Why Lebanon Should not Oppose Israeli-Syrian Peace Negotiations
Debka File has a very interesting article arguing why the US and Israel should rebuff President Asad's peace initiative, refuse to be "fooled" by Syrian perfidy, and maintain their united front of confrontation and steadfastness toward Damascus.
This general argument is made in various forms by groups with an interest in "regime change" in Syria. The article is picked up by "Free Lebanon" and other hard line outfits that either want to bring down Asad or retain the Golan for Israel. They fear that if Washington should begin a dialog with Syria, they will loose their traction in Washington and the Lebanese opposition will loose its privileged position as the single ally of the US in the region. They argue that Syria is losing its hold over Lebanon anyway so why bargain, the Lebanese opposition is unified and strong so it can tackle Syria and Hizbollah without negotiations, Bashar is not serious about peace, the Syrian regime is so anti-Western and pro-terrorism that it is beyond salvation, and finally that by smashing Damascus and bringing about regime change, a positive, pro-Western government will take shape in Syria.
All of these arguments, except the first, are wrong. But first, here is what the article says:
December 4, 2004, 11:57 PM (GMT+02:00)
Syrian ruler Bashar Assad is pitching his offer of peace talks with Israel to disguise his real woes: US and French demands to disarm the Hizballah terrorists and let Lebanon have a fair election and the internal divisions bedeviling his regime. The Bush administration and Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are not fooled. On November 12, Assad made the unusual gesture of taking UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen aside in a quiet corner of his palace in Damascus for a long tête-à-tête. Aides – even an interpreter - were left standing outside the door. When he came out three hours later, the UN official announced with the same sort of enthusiasm he used to show about Yasser Arafat’s peaceful intentions that Assad is ready to start negotiations with Israel at once without prior conditions and even pay a visit to Jerusalem.
Washington sources assured DEBKAfile that his words bore no relation to his conversation with the Syrian president. Larsen’s mission was not to discuss Syrian-Israel relations but rather to deliver a two-point ultimatum from Washington:
1. Damascus’s statement on Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon is not good enough. It meets only one half of UN Security Council resolution 1559. The other half requires Syria and Lebanon to disarm the Hizballah terrorist group by April 2005, just under five months away.
2. Lebanon’s March 21 general election must be fair and above board. All of Assad’s goodwill gestures will count for naught if Syrian military intelligence and the Lebanese security service customize the list of candidates and tinker with the voting process. Larsen stressed to the Syrian ruler the importance Washington attaches to a fair and honest election in Lebanon - so much so that if Assad monkeys with the process, the United States is prepared to seek Security Council sanctions.
Assad was very grateful for the way Larsen highlighted the Israeli issue as a red herring to draw attention away from the real business at hand – firstly because he is not happy about showing the world how far American pressure is getting to him and, second, because he would be even less happy about exposing the power struggles besetting his regime.
One quarrel, according to our sources, is muddling the chain of authority in the intelligence apparatus. Newly-appointed interior minister Ghazi Kenaan, who came to the job from long years as Syria’s all-powerful military intelligence chief in Lebanon, insists that his department is not subordinate to any other intelligence body in the country. That was his condition for taking the job. But by backing him up, the Syrian president has caused his nephew General Assad Shawqat to resign as head of Syrian intelligence and security and take the job of deputy military intelligence commander.
These musical chairs bear on Assad’s attitudes on the Lebanese and Israeli questions. Kenaan belongs to the pro-reform faction in the Syrian leadership which advocates Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and negotiations with Israel to stave off American punishment. By strengthening Kenaan’s hand, the Syrian ruler appears to adopt this position – although he has never confirmed this outright. Shawqat’s boss, head of military intelligence General Hassan Khalil, is due to retire early next year. Shawqat may replace him, although this is not certain. If he does, he will attain equal rank with Kenaan. This may be a setback for the faction seeking to disengage from Lebanon and engage Israel. However, in Assad’s shop, hopefuls are kept dangling in suspense about their next steps on the ladder.
Outside the intelligence community, civilian government is split into two camps over policy. The pro-reform faction, led by propaganda minister Dr. Mahdi Dahlallah and deputy foreign minister Walid Mualem, who as Syrian ambassador to Washington led many formal and secret talks with Israel, want talks with Israel to start from the point they were broken off four years ago. The Syrians claim that late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to Israel evacuating the entire Golan except for a chain of hills commanding the Sea of Galilee. If what has become known in diplomatic parlance as the Rabin deposit is accepted, an accord can be wrapped up in 24 hours.
The second camp, the conservatives, headed by vice president Khalim Haddam and foreign minister Farouq al-Shara disagree. They reject the Rabin deposit and demand a full return to pre-1967 lines, including also the Syrian strip of shore on the eastern bank of the Sea of Galilee, the entire Golan and the Shabaa Farms at the foot of Mt. Dov, to which the Syrians claim sovereignty.
The French have been helping the US press Assad to quit Lebanon and allow a fair election to go forward. DEBKAfile’s Paris sources report that Washington also asked the French to find out if Assad is willing to publicly renounce Syria’s territorial claims to the Shaaba farms, thereby proving his genuine desire for progress on Lebanon and the dispute with Israel.
Damascus has made no reply to this trial balloon from Paris.
As seen from Washington, Assad is consistently evading response to American demands and messages on Lebanon and the Hizballah by turning the subject round and offering to start talks with Israel – a call that makes him look good in the world media while avoiding the issues.
To get around this blank wall, the Americans enlisted the help of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who summoned the Syrian ruler to a meeting at the Sinai resort of Sharm al-Sheikh last Tuesday, November 30. Our Middle East sources report that Assad was very unwilling to go, but Mubarak, prodded from Washington and Paris, insisted.
They spent two hours in blunt conversation. The Egyptian ruler warned his guest in no uncertain terms that continuing to ignore Washington and its demands would end badly. But an Egyptian spokesman in Mubarak’s party, alert to the importance of disguising the content and tenor of the summit, picked up the Damascus stratagem and announced Mubarak had offered to broker resumed Syrian-Israeli negotiations. The Syrian ruler was furious at having his tactic hijacked without his permission and forced Cairo to publicly retract this statement.
Realizing what is going on, Israeli prime minister Sharon on Thursday December 2, denied knowledge of Assad’s offer to visit Jerusalem or enter into negotiations. Whenever he is questioned on the subject, the Israeli leader says words are cheap; he wants to see action. Israel applied this rule of thumb to the Syrian government newspaper Tishrin’s article on Saturday, December 4, which urged the world to force Israel to accept negotiations with Syria rather than tolerating the Jewish state’s obstructions.
For the moment, “the world”, especially Washington and Paris, is pushing Assad for answers and not getting them.
The only bit of new information in this article is part about Interior minister Ghazi Kenaan, who came to the job from long years as Syria’s all-powerful military intelligence chief in Lebanon and has pushed aside other security chieftains to become the President's right hand man. This was done in the face of hard-line resistance from VP Khaddam and his click. (See my article on Khaddam and his backers) The Debkafile article confesses that "Kenaan belongs to the pro-reform faction in the Syrian leadership which advocates Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon and negotiations with Israel." This should be good news to those who wish to see real Lebanese independence. It suggests that Bashar is serious about negotiations and has taken steps to rearrange the Alawite generals and regime strongmen in order to bring forward those that want reform and a way out of Lebanon. The authors of this article, however, brush it aside, claiming Kanaan and Bashar only want "to stave off American punishment." They argue it is all a trick that should fool no one. This is also Sharon's announced policy.
What is their proof that it is a trick?
* UN Middle East Envoy Terje Roed-Larsen - the man who delivered Asad's peace message to Sharon also believed in Yasser Arafat’s peaceful intentions. But Larsen is only one of many messengers to claim that Bashar is serious. Geoffrey Kemp, no Syrian stooge or Arafat lover, was categorical in saying that Bashar is serious. Both the President of Israel and Chief of Staff, Gen Yaalon argued that Israel should at least call Asad's bluff and try a dialog even if Israel should later find out Asad is not serious.
* They argue that Asad is interested in relieving US pressure on his country and in opening up a dialog with Washington. What can possibly be wrong with that? Of course he wants to relieve pressure on his country. That is exactly why Washington placed sanctions on Damascus in the first place, so Asad would respond. Now he is responding. That is what frightens those who will only be satisfied with regime change in Damascus.
* Regime change in Damascus is not in Washington's interest. Neither is it in Lebanon's long-term interest. The only elements in Syria's political world that are likely to benefit from Bashar's fall are the Islamists. Most pro-American types in Syria have little public support, and many of them are already working in the government. Bashar has given important government posts to most of the pro-Western reformers he can find. Moreover, Bashar is about the most pro-Western Syrian Washington is likely to find. Yes, he is weak and cannot transform Syria overnight. But Washington should not lament the fact that Bashar is not the authoritarian dictator his father was. He has allowed for a certain pluralization of power in Damascus. This means he must play politics in Syria just like every other national leader. He cannot wave a wand and solve all Syria's problems. He must move like-minded generals, like Kanaan, and politicians like Dakhlallah, into positions of authority to help him. It is good that Syria is less dictatorial than it used to be. This is what pro-Westerners wanted. That Syria doesn't just jump to the President's tune, is the price of liberalization and decentralization of authority.
The attack on Bashar is short-sighted. Those Lebanese who seek to scuttle comprehensive regional negotiations between Syria, Israel and Lebanon and block the chance for a solution to the long-term border problems that have bedeviled the region since World War One are doing no one any favors.
Bashar's willingness to engage Israel and the US in negotiations is a good thing. It offers all states a chance to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute once and for all. It is that dispute which has been at the root of so much misunderstanding and most of the regional wars over the last century. Once it is resolved, other questions about ideology (Arab nationalism), religious bigotry, confessional power-sharing and liberalization will be so much easier to deal with honestly. Today, they all become embroiled in the greater territorial struggle between Israel and the Arabs and seem intractable. They are not. Extremists on all sides will find their arguments defused.
The Lebanese opposition will not win the battle with Damascus over independence if they rely on raw power and US backing alone to push out the Syrians. This was demonstrated in spades in 1982. The only way for the Lebanese opposition to really gain power, unify Lebanon around the call for independence, and resolve the lingering sectarian problems of the civil war, is if it cuts Syria into the deal and as Bashar insists it does. If Syria gets back the Golan, Bashar will no longer have a pretext for staying in Lebanon, just as pro-Syrian Lebanese will no longer have a reason to resist the charms of their Christian and Druze compatriots.