Sunday, March 13, 2005

1559 is Finished - The Game is Up

"It's all over." That is how one reporter described the situation in Lebanon after touching base with Western Embassies in Damascus. "There is no more threat of sanctions. No use of force," he was told. Now that the Syrians have agreed to withdraw their troops, UN Resolution 1559 is dead."

The resolution demanding the disarming of Lebanese parties cannot be carried out. France and Russia have opposed it. Hizbullah demonstrated that it is much too strong.

In the American embassy in Damascus, the view is that the game is finished. Now everyone is trying to understand who won.

Did the US win because Syria pulled out its troops? Or, did it lose because it got too greedy with 1559 and insisted on stuffing in the articles on Hizbullah and local "terrorist groups," which no one else will now support.

Perhaps Syria won? Yes, it pulled out its troops, but they weren't really necessary to preserve its influence in Lebanon. Syria proved that it has plenty of local supporters in Lebanon. It is not out of the game by a long shot. All the chest pounding by Rice and US diplomats may be premature.

In many ways the struggle over Lebanon has been a classic battle between Syria and the US over who gets to own Lebanon. For 30 years it has been in Syria's sphere of influence and viewed as Syria's front door in the region. Israel and the US tried to take it back in 1982 but failed. Now they have tried to take it back again.

Bashar has been right about a few things, he would surely say. He claimed all along that Syria is not the source of Lebanon's problems. Rather, he explained that everyone blames Syria for Lebanon's problems, but in reality, he claims, "It is the Lebanese who keep demanding that we settle their disputes and who drag us into their local battles."

Perhaps he was telling the truth? We are now seeing that Lebanon is divided and that many more people that the opposition thought support Syria's influence and oppose American influence.

Lebanon has no strong or effective central government. In many ways it is made up of battling tribes, as Bashar insisted. Syria acted as the referee for 30 years. Only if the Lebanese can agree on how to build an effective central state will that job of referee become redundant. Right now Condalesa Rice is talking about a UN and Western mechanism to fill the "power vacuum." But maybe Syria will continue to play referee from a greater distance if its supporters in Lebanon prove stronger than America's. We shall see.

It is in Lebanon's hands now. The national debate has begun in earnest and it is exciting. Hizbullah made its statement in Riad al-Sulh square. "We are here. We are not just in the South." Unlike the Sunnis of Iraq, who didn't vote, the Shiites will vote. They want a place in society and won't repeat the mistake of the Iraqi Sunnis. They have been emboldened by the Iraqi example, where the Shiites have come to power, to get into the political arena and demand their share.

The Lebanese opposition is listening, too. It is very refreshing and will have a monster effect on Syria. If the Lebanese can work out at happy balance, Syrians will take heart. Minority fears keep Syria's dictatorship in place. Once they ease, things will begin to change rapidly.

Syria Reported to Accept Demand to Pull All Forces From Lebanon
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria agreed to carry out a resolution calling for a complete withdrawal from Lebanon, and offered to set a timetable for the pullout.

Lebanon Needs to Act First for Syria to Exit, Envoy Says
Published: March 14, 2005

In their television interviews, Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley repeated administration statements that the United States' priority was to get Syrian troops to pull out of Lebanon, and that they were willing to defer the issue of dismantling or disarming Hezbollah, which the United States lists as a terrorist group.

"First things first," Ms. Rice said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." "When the Syrians go, you will see what the balance of forces really looks like in Lebanon. The Lebanese will be able to deal with their differences."

Ms. Rice said it was not clear what steps the United States might support in the event of a Syrian pullout, but she left open the possibility that an international force could fill the ensuing security vacuum and prevent the kind of sectarian fighting in Lebanon that Syria used to justify its military deployment there.

"I'm quite certain that the Lebanese people may need some help in what is going to be a period of getting ready for elections, and then we will see what is needed after elections," Ms. Rice said on "This Week." "But I can be certain that the international community is ready to provide an international framework, if that is what is needed."

Protests have been frequent since Mr. Hariri's assassination. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people gathered for a pro-Hezbollah rally in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, while in Beirut, a few thousand opposition demonstrators held a vigil in Martyrs' Square, Reuters reported. They held candles that spelled "Truth."
Hassan M. Fattah contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria

U.S. Pressure May Pose Problems for Assad
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: March 14, 2005
Filed at 2:12 a.m. ET

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Even if Syria does in the end fully withdraw from Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar Assad may not be off the hook. Instead, U.S. pressure is expected to shift to issues of reform, cross-border infiltration into Iraq and Syrian links to militant Arab groups.

Squeezing Assad further could present the young Syrian leader with serious domestic problems at a time when some question the extent of control he has over his Arab nation.

``The pressure will continue until Syria achieves every U.S. goal,'' said Ayman Abdel-Nour, a prominent member of Assad's ruling Baath party. ``Syria will be left alone only when it no longer has a regional role, its influence in Iraq is gone, it severs links with Hamas, Jihad, Iran and Hezbollah,'' he said from Damascus. ...

However, there are signs that Washington may be looking for much more from Syria than just pulling out its troops.

``The sequence needs to be: Get Syrian troops out of Lebanon, get free and fair elections, get a democratic government in place,'' U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on Sunday. Aside from its military role in Lebanon, Syria has maintained a strong influence over Lebanese politics.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Syria was ``out of step'' with what she called the growing desire for democracy in the Middle East, suggesting that Assad needed to introduce economic and political reforms at home.

``If the pressure grows and the Americans begin to hint at regime change, some here may be tempted to think they are the substitute the United States is looking for,'' George Jabour, a member of Syria's parliament and an eminent political scientist, said from Damascus.

``But this may not happen for some time yet,'' he said. ...

``Syria will lose its traditional regional role when the withdrawal from Lebanon is complete,'' said Michel Kilo, a prominent Syrian writer and a government critic. ``Now, reforms at home must be a top priority.''

Kilo, like many Syrians, is hopeful the ruling Baath party will announce a comprehensive reform plan when its much-heralded national conference takes place later this year. The gathering was scheduled to take place late last year, but it was postponed, giving rise to intense speculation in Damascus that differences existed within the party leadership.

``The meeting will be decisive if it happens,'' said Kilo. ``Bashar must produce a profound and comprehensive reform plan.''

Signs of impatience with the lack of progress in reform are beginning to show, albeit rarely. On Saturday, Mohammed Ibrahim al-Ali, commander of the Popular Army -- a paramilitary force with a mandate to protect cities in the case of war -- called on state Syrian television for the dismissal of Baath party leaders known to be opposed to reform.

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