European Competition for Influence in Syria
My last post elicited several good criticisms and clarifications.
From what I understand, again, Chirac holds many of the cards concerning Lebanon and Syria.I agree with you that France won't give up on Syria. The competition for influence in Syria between the European states is heating up and will undermine US efforts to isolate Damascus. Although the French were cut out of their oil deal months before the Lahoud affaire, which contributed to Chirac's decision to "punish" Syria and stand with Bush, Syria seems to be trying to repair the damage with the Airbus deal.
I read three items of interest:
1) France is providing financing to Syria for the purchase of 6 to 8 Airbus passenger planes.
2) France and the EU did not follow Washington's lead in freezing Syrian bank accounts.
3) France and the EU do not observe Washington's boycott imposed through the Syria Accountability Act.
I appreciate that Josh has spoken with British experts, but it would be good to know what is happening in Paris. I cannot foresee a scenario in which France would give up on Syria.
The differences between France and the US on Syria and Middle East policy were no where to be seen in Sec. of State Rice's most recent news conference about Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy's visit to the United States and State Dept. Notice that Iraq was not mentioned. Here is the quote:
Secretary Condoleezza RiceA British firm has also signed a 7 million pound contract, which has the promise of becoming much larger, to sort out Syria's municipal organization in anticipation of the 2007 municipal elections which Bashar is promising will be free. Such deals will help draw Britain into the reform process.
Benjamin Franklin Room
July 5, 2005
SECRETARY RICE: Good afternoon. I'm very pleased to welcome Foreign Minister
Douste-Blazy to the United States and to the State Department... We had an opportunity today to review a number of the issues on that agenda. Of course, we talked about Lebanon and the need for there to be continued progress toward the complete fulfillment of Resolution 1559.
FOREIGN MINISTER DOUSTE-BLAZY: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much, Condi, for your words of welcome. I must say that I'm very pleased to have come to the United States. I have the impression that I now know you very well because, indeed, we have worked together in London, Brussels, and now here. And I have come to the United States to tell you that with the United States we are not dealing with just any other counterpart; we are dealing with friends, allies and partners. And we cannot see the United States as anything else, anything other than being friends. And to friends you speak frankly and you don't necessarily always agree, but you always speak as friends.
And we have worked a great deal. We have shown that the United States and France can work together on very concrete subjects, as you said: Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, as well as questions of nonproliferation; Iran, of course; and other major subjects such as Kosovo and the Balkans.
Also witness the Anglo-French competition over a large defense contract in Saudi Arabia, given as a reason for Blair's recent pop-in visit to Saudi.
Syria has become a strategic prize now that Iraq is a black hole. It's location at the center of the Middle East, making it a hub of communications and transport between the Gulf, Turkey and Europe, adds to its importance. Clearly, the Europeans are counting on Bashar's reform program to open the economy and bring in foreign investment. They all want to be there at the creation, even if it is a rocky start.
That also goes for the Gulf countries. So far Saudi Arabia has very few big investments in Syria, and the Hariri affaire damaged relations between the two countries badly. But one can only presume that the Saudi Royals will have to forgive Syria its trespasses and get on with business, before the UAE scoops up the prizes.
Hassan Fattah of the NY Times sent me this notice:
Damascus, July 4 (SANA)- President Bashar al-Assad received at al-Rawda Palace on Monday a delegation of Emmar Real Estate Company headed by Chairman of the company board of directors, Mohamed Ali Alabbar. Talks during the meeting dealt with the available investment projects in Syria.Emaar will become the No1 real estate company in the world in terms of market capitalization when its present re-capitalization campaign is completed. Syria has passed a new law that guarantees the supply of new land for housing construction and is seeking $2 billion in foreign investments.
