world, he has more power than Michael suggests. If he isn’t responsible for it, then the dark forces controlling Syria, that Michael hints at, are not so dark and backwards as he suggests. Even if Bashar is replaced some day (and we hope he will be before he reaches 70) the pressure for change will continue. Maybe it’s a good thing that Bashar does not have the power of his father and that power is pluralized.

Syria’s need for trade, economic growth, and its desire to open up to the world is good for Lebanon. It creates a dynamic of growth, which requires peace and security, rather than war and brutality. Once Syrians understand that their lives improve because the pie is getting bigger for everyone rather than because their share gets bigger at the expense of their neighbors, Lebanon’s chances of freedom rise. This is the old argument about countries with MacDonalds not going to war. Syrians have yet to get their first MacDonalds, (They still have to go to Beirut) but they are dying for it and much closer to having one than they were 5 years ago. They are joining the capitalist world slowly but surely. That is occidental of them even if they can do it without democracy.

The Golan
It doesn’t shock me that Bashar would say he is willing to compromise over the Golan’s border and then let Buthaina Shaaban deny it. This is standard diplomatic ambiguity. It is no different from Powel saying, “Let’s talk” to Syria and Bolton saying, “Never!” The door is now open if the Israelis are willing to try it. More importantly, When Bashar stated that Syria would give up Lebanon when it gets Golan, he is signaling Israel that he is willing to link the two, although his father refused to. Hafiz tried to insist that Israel had no right to control Syria’s relationship with Lebanon. Negotiations on Golan were about the Golan and that was it. In contrast, Bashar suggests he is willing to talk about the whole nine yards. This is greater flexibility from Bashar than Hafiz showed. The Lebanese should see it as a good sign.

If Israelis still “prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan,” as you quote Rabin saying, that is a problem for Lebanon – but it is Israel’s fault, not Syria’s. Why not ask the Lebanese to pressure Israel to get out of the Golan and come to the bargaining table? Without Lebanon to sweeten the pot, Israel will never consider giving back the Golan, and Syria will have one more excuse to stay.

Words and ideology make a difference
Just yesterday you wrote a fine article about how institutions, like the Lebanese constitution, make a difference. It is not easy for Syria or Lebanese friends of Lahoud to get him a second term as president because the law has weight and historical momentum. The word of the Syrian president is not much different than the law. (Probably more reliable) If Bashar says that Syria has “no territorial ambitions in Lebanon” often enough, people will begin to believe it and expect it to be true. Talking about Lebanese sovereignty is very different than Hafiz’s “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two countries.” The latter is ingeniously ambiguous and very Baathist. It evokes to the notion of one Arab nation. Sovereignty is quite different. It means something in international law and in peoples’ minds. A sovereign state implies that the people of that state are their own nation – at the very least it isn’t a direct denial of Lebanon’s distinct peoplehood as the old “one people” line is.

You pooh-pooh the notion that the demise of Baathism as an ideology and system of belief is important. I think you are wrong. The idea that the Arab people formed one nation with a sacred destiny was powerful, religious, and the single most important source of instability in the region last century. The Greaters – whether Greater Syria, Greater Arabistan, Greater Israel, the Fertile Crescent Plan, or even Greater Lebanon – have been the source of endless bloodshed and unhappiness. For Bashar to even begin to dilute Greater-Arabistan-think should not be underestimated. Such worldviews are like the proverbial aircraft carrier – they take a long time to turn around – but they have a lot of firepower.

Corruption and greed are quite different forces than ideology. They are easier to negotiate. People may cry over losing money, but only ideology and the loss of nationhood and identity can turn one into a suicide bomber.

“I believe that the Baath is God, who has no partners, and Arabism is a religion with no peer.” This line, written by a Baathist poet, was quoted by Thahir Ibrahim in al-Quds al-Arabi the other day. He invoked it to show how far Syrians went in “exaggerating their ideological commitment to the Baath in the 1960s and 1970s.” He explains what an ideological opening Syria has seen recently only to decry the lack of any real political opening. It will be easier for the Lebanese to combat greed than nationalism.

Lebanon is the problem
Finally, there is no doubt that Syrians will not quit Lebanon for the beauty of Lebanese eyes. Only when Lebanon acts like a distinct and unified nation, will it have the power to get rid of Syrian influence and troops. Your criticism turns on Syria’s shortcomings, which admittedly are legion. But Lebanon’s shortcomings are the real reason Syria occupies the country. Every country would like to decide what its neighbor does and to dip into its honey pot. All have tried. Syria is not unusual in this. What makes the relationship between Lebanon and Syria so unequal is not Syria’s evilness or “oriental” cast of mind, but Lebanon’s weakness and internecine bickering. Perhaps, the day that Lebanon agrees to carry out its first census since 1930 and overcomes its sectarian rivalry, will be the day it shows some unified backbone in just saying, "Get out." So long as every top political and military figure in Lebanon strokes Syria nicely everytime they want something, Lebanon will have a Syrian presence.

