Can Syria Survive the Lebanon Debacle?
Can Syria survive the Lebanon Debacle?
Syria still hopes for a deal with the opposition in Lebanon, according to Muhammad Shuqayr, of al-Hayat. Under the title: “The Syrian Loyalists do not see a Solution without Syrian - American Negotiations,” Shuqayr explained that Syria’s loyalists in Lebanon are insisting on a government of national unity as a pretext for delaying the May elections.
The pro-Syrian camp in Lebanon is trying to consolidate its position and staunch the flow of parliamentary deputies out of its ranks. Syria does not believe that its position in Lebanon is untenable; rather, it sees its present control of the parliament as its first line of defense.
If the opposition refuses to enter into serious negotiations with the present pro-Syrian government, then elections will be delayed. The Syrians insist that the local struggle for control of the Lebanese government is but a mirror of the larger tug of war over Lebanon between Syria and the US. “The US is now of the opinion that Syria should just give up the ghost in Lebanon,” claimed one Syrian loyalist. “Washington assumes that Syria will act as a charitable foundation to organize the May elections without demanding anything in return or any price for its good deeds.”
Bashar has told the Americans on a number of occasions that Syria is not a charitable foundation; it expects something in return for its concessions. Damascus continues to insist on a dialogue with Washington as surely as its loyalists in Lebanon insist on a dialogue with the opposition. This is the meaning of the Nassrallah-Sfeir talks and the Jumblatt-Karami talks.
What the Syrians want is the formation of a national unity government that will ultimately agree on the selection of a president to replace Lahoud. If they don’t get it, they will delay the elections and deepen the present crises. At the very least, Damascus and its Lebanese loyalists calculate, they can paralyze government and freeze the political process, which will lead in turn to further chaos and costs. Who will the Lebanese people blame for this? Damascus believes it has the stronger hand and can paint the opposition as unreasonable, unwilling to compromise, and, ultimately, as too dependent on Washington and Paris if it continues to refuse a deal.
Damascus is counting on this pressure and its control over the interim government and election process to convince Washington to come to terms. If the government crisis persists, Lebanon’s economy may collapse. Only a week ago the head of the Central Bank said he would not be surprised to see the collapse of the pound as foreign currency reserves ran out.
Is Damascus’ hope for a deal with Washington realistic given the enmity between Bush and Bashar?
Not likely, although, much will depend on the position of France. President Chirac is really in charge of the Western position. Without a military solution to the Lebanese problem, Washington is confined to multilateral politics. The only real stick it possesses will come from future UN resolutions and the willingness of the European powers to place economic pressure on Syria. That is one reason why the Fitzgerald report recently delivered by the UN was so important to Washington. By including a section on the history of the crisis and the deterioration of relations between Hariri and Bashar that preceded the Prime Minister’s assassination, the authors of the report sought to establish the motive – one that points to Syria. So far, that is the most damning part of the opposition’s case against Syria.
The other day, I spoke with a member of the Baath Party and prominent analyst here in Damascus who told me that Syria and its supporters in the Lebanese parliament could still win a majority in the May elections.
Other analysts here, who have good contacts in Lebanon, no longer believe it is possible for Syria to maintain its authority in Beirut. They recognize that the Lebanese have undergone a true revolution of thought and that Syria’s position has been damaged beyond repair by the Hariri murder. Not even Hizbullah can save Syria in Lebanon now, they suggest. The Sunnis have really gone over to the Christian and Druze side. Damascus can still hope to pick off a handful of Christian and Sunni deputies, but not enough to assure success in the elections and preserve its command of parliament.
But if they cannot win the elections, they can delay them. Several well placed Syrian friends have explained that officials in Syria are convinced that Washington is out to get them one way or the other. “Ultimately, the US will go after the president,” they insist. Thus Syria has nothing to gain by a rapid withdrawal from Lebanon or by relinquishing what influence remains to it without a struggle. Better to delay and throw up as many obstacles in front of the enemy while Syria still has influence with the Lebanese Prime Minister and President, they argue, than to concede too much ground too rapidly. If Washington is going in for the kill, Syria must be serious about defense. It has nothing to lose.
Is this a reasonable assumption on Damascus’s part? Is George Bush intent on bringing down the house of Asad?
I think it is. Bashar has become the anti-Bush in the Middle East, despite his early intentions to be a reformer. He champions stability; Bush champions revolution. He champions authoritarianism, Bush democracy and elections. Bashar argues Levantine society is too tribal and religiously divided for radical experiments and large doses of freedom; Washington says anything is better than the status quo and the evil of Baathism. “Stuff happens,” but the end result will be a new Middle Eastern consensus, one that will end terrorism. The Greater Middle East is prepared for democracy and will prove liberal, Bush insists. Bashar insists that Bush’s polities will lead to the death of many Arabs, increased terrorism, increased instability, and the loss of more Arab land in Palestine. Bush increasingly sees Bashar as the problem, standing in the way of the fourth wave of democratization. Bashar says Bush is the problem.
There will be no compromise deals or true dialogue between Syria and the US so long as the neo-conservatives hold sway in the White House and Bashar refuses to insist on radical internal reform. Bashar’s miscalculations in Lebanon have done great harm to his position in the Arab world and perhaps, more importantly, at home.
Syria’s Baath leadership is correct to assume that sooner or later president Bush will embrace the notion of regime-change in Damascus. It is not Washington’s official position to date, but all signs suggest preparations are being made to adopt it down the road. New bills put to the house spearhead this change of policy by insisting on the “democratization” of Syria. They will work their way up the policy chain without significant opposition. Who in Washington will now defend Bashar?
Reformers here believe that Syria’s only winning strategy is to get out of Lebanon as quickly as possible, thereby reversing the increasing momentum of anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon and the international community.
Most importantly, they argue, Bashar must jump start internal reform by calling the Baath Party Congress as soon as possible and insisting on real changes to each element of the party slogan – “Unity, Socialism, Freedom.” He can still exploit the crisis to his end, they suggest, if he openly appeals to the nation in this moment of challenge with a clear vision of reform and forward movement. The people will rally around him and a reform vision, many believe, because Syrians are extremely worried about their country’s present isolation. They feel unjustly attacked by the West. They blame the West and not Bashar for Syria’s present predicament. They are ready to sacrifice if they believe the president has a plan to see them through this onslaught.
Only by changing course can the present regime save itself, reformers argue. If Bashar continues to present himself as the anti-Bush, he will be isolated and eventually squashed. Four years is a long time, they insist, and Bashar will not be able to retrench and delay until the end of the second Bush term. Anyway, they ask, “will the next US president really be different?”
What are the chances of Bashar changing course and throwing his weight behind reform?
They don’t look good. Pessimists argue that Bashar has taken no strong initiatives in the past to suggest he might do so in the future. They point out that he has a track record of making blunders and misjudgments and will continue to do so in the future. He is a product of his education, etc. Dictators don’t learn.
I don’t believe this – at least, not the part about dictators being incapable of change. Dictators can learn and strike out in new directions. We have seen it many times. Saddat, Gorbachev, and Pinochet did it. Admittedly such dramatic reversals are not easy. The minority status of the Alawites makes it even more difficult for Bashar to liberalize. Syria is not Chile, where the erstwhile dictator and generals can retire to secure senate seats. Syria more closely resembles Egypt, where the dictator ended up dead. Even if Syria’s leaders didn’t end up dead, the fear of revenge is real. One only needs look at the present predicament of the Baathists in Iraq. Of course, Syria’s Baath government is very different than Iraq’s was. Some say there will not be revenge.
Most discouraging, perhaps, is to witness how the old guard is being brought back into Bashar’s circle, now that he is embattled. Vice President Khaddam went with Bashar to the Arab League. Mustafa Tlass, the recently replaced defense minister, was nominated recently to head a committee to investigate General Ali, head of the People’s Army, who recently called for the dismissal of the national leadership of the Baath Party.
When President al-Asad moved to extend the presidency of Emile Lahoud five months ago, he effectively shoved aside the old guard (see earlier post), who counseled against the move. It was a way for Bashar to consolidate his authority around his family members and his new group of foreign policy advisors. As I argued at the time, this was a mistake.
The president is now resurrecting the old guard. On the one hand, this may signal the beginning of a new consensus and an important reevaluation of his policies over the last months; on the other hand, it may just be a sign of his present weakness and need to bring all the pillars of the regime – past and present – back into the tent.
It is too early to tell how Bashar will respond to Syria’s failure in Lebanon. The reformers here are still counting on him to move decisively on domestic issues. They believe it is Syria’s best option for long term stability. The pessimists keep repeating, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Many believe that the chance of Bashar pushing for reform in the present atmosphere are very small indeed. Others say he never wanted reform in the first place. They believe that the chances of his surviving more than five years are slight.