About Rami Makhlouf's move to the Emirates, an anonymous commentator writes:
I think you are reading too much into the Al Hayat piece on Rami Makhlouf. It wasn't an interview, and it basically boiled down to speculation about why RM was holidaying in Dubai -- subsequent reports indicate that he is thinking of listing Syriatel on the Dubai stock market after last year's IPO in Syria; Dubai's Majed AL Futtaim group is also looking at a big mall project that is sure to interest RM. Another clue about RM's intentions is provided in the shareholder list of Bank Byblos Syria ahead of its IPO: RM and brother Ehab each have 5% founding stakes. On the Majed al-Futtaim group, it has already purchased a square kilometer of land along the road to Beirut and has committed 300 million dollars to a multi-hotel-mall project that may expand to 1 billion dollars, if it succeeds in attracting Saudi and Lebanese tourists.One cannot forget the plans to set up a Syrian stock exchange.
On the recent clashes with Iraqi Baathists and mujahidun, Al-Seyassah suggests they may have been smugglers bringing weapons into Syria. Tony Badran writes that:
In terms of details, no one can tell for sure what is happening in the country at this stage. The regime continues to arrest and clash with militants. Or, are they just glorified smugglers? Or is the regime turning against its erstwhile protégés because they outlived their usefulness? Or is there an internal clash and settling of old and new scores within the ranks of the regime? Or are all these things happening together and at the same time? No one really knows.Also see Ammar Abdulhamid's comments on this here.
Abdul Rahman al-Rashed writing in as-Sarq al-Awsat believes that these events signal the "Arrival of "Al Qaeda" in Syria." He concludes, "The latest clashes with these terrorists means that Al Qaeda has officially begun its war against Syria after previously paying Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco a visit."
I will add the interesting article by David Hirst.
America knocks at Syria's nervous door
Wednesday, July 06, 2005
"The Americans won't control their side of the border, accept our offers of collaboration, or allow us the surveillance equipment we need. Then they accuse us of aiding a resistance which, they know, is basically Iraqi, even if some foreign fighters do get across our frontiers, which - they also know - are impossible to seal without an investment of resources way beyond our means."
The hilltop outpost at which an anonymous Syrian commander made this lament was only a few meters high, but it was located in a desert landscape so flat and featureless that, from it, you could look deep into Iraq, across some of the obstacles - berms, barbed wire, concrete blocks in vehicle-friendly wadis, hundreds of observation posts manned by 7,000 soldiers - which Syria has put up along the most desolate, uninhabited, central stretch of its 600-kilometer eastern border.
This wasn't proof that Syria is doing its utmost to stop the passage of foreign jihadists into Iraq; the best places for infiltration are the inhabited regions to the north; but it surely meant it was doing something. However, among the diplomats agreeing to go on an unprecedented public relations tour of the border area, the Americans were conspicuously absent. And that, for Syria's Baathist regime, was yet another instance of Washington's "not wanting to know."
The United States may say, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did recently, that all it wants is a change in Syrian behavior. A senior Syrian official responds to this: "We have concluded in recent months that they really want to bring us down." European diplomats tend to agree that the apparently systematic refusal to engage the Syrian regime at any level reflects the influence of the Bush administration's neoconservative hawks, for whom the regime of President Bashar Assad is a prime candidate in a grand design for regime change throughout the Middle East.
Even if President George W. Bush himself isn't ready to openly embark on such a policy, the neocons are strong enough to block any inclination in the opposite direction. Very few people expect that Syria will be a new Iraq. Rather, it is, to use a Washington adage, "low-hanging fruit" harvestable by political means. For the Syrian leadership, the U.S., already in a mess in Iraq, wouldn't be mad enough to engage in an adventure against them. But American pressure can take many forms, Syrians believe, sufficient to put an already decrepit and discredited regime's survival at stake.