I would suggest that it is not I who makes “the mistake of reading one’s desires and sympathies” into the region. It is easier to attribute dark forces to one's neighbor than to see them in one’s own country.


At 8/02/2004 01:49:00 AM, Blogger Lee Smith said...

Hi Josh,

I liked your excellent response to Michael's post, and especially wanted to pick up on this quote: "Only when Lebanon acts like a distinct and unified nation," you write, "will it have the power to get rid of Syrian influence and troops."

It's strange because this sounds a little Arab Nationalist/Islamist--once we recognize our unity we will be able to overthrow the oppressor. And to point to only one of the paradoxes of Islamist/Arabist rhetoric, I believe the reason hardcore, or even non-hardcore, ideologues would use to explain their disunity would be the fact that they're under occupation.

I guess I have some sympathy for the position, but it seems to me that the key problem isn't explaining Lebanese disunity as either a result of Syrian occupation or the reason the nation can't end Syrian occupation, but the fact of Syrian troops. I am consistently surprised to see how frequently all of us underestimate the significance of force and violence and its capacity to order the world, especially in the Middle East. I am hard pressed to believe that even a very unified Lebanese nation could manage to force Syria from Lebanon even if it chose to do so. I'm not certain we have a proper understanding of resistance movements, and there have been a number of instances of late that have helped confuse this.

Certainly the most timely is the US' occupation of Iraq. If the US could not put down this resistance it is not because resistance movements as champions of popular will cannot but help overthrow an occupying force; it is because Western armies are constrained by various political concerns that do not constrain Arab regimes. A comparison between, say, Abu Ghraib and Hama, or the Egyptian security forces' invasion of Imbaba, or any number of examples from recent history, is instructive. It will be very interesting to see how much leeway Iraq's new government is given to act like an Arab regime--Egypt, Syria, Saddam's Iraq, Algeria--in crushing its resistance or if because it is under the spotlight as essentially a US protectorate it will have its hands tied somewhat.

I suspect the Hizbollah resistance has also confused matters, not least for the leaders of the al-Aqsa intifada. Regardless of how Hamas, IJ, Fatah etc see Israel's position in Israel the WB and GS, Israel does not see itself as an occupying force the way it was in Lebanon. That is, it is not a matter of political will, but survival. The Palestinian resistance is further hurt by the fact that its military amibitions seem to be irreconcilable with the PA's stated political goals, which are also ostensibly the only basis for negotiations. Worse yet, the EU is apparently becoming aware of this. The result is not that the Palestinians at this point seem to have conflicting goals, but they have no achievable goals at all. This is perhaps the most disastrous resistance movement in modern history and in the coming years it should give us all plenty of occasion to reconsider the prestige we've attributed to resistance movements, from Algeria to Vietnam to the Palestinians themselves. I think we have flattered ourselves in an end of history fashion in overstating the case for resistance movements.

And I think it's worthwhile reconsidering this now with the US elections coming up and neither candidate having a very thoughtful position on Iran. The Iranian people may very well be evolving as a nascent democratic polity, despite their leaders. I don't think that matters one bit. As long as the mullahs want to maintain power and can maintain power they will. If someone's interested in an Iranian Gorbachev reforming somewhat, it'll happen. If not, it won't. Theoretically, the Iranians could keep going like this for eternity--just like the Soviets could have. What's to stop them? Popular unrest? I'm sorry to say, but I think that this mostly comes down to force, not political legitimacy, or evolving forms. I think the same thing is true with Lebanon: It doesn't have the military strength to get Syria to go, hence Syria won't unless some superior power is committed to moving it out.

To conclude by following the same train of thought about the significance of force, you write:

'If Israelis still “prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan,” as you quote Rabin saying, that is a problem for Lebanon – but it is Israel’s fault, not Syria’s. Why not ask the Lebanese to pressure Israel to get out of the Golan and come to the bargaining table? Without Lebanon to sweeten the pot, Israel will never consider giving back the Golan, and Syria will have one more excuse to stay.'

I don't see it as a matter of "fault" here. I see this as everyone working to protect or advance their own interests, and the Golan seems to be a very significant strategic piece of land. How does Lebanon sweeten the pot for Israel? Why would they care at this point especially if they seem to have worked out a modus vivendi with Hizbullah? Maybe it piques the US's interest, and maybe that's why Clinton says both Barak and Netanyahu were both thinking it over (though I believe they both deny it), but I think if I worked in Israeli military intelligence, and I mentioned this previously I believe, I'd be really anxious to figure out why the Golan was so important to Syria that they'd give up an entire country that was a very useful source of income in favor of one that was of military significance. They can't just pour in artillery. So, what are they thinking?

At any rate, thanks for letting me have the opportunity to post and it'd be great to hear what you're thinking.

Yours, Lee

At 8/02/2004 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

Hi Josh,

This is a terrific debate. Although, the ascription of "dark oriental forces" to Michael's argument seems to me an unnecessary Edward Said-style jab!

What struck me about your counter-points is that they are all "ifs and maybes" that might or might not happen, and they all have very relative results! The crux remains in my view that the governing body is being presented as both the problem and the supposed solution. As the old Arabic verse says: Dawini billati kanat hiya ad-da'u, "Treat me with my very disease. "Or as the more colloquial saying has it: Hamiya Haramiya, "The guard is the thief."

As for the "ambiguity" argument and the analogy to Powell and Bolton, I disagree. The difference between Powell and Bolton (your choice) is very real! It's a genuine clash of outlook and approach. It's not a ruse to throw off the outside world! But that leads to another question. Why are we to believe that Bashar's words are to be believed and not Shaaban's? In other words, the Syrians have played this game to perfection. It's called "postponing." The entire regime is built on sterility and status quo. If you can postpone the issue another day, it means you survive another day. You think that Bashar is thinking far beyond that into the future and calculating that people are going to rise against him if he doesn't secure jobs for them or what have you. But like Lee said, you underestimate force. The point is that there are so many variables in this already foggy picture that to believe that we've securely identified a particular shadow risks mistaking a cow for a deer.

As for the issue of ideology, whether it's actually dead or not, it's still being used to great effect especially in Lebanon. Whether it's genuine or whether it's understood in the Marxist sense matters little functionally. In fact, especially in some Christian circles -- eager to belong as always -- the old proverb "more royal than the king" nicely describes the overuse of Arabist ideology, especially facing the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, cause they still stupidly believe that Arabism is a secular identity they can find refuge in. Unfortunately, Arabism and Islamism continue to merge (which was the case anyway) as that piece by al-Tahir Ibrahim indicates.

But let me give a couple of concrete examples. First, on the topic at hand, the Syrian "presence." The fact is that it is framed in this Arabist rhetoric of "brotherhood" and "unity of destiny" (how different is this from Hafiz's dictum that you mention?). This has forced the debate on the issue to be confined within this Arabist framework and terminology. So anyone who's questioning it appears to be questioning such "constants" as Arab brotherhood, and destiny which are both old Baathist cliches. As such, the questioning party would become suspect and a potential "traitor" who's only "serving zionist interests." Secondly, can anyone in Lebanon break away from the grandiose rhetoric of Arabism when presenting an agenda for the future, ESPECIALLY if that person is Christian? The best you can hope for is the incredibly lame pseudo-EU argument of a pan-Arab market. The problem of course is that it's all cloaked in poetic and qawmi discourse. To me that is part of the problem with Syria too. On the outside, you have a technocratic garb of "modernization" but on the inside you still have the same old poetry, even when it's delivered with the "ambiguity" you described. The reason is, as you yourself showed elsewhere, the supposed reformers have their hands tied due to legitimacy issues, leaving aside the issue of corruption. It's total paralysis.

However, ideology remains a very powerful tool and can be used at will. Bashar knows it and uses it accordingly. Let's not forget Buthaina, whom you called a non-Baathist, but whose editorials (that I've commented on my blog) reveal a disgusting worldview, not easily distinguishable from the old Arabist cliches. After all, despite her and Bashar's stint in the west, they're born and raised with these "dark oriental" ideas. Lying about them via taqiyya and kitman (dissimulation) -- your "ambiguity" -- makes it worse, not better!

Therefore, when you say "it will be easier for the Lebanese to combat greed than nationalism" you ignore that the Lebanese were and still are faced with greed clothed in nationalist discourse! Was Nasser's adventure in the fifties and sixties not "greed" or lust for power that was at the same time nationalist? How did that play out in Lebanon? Complete disaster. What did the Sunni elite and/or the "socialist" Kamal Jumblatt do with that very same concept, using/in coordination with the PLO? They both used grandiose nationalist and ideological discourse while seeking more power. Kamal wanted a complete overhaul of the system that prevented him from becoming president (coupled with a historical hatred for the Maronites), while the Sunnis wanted to stick it to the Maronites and gain more of the pie. So the dichotomy you draw between the two concepts is not convincing. They can both coexist to the detriment of pragmatists. Of course you leave out the Shiites here, esp. Hizbullah, where ideology and political goals are very much intertwined.

