Friday, October 14, 2005

Is a US-Syrian Deal in the Offing?

A few reporters called today to ask if I had heard anything about a purported US-Syrian deal. Their editors wanted them to get the story. Evidently Mr. B. - yes, the one who now works for the UN - has leaked that the US is extending Bashar al-Asad a deal. Mr. B. is the man who insisted Syria had taken in Saddam's WMD long after the US investigation team had determined there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. He lied about Syria being a part of Khan's Pakistani nuclear club and insisted Syria was pushing forward with a secret nuclear plan. He never tired of saying Syria had training camps for mujahidiin.

Why is he leaking this story? One can only guess. Certainly, Mr. B is that last person who wants to see a US-Syria deal go through. Perhaps one is in the works? Perhaps some in Washington want to offer Syria a deal, but it is only in the discussion phase? The way to make sure it doesn't happen is to give advanced warning to those who would scuttle it.

One of Washington diplomats’ mistakes is to always preface the notion of such a deal with the word "Qadhafi," as in "a Qadhafi-like deal." Qadhafi's name is mud in Damascus. He long ago renounced Arabism in order to adopt pan-Africanism. Then he dropped that as well. For Qadhafi, his identity was like his hats. It changed with his mood. If Washington wants to make a deal with Syria, it will have to allow Asad to finesse the Arabism question. He cannot renounce Arabism. It is at the heart of Syrian identity. Even if Asad is prepared to give up many of his regional cards - and I suppose he is - he will not be able to do a Qadhafi and renounce Baathism or Arabism. Syria is not ready to embrace Syrianism, unfortunately. No Syrian president, no mater what regime he belongs to will be able to do that for some years. Syrians were raised on Arabism. Even those Syrians raised in the 1950s before the Baath came to power. When France withdrew its troops from Syria in 1946, President Quwatli in his great speech announced that he would never raise the flag of Syria above that of the Arab nation. If Washington asks Bashar to announce something along those lines as part of a deal, it will be very hard to get an agreement. Certainly, Washington should not use the qualifier, "Qadhafi", when discussing a deal.

Ed Walker of the Middle East Institute has an article decrying the possibility of a US-Syria deal over the Mehlis report.

I returned to Damascus today and dropped in on my mother-in-law, the source of much wisdom and insight into things Syrian. She was distressed by the Kanaan suicide. He represented the last of her and my father-in-law's generation of Alawi officers in the government. His end was a stark reminder of how things have changed, and not for the better. She saw him as a man who had served his country well. She was inclined to take Ghazi at his word when he said to Lebanon's "New TV" that he had kept Lebanon united and thereby fulfilled his duty to Lebanon and Syria. When I asked her about his taking money from Hariri and others, she was willing to dismiss this as the nature of politics in Lebanon under occupation. "They gave and they took." But she compared Kanaan favorably to many others, saying he did not leave messes and a bad smell behind him. "We never heard about his children making trouble, like some others," who she quickly named to make her point. "He worked for Syria. It is sad to see anyone meet his end like this." I imagine many other Syrians are feeling the same. Ghazi's suicide is yet another reminder that all is not well in Syria and that the younger generation will be hard put to manage the affairs of state.

Both Michael Young and Tony Badran take their whacks at Kanaan.

Here is Nick Blanford's story in the Monitor. We shared a wonderful dinner cooked by Kate Seelye at her elegant flat in Gimayze the night before he wrote this - Chicken Marbailla, a sumptuous salad with walnuts and other delights mixed in and plenty of good wine. Paul Salem, my old Harvard classmate, Kim Ghattas of BBC, and Ferry Beiderman of the FT were also there to add ribaldry.

A top Syrian minister commits suicide days before UN report
By Nicholas Blanford | The Christian Science Monitor
from the October 13, 2005 edition

BEIRUT – The Syrian general who effectively ran Lebanon for 20 years was found dead Wednesday morning in Damascus, just nine days before the release of a potentially explosive United Nations report that could implicate senior Syrian officials in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last February.

The Syrian government said that Ghazi Kenaan, 63, the interior minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, committed suicide in his office in central Damascus.

"The relevant agencies are investigating," according to a statement published by Syria's official news agency (SANA).

Gen. Kenaan's death is a stunning development as the UN-backed investigation into the killing of Mr. Hariri reaches a nail-biting climax.

