What is Syria Doing? Baath, US, and More
The Syrian regime is trying to show its strength in the only way it knows how: by firing off scud missiles, strategic arrests among the Kurdish, human rights, and opposition communities, by refusing to give America what it wants on the Iraq border, by playing host (May 22) to Farouk Kaddoumi (PLO leader) and the leaders of the militant Palestinian factions in order to derail Abu Mazen and get the Palestinians to keep shooting.
Syrian leaders are angry. For four months the government has cowered under the raised stick of UN resolution 1559. It let the opposition in Syria speak freely and criticize with abandon. It promised the country reforms at the Baath Party Congress, it withdrew its military from Lebanon. All of this to please America - at least that is how many government officials see it.
What happened? What did the government get for playing the game? Nothing. Zero. Not one word of thanks. Not one gesture of gratitude. Secretary Rice stated Syria had not withdrawn from Lebanon even as the UN gave the country a clean bill of health.
Of course, Washington's view is that Syria is bad and deserves thanks for nothing it does. How can one thank evil for being less evil? Washington big wheels have stated that they believe President Asad is weak and not in control of his country and that the regime will collapse within the year. President Chirac has repeated the same analysis. They have him on the run, they believe, and must press the offense. "Pressure works" is their mantra - so let's lay it on and squeeze until Syria is dry or pops.
This is just the kind of logic President Bashar and his men are determined to stop. They believe they must turn it around and show that "pressure doesn't work", that Syria is not a "charitable institution" that gives and will keep on giving, but rather that Syria is a "normal country" that must be dealt with like any other - through engagement and give and take - in short, by deal making. Hence Sharaa has renewed calls this past week for Israel to open peace negotiations on the Golan, for the EU to jump start the Madrid process, and for the US to deal over the Iraq border, for discussions about lifting US economic sanctions and the return of Syria's ambassador. This is what Syria is asking of the West in return for having withdrawn from Lebanon and for future cooperation on Iraq - all to no avail.
As many Syrians point out, however, "how can Syria expect to be treated as a 'normal country' if it acts like a thug." What is this "strong man" posturing? Washington is counting Syrian mistakes. Scud missiles test-fired, Khasnawi dead, Kassir dead, the Attasi 8 harassed, and the border with Iraq a sieve. "This is the old Syria, not the new Syria that Bashar promised us," they complain. People are pulling their hair out with frustration. They feel trapped between a bad government and a Washington they don't trust.
Now that 1559 is finished, the US no longer has a big stick to wield over Syria. Bashar is exploiting the temporary confusion and weakness of Western policy to reposition himself and the country. He will show the West that the Syrian government is not on the verge of a nervous breakdown, nor is it weak - at least not internally. "If the West wants satisfaction from Syria," logic dictates, "it must deal, not dictate," that is the message from Damascus.
After all, what can Washington do? Bomb Syria? Strategic strikes? That won't do any good. It didn't work in Iraq after 1991. Provoke the Kurds to revolt? Khasnawi got killed for suggesting the Kurds could act as the West's cat's paw. Use Lebanon as a big "Free Syria" radio station to up psychological pressure? Kassir was terminated for doing just that. Just sit tight and wait for Bashar to implode on his own because of growing Syrian unemployment and falling oil exports? Wishful thinking.
Syrians are being asked to choose between a thuggish government that kills the odd opponent while promising slow and tinkering reform, and chaos, Islamism, or civil war. It is an easy choice for most Syrians. They will choose their government, which, in the greater scheme of things and given the available alternatives, isn't so bad. The West doesn't have a plan. It doesn't have an alternative - not one the Syrians find attractive.
Bashar will exploit this weakness. He is doing just that. America is screwed in Iraq, and so long as it continues to be screwed in Iraq, Bashar will tickle the US, blow hot air in Washington's ear, and wait for the clock to run out. He is betting he can outlast Bush.
Lebanon and the Kassir Assassination
Samir Kassir, one of Lebanon's most anti-Syrian reporters who blamed Syria for Hariri's murder, was blown up in his car two days ago.
According to Hassan Fattah of the N.Y.Times,
"The attack on Mr. Kassir was interpreted by many in Lebanon as a warning to other anti-Syrian figures and raised fears of a wider campaign of assassinations."In a moving eulogy, Michael Young explains that the anger at Kassir's assassination should be directed against Syria.
"It's going to elicit the same kind of anger and rage among Lebanese" as the assassination of Mr. Hariri did, said Rami Khouri, editor at large of the Beirut-based Daily Star. "But the anger this time is going to be focused on Émile Lahoud."
In a second and very smart article, Michael explains why Lebanese anger should not be taken out on Lahoud, even if Jumblatt will try to exploit Lebanon's rage to unseat the pro-Syrian president. Michael lays out, in the most persuasive road map of Lebanese political psychology I have yet to read, why the young Hariri must not get drawn into the web of Jumblatt's game.
The Christian-Sunni alliance is the true measure of Lebanon at this delicate turning point in the country's history. If Hariri forsakes that alliance to honey in the mercurial embrace of the Druze warlord and to take misdirected revenge for his murdered father, Michael argues, Hariri will be lost. Lebanon will be lost. Hariri as Hamlet.
Baath Conference and Reform
Here are two good articles on what to expect from the Baath Party Congress, one by Ziad Haydar, As-Safir's excellent reporter in Damascus, and another by Rober Rabil of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who gives good background on the Baath Party.
Expect very leisurely change from the Baath congress
Ziad Haydar Saturday, June 04, 2005
Here is a bit:
Three scenarios have been discussed in Syria of late, ranging from the optimistic to the pessimistic, from rumors to more substantiated information.
The first scenario spoke of a "white coup," an idea promoted by foreign newspapers. This scenario provided that Assad, in the few days preceding the congress, would change officials controlling economic and political affairs. It contemplated that he would initiate a campaign against corruption and plan substantial changes in the security apparatus, removing well-known figures and paving the way for a smooth Assad leadership.
The second scenario sees the Baath congress as a basis for discussion about the future of Syria. In that way, it may decide on economic openness, the introduction of a market economy, and discuss a new law that allows other parties to participate in the leadership. Proponents of this view suggest Assad will introduce organizational changes in the party structure that will lead toward greater flexibility and a more independent relation vis-ˆ-vis political authority.
As for the third scenario, it is a pessimistic one. It is subscribed to by the Syrian opposition, who see in the congress an occasion for cosmetic changes in order to enhance the Baath's grip on power, rather than weaken it. Opposition figures believe that the congress will not abolish the past nor build for the future.
Among the three scenarios, the second is considered the more realistic...
Baath Party Congress in Damascus: How Much Change in Syria?
June 2, 2005
Here is the ending of the short report:
It is safe to expect that Asad may further separate the Baath Party from the state, while continuing to rejuvenate Baathism, by replacing the old guard with less ideological, more pragmatic party members with an interest in reform. Correspondingly, the Regional Command may be purged of senior political figures, who will be replaced by younger Asad loyalists. This will complement Asad's attempts to open up the public sector by pursuing a kind of soft privatization and introducing gradual economic reforms to integrate Syria into the global economy.Zarqawi
Other issues that may be taken up at the congress include:
•Ending martial law, which has been in effect since 1963;
•Granting a general amnesty for political prisoners and allowing political exiles to return -- the regime has already allowed some political exiles, such as former president Amin al-Hafiz, to return;
•Suspending Law 49, which makes membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood punishable by death; and
•Granting citizenship to approximately 100,000 Kurds who are permanent residents of Syria.
It appears that Asad sees the upcoming Baath Party Congress as an opportunity to unite a broad spectrum of Syrians to fend off American pressure. Asad also hopes to prevent the creation of a U.S.-supported opposition like Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi Nationals Congress. In this respect, Asad is trying to create a pluralistic nationalist political front that can satisfy some demands for political and economic reform without endangering his rule. Moreover, recent arrests (including the head of the Arab Human Rights Organization), and the alleged murder by government of Muhammad al-Khaznawi, a Kurd and a prominent Muslim religious leader who had spoken for Kurdish political rights, the regime has marked a red line for the reformers that they should not cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood or with Western institutions and governments, especially the United States.
Paradoxically, though Washington's relations with Damascus remain tense, U.S. pressure on Syria seems to be paying off by forcing Damascus to undertake overdue reforms.
Fadi Zown sent me the following: "I borrowed this from Laura's (Rosen) "War & Piece" ... Cheers, Fadi" (Laura Rozen covers foreign policy and national security from Washington, D.C. as a journalist for the American Prospect and for her weblog, War and Piece.)
The latest subject of Bush administration inter-agency squabbling over intelligence manipulation and politicization? Syria, and the mystified reactions from professional US intelligence sources over the apparently dubious claim by an anonymous US military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi had planned recent Iraq attacks while being sheltered in Syria. Knight Ridder's Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay report:
"..U.S. intelligence has no evidence that terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi visited Syria in recent months to plan bombings in Iraq, and experts don't believe the widely publicized meeting ever happened, according to U.S. officials.To get the best view into just how bad screwed up US intelligence on Syria has been, read Laura Rosen's excellent piece:
Two weeks ago, a top U.S. military official in Baghdad, Iraq, told reporters that Zarqawi had traveled to Syria in April and met with leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to plan the recent wave of bombings against American troops and the Iraqi government. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In the following days, top Bush administration and Iraqi officials increased their threats against Syria.
The reassessment comes amid a debate within the U.S. intelligence community over how to fight the insurgency and over Syria's role in it, the officials said.
Some analysts argue that, while Damascus has been unhelpful in stopping terrorists crossing its border, its importance is being exaggerated and that the key to defeating the insurgency is in Iraq, not in Syria or Iran.
Three officials who said that the reports of Zarqawi's travels were apparently bogus spoke on condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified and because discussing the mistaken report could embarrass the White House and trigger retaliation against them.
The allegation by the U.S. military official in Baghdad that Zarqawi and his lieutenants met in Syria suggests that, despite the controversy over the Bush administration's use of flimsy and bogus intelligence to make its case for war in Iraq, some officials are still quick to embrace dubious intelligence when it supports the administration's case _ this time against Damascus.
One of the U.S. officials said the initial report was based on a single human source, who's since changed his story significantly. Another official said the source and his information were quickly dismissed as unreliable by intelligence officials but caught the attention of some political appointees.
These officials and two others said that the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were mystified by the reports of Zarqawi's visit because they had no such information..."
The Bolton Endgame
Laura Rozen, May 11, 2005
On the eve of the Bolton vote, a dizzying stream of new information continued to wash in, filling in the portrait of Bolton and his loyalists as a kind of rogue political force engaged in all-but-open warfare against their bureaucratic enemies in the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community, and openly working to undermine the president's policies of supporting multilateral negotiations on North Korea and Iran's nuclear programs.