Until recently, the U.S. treated Syria as a strategic adversary, but one, nonetheless with which it could still do business in a give-and-take process whose end, if successful, would have presumably restored the Baathists' "right to exist" - a la Libya - in any new American-sponsored Middle East order. But now Washington spurns the strategic dialogue Assad proffers, and is bent, it would appear, on stripping the Syrian president of all his regional cards. When he concedes (thereby proving, as American commentators put it, that "pressure works"), it leads to yet more demands, with nothing offered in return.
When, Syria's armed forces withdrew from Lebanon in April, the U.S. remained insistent that Assad continued to play a disruptive role there, while doing little or nothing to seal the jihadist trail into Iraq. Whatever the truth, the U.S. is clearly accumulating ammunition for new assaults in a diplomatic war of attrition against Syria whose end, says a European diplomat, is to "bring Bashar naked to the negotiating table."
Weakening Syria externally weakens it at home. For a despotic regime, regional influence was always a vital adjunct of internal repression. "And now," says a Syrian dissident, "the U.S. is becoming the internal as well as the external player in our affairs which, before the debacle in Lebanon, it couldn't be."
Faced with this double assault, what does Assad do? Does he cede ground internally, as he already has externally, in the hope (one that has proven unsuccessful so far) of appeasing both the U.S. and a still-weak, but steadily growing domestic opposition? Whatever choice he does make will, for the first time, be very much his own, for he has just wrought greater changes inside his ruling apparatus than any since his father, Hafiz Assad, consolidated his personal power in the 1970s.
Reform, cries Syria's opposition, and we shall rally to you against the U.S. The opposition mistrusts Washington perhaps more than the Syrian regime itself does. Not that it belittles the impetus which American actions, even the otherwise abhorrent invasion of Iraq, has given to their cause.
But the Syrians' yearning for change is deeply tempered by fear of the way it might come about. That is why the opposition's dominant orthodoxy is gradualism. As opposition figures see it, they must reach out to reformists within the system and, as both gain depth and cohesion, reassure the ultimate, maleficent power-holders and their increasingly frightened entourage that their eventual departure will not be the terrible reckoning, for years of misrule, that it would otherwise have been.
"If the Americans muscle in," says a Syrian human rights activist, "the shock will disrupt this process, delicate enough as it is, unleash the latent forces of chaos, of sectarian, ethnic and class conflict in our society, even create another Iraq without invading it. We must handle this on our own."
Set against the initial high expectations, the results of the recent, supposedly make-or-break Baathist congress were puny. Still, a sort of Syrian glasnost is underway. There is little doubt that Assad encourages it. Little doubt, too, that, fearing loss of control, he is simultaneously being pulled in the opposition direction. The congress that promised change was also a classical show of strength and solidarity, Soviet-style, of the single-party state. Directed at the U.S. and the opposition, it said: "The Baath is here to stay." As a Baath reformist put it: "Bashar's new new guard might actually have to be tougher than the old."
If rigidity and repression do win the day, some in the opposition will be inclined to forsake the gradualist, Syrian-only orthodoxy. Of the opposition's three still very separate components - the secular intelligentsia, the Islamists and the Kurdish minority of the northeast - only the Kurds have emerged, after decades of obscure, unequal struggle against Arabization and ethnic discrimination, as a key internal player, due to their own suddenly revealed intrinsic strength and the example of their brethren's achievements in northern Iraq.
"So long as the regime gives nothing," says a Kurdish politician, "it's our right to profit from international conditions. If America knocks on our door, we'll open it."
The fear in Damascus is that the U.S., in desperation, might do something military across the Syrian border, such as creating a "security zone,"as Israel did in the South Lebanon border area during the 1980s and 1990s. It wouldn't work, experts insist, and would merely add local, tribally-linked Syrian resistance to the Iraqi one. On the other hand, it could have a profoundly destabilizing impact on Syria as a whole, exacerbating those Kurdish-led centrifugal forces whose original impetus, and disastrous potentialities, stem, as in Iraq, from decades of Baathist despotism.
David Hirst was for a long time Middle East correspondent for London's The Guardian. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.