"It's certainly related to the Hariri inquiry and absolutely will have an impact because a major witness has disappeared," says Marwan Hamade, Lebanese minister of telecommunications and a close friend of the slain premier who narrowly survived an assassination attempt a year ago.

Aside from the connection to the Hariri investigation, Kenaan was a powerful figure from the Alawite community, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the Baathist regime in Syria. As such, some analysts say that the wily and experienced general was a potential candidate to replace Syria's youthful President Bashar al-Assad, especially as he may well have been considered an acceptable figure in American eyes.

"Washington has been talking about the adults taking over from the children, and Kenaan was one of the last of the so-called Old Guard still left. He was considered a real force," says Joshua Landis, a history professor at the University of Oklahoma presently based in Damascus and author of the influential Syriacomment.com weblog.

"It's hard to believe that Kenaan would commit suicide," adds Landis. "He was an active hardworking man who saw many hard times in his life and overcame them."

Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor, and his 100-strong team of investigators and technicians have spent four months doggedly tracking Hariri's killers, and interviewing hundreds of people, including three weeks ago Kenaan and other key Syrian officials involved with Lebanon. The findings of the investigation are to be submitted to the UN Security Council next week amid wide speculation that Syria will be held responsible.

Damascus, however, already under intense pressure from the United States over Iraq, insists it had nothing to do with the Feb. 14 bombing in central Beirut that killed Hariri and 19 others. This assassination provoked massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut which, combined with unrelenting international pressure, led to Syria's disengagement from Lebanon in April.

What will the UN report reveal?

The Lebanese media has been agog with speculation over the results of the report. On Tuesday night, Lebanon's New TV broadcast allegations that General Kenaan had admitted to Mr. Mehlis that he had amassed millions of dollars during "my reign of Lebanon."

"[Hariri] had at the time given me a $10 million check," New TV quoted Kenaan as saying in his testimony to the UN investigators. "We were making money from [Hariri] so how could we possibly kill him and close the flow of his riches?"

On Wednesday morning, Kenaan spoke to the Voice of Lebanon radio station to refute the allegations aired the previous evening.

'Last statement'

"My testimony [to the UN investigators] was to shed light on an era during which we served Lebanon," he said. "Sadly, some media outlets have reported lies to mislead public opinion. I want to make clear that our relation with our Lebanese brothers in Lebanon was based on love and mutual respect."

He ended his comment by saying "I think this is the last statement I might give."

His body was found three hours later.

Kenaan, who headed Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon from 1982 to 2002, possessed a ruthless acumen which helped him confront the multiple challenges facing Syria in the war-torn Lebanon of the 1980s, successfully thwarting the ambitions of both the United States and Israel.

From his headquarters in the town of Anjar near the Syrian border, observers say Kenaan skillfully cajoled, threatened, and manipulated Lebanese politicians to ensure the interests of Syria were safeguarded.

He had established a good rapport with Hariri, the billionaire construction tycoon who as prime minister in the 1990s spearheaded Lebanon's postwar reconstruction drive.
Here is a good Newsweek story.

Dangers in Damascus
By Michael Hirsh and Kevin Peraino: Newsweek | Oct 17 '05
Push to Shove: If Assad goes, what comes next?

For a Syrian, Samir Nashar is close to being a dream democrat. He's liberal, secular, rich—and brazenly outspoken. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has "lost his credibility," Nashar boldly told a NEWSWEEK reporter who visited him recently at his home in Aleppo. Three months ago, Nashar and six friends decided to form a political group called the Alliance of Free Nationalists. Yet even Nashar says that his tiny democracy movement can barely muster support. The group is "still waiting for a legitimate party law," he says, and most Syrians are too scared of the secret police to push for it.

But if Syrian democrats like Nashar were empowered, more radical elements might be too, and that could be a nightmare for Washington. "You might get what you wish for. But not quite what you wish for," said one diplomat in Damascus who requested anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities. The prospect of regime change in Syria worries even Israel, Syria's longtime enemy. If al-Assad's rigidly secular regime were toppled, the nation's mosaic of competing sects and ethnicities could explode into conflict. Islamist radicals—including a group called Soldiers of the Levant—are already gaining influence in Syria, where they were once ruