Syria's Dead End
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Syria's Dead End
The squeeze has been placed on Syria, and cracks are beginning to form in the ordinarily stolid constitution of a people accustomed to disappointment and hardship. Everyone wants to criticize the government as their anxiety overflows the lip of well practiced patience. With a minimum of prodding, one gets a flood of complaint. The leadership has led the country into a blind alley. It will be the people who pay the exit price.
Everything turns on European sanctions. Unlike the US, Europe is Syria’s major trading partner. Sixty per cent of Syrian trade is with European states. France has already called for sanctions. Will Germany and Britain follow suit? If Germany and Britain agree to join an economic embargo of Syria, the entire EU will be pulled behind them, whether they like it or not. Spain and Greece, the states which have traditionally been most outspoken in Syria’s defense, will be mute. Surely the European powers will look for ways to stop the sanctions train before it leaves the station.
The problem for the European states is that once they attach their wagons to America’s economic sanctions engine, they are hostages to George Bush’s Syria policy. Once imposed, sanctions are likely to continue for decades. In all likelihood, they will not end until there is regime change in Damascus. Even if the European powers enter into a sanctions regime with the US for the sole purpose of forcing Syria from Lebanon, they will not be able to escape sanctions until the entire list of American demands are met. America’s list of demands is endless. It wants Syria to end support for the Palestinian resistance and Hizballah. It demands Syria pull out of Lebanon; it wants Syria to give up its WMD; and it wants Syria to arrest a long list of Iraqis accused of financing and organizing the resistance in Iraq. Syria will never meet all these demands. Not so long as is a Baathist state.
Should Europe try to end sanctions on Syria before all of America’s demands are met, Washington will accuse them of recognizing Syria’s right to WMD or its right to support Palestinian fighters. Sanctions on Cuba have lasted 40 years, those on Iran have been in place since the revolution, sanctions on Iraq lasted until the overthrow of Saddam, and US sanctions on Syria as a terrorist state have been in place since the late 1970s. Sanctions are a very blunt weapon that once begun can rarely be ended. Moreover, they hurt the defenseless masses more than the well provisioned leadership. At least initially, they stoke the passions of nationalism and popular will to resist, rather than the opposite. The logical end to sanctions will be regime change. This Europe wants to resist. The Europeans were opposed to President Bush’s plan to reform the greater Middle East when it was declared and most still do.
The European diplomats in Damascus disagreed with Bush’s policy of driving Syria to the wall. Many privately blame the US for creating the political tension that has led to Hariri’s assassination. They wanted Washington to cut a deal with Bashar al-Asad months ago, to trade the Golan for a Lebanese withdrawal. They never bought into the notion of “Democracy in the Middle East.” Perhaps “old Europe” appreciates the difficulties of democratic transformation in “old societies” better than young America? Or, perhaps, as Washington claims, Europe is merely stubborn and contrary, having failed to appreciate the new temper of the times? Washington refused to negotiate with Syria for ideological reasons. “It would not negotiate with dictators and terrorist states.” Europe, at least initially, hoped to make something out of Bashar.
The Hariri assassination has placed the Europeans in a very awkward position. If they don’t agree to economic sanctions, the US will accuse them of sanctioning murder. Bashar’s blunders have cut the legs from underneath Europe. A few days ago, when the Canadian PM claimed that the Lebanese situation was a delicate one and that Syrian troops played an important role in maintaining security, he set off an uproar. Opposition members and supporters alike forced him to retract his statement. When Solana – the EU foreign minister – initially said that Europe’s relationship with Syria would not change until the author of Hariri’s murder had been found, his words were drowned out by Tsunami of American and French accusations. Europe will have to give way to America on the Syria-Lebanon question. Chirac has stated that Lebanon is France’s Iraq. All Europe will soon be confusing Beirut with Baghdad.
The Syrians, inept at making European calculations, are busy adding up local support. Will Iran stand firmly by them or inch toward recommending withdrawal? Will Hizballah remain faithful or will it cut a deal with the Lebanese opposition? How will the Lebanese Sunnis stand now that their leader has been cut down? Will they unequivocally blame it on the Syrians? Or will their sense of Arab nationalism and sensitivity to being called pro-Israeli prevent them from breaking with Damascus and joining whole-heartedly with the “Lebanese,” anti-Syrian camp? Who can speak for the Sunnis now that their za’im is gone? Will they fragment as they did during the dark years of the civil war, remaining without a single voice or strongman to unite them? Who someone emerge to fill Hariri’s shoes, or will they produce a sea of leaders, ripe for Damascene fishing expeditions? Can the opposition hold and gain strength as it claims it will? Or will the Lebanese grow weary of revolution? Most of all, eyes are on the Shiites and Hizballah to help lead Syria out of its morass.
Yesterday, my barber and two taxi drivers insisted that Syria would not withdraw from Lebanon. “Syria is strong,” they stated. Whether such bluster and demonstrations of national resolve are designed to impress “the American” or constitute real expressions of steadfastness, who can say. All the same, there are some here ready to hunker down, like in the bad old days, and wait out the storm. That is not the majority opinion among the upper-classes though. Most Syrians are beginning to curse their masters.
Acrimonious debate is dividing Syria’s leaders over how to proceed. The old Sunni patricians of the regime – the Khaddams and Tlases, who have been edged aside by the young bucks of the palace – are angry about the avalanche of misdeeds. The death of Hariri has hit them hard. They want the “Lebanon portfolio” back in their hands, where it had been secure and well tended.
Is the President being held hostage by cousins, in-laws, and siblings? Many are coming to believe this conjecture. Do they have a vision? Or has miscalculation fed by darker interests propelled them into a dead end?
Where did things begin to go wrong? What would Hafiz al-Asad have done” is one of the often asked questions here? One closely placed source answered this question without hesitation: “The father would have joined Bush’s “coalition of the willing,” just as he joined Bush the father in 1991. In exchange he would have secured a free hand in Lebanon.” The president stood against America in Iraq. For that he will have to pay with Lebanon – perhaps more.
The initial line that seems to be emerging from the palace is that Syria will not be chased from Lebanon with its tail between its legs. It would seem Syria is still holding out for a deal. Bush and Chirac are in no deal making mood.
Much will depend on Britain and Germany. Much will also depend on the Lebanese people. Even more will depend on Syria’s president to find an exit from the present cul de sac.