But this brings us to your last comment about the internal Lebanese scene. You don't consider the fact that the sectarian interests and power struggles are framed within that Arab nationalist and/or Islamic matrix. It is THIS that makes the Lebanese scene problematic because it becomes a scene of absolutes, constants, and dogmatism, where dissent or questioning is considered a threat or treason. In that sense, a return to the traditional Lebanese "disunity," or more accurately, pluralism, is in fact the key, not this Arab/Islamic-style unity that Lee insightfully nailed. As Farid Khazen noted in his book, it was the tension between the absolutism of Arab nationalist demagoguery, and the mercantile culture of compromise and balance of Lebanon that led to the disintegration of the Lebanese system. Of course the sins of the Muslim elite cannot be denied nor can the attitude of the Maronite political elite be excused. To this day, they both still play a role as you point out. But you're leaving out the broader picture of the dominant culture. The Lebanese who tried to look for outside help from the West were stigmatized. The idea was to keep it "in the family" and this legitimized the Syrian intervention. Once again, you see the amalgamation of regional interests with that venomous ideology called Arab nationalism that has brought nothing but ruin to Lebanon.

But the picture is more complex. You have figures like Hariri who is clearly not pleased with constant Syrian intervention. Jumblatt is chameleon but he too went through an anti-Syrian presence phase. Hizbullah and Berri are a whole different problem. Berri needs Syrian patronage to maintain his interests facing the popular Hizbullah. At the same time, Hizbullah uses its indispensability to Syria as a pressure card on Israel to increase its reach in the Lebanese scene. But you have the disgruntled as well, including the Communist party and the majority of the Christians (save for some in their political elite, such as Franjieh or Murr or Obeid, or rely on Syrian backing). But because the dominant culture or ideology, which you too easily dismissed, dictates that any debate on the Syrian question be framed in Arab nationalist cum Islamic cum tribal rhetoric is a HUGE burden to any rational pragmatist solution. The Syrians know this well and they use effectively to maintain the status quo. Nothing you've said in your rebuttal actually gives hope for a change in that strategy. You just threw some blame on the Lebanese!

But all is not lost. In a recent poll that followed up on Shibley Telhami's idiotic op-ed on the "rise" of Islamic identity, the Lebanese were found to be the exception in the region identifying themselves in a vast majority (77%) as "Lebanese citizens". The concept of "citizenship" is effectively alien to the region, so it's refreshing to see that the Lebanese are still somewhat progressive despite their recent retardation. But more importantly, the poll presumably included Muslims. Unfortunately, we don't know the percentage of the Muslims questioned for the poll vis a vis the Christians. Equally, how many of the remaining 23% who didn't identify themselves as Lebanese citizens were Muslims vs. Christians.

You once raised on this blog a very important point that the Lebanese Muslims never developed a Lebanese narrative different from the Maronite one. If this poll included a healthy amount of Muslims it would be a good sign that they too identify as Lebanese citizens first and foremost like their Maronite compatriots. That and other recent developments in Lebanon such as the Beirut Declaration (signed by Muslims as well as Christians) might be another indication of an emerging cross-sectarian consensus. This however is not "unity" and neither should it be. Unity is way too overrated in my book. What this is rather is a reinvention of that old Lebanese fixture, "consensus" as well as "compromise". That's what people who are different, and who know that they are different, trying to live together, do.

So in the end, it's not the Lebanese lack of unity that's the amin problem. It's that forced fake homogenizing ideology that was and continues to be the major problem, even when it concerns the Syrian question, as it forces its warped rules on the discourse. The Syrians, including Bashar and Buthaina, are complicit in this, and they play it to their advantage. That's because I think they know, like Samir Kassir said, that a healthy and independent Lebanon gives power to the reformers in Syria, and therefore, contributes to the fall of the Syrian ruling regime.

These are my (messy and unsystematic) thoughts on the topic. Thanks for the opportunity to voice them.


At 9/26/2004 11:46:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Lebanese do want Syria out. They have demonstrated extensively against the Syrian presence over the past years. There seceterian conflict in Lebanon has subsided. It is very unintellectual to use this as an excuse to justify the illegal Syrian presence in Lebanon. Furthermore, let Syria deal with its own conflict and the Kurds on its land before worrying about Lebanon. The Syrians in Lebanon have created major problems ranging, from kidnapping innocent civilans to murdering innocent civilians. They have also polarized strife between the different sects in the country. We are much better off without Syria! We don't need a dictatorial state implementing its rules on our free country. They have drained the once luxurious democracy we possessed. If you keep up with news, I'm sure you're familiar with Jumblatt's lastest stance and the fact that Lebanese were behind the success of the Syrian accountability act and succeeding resolutions in U.S. congress. If all this doesn't convinve you that we don't Syria on our land, then I don't know what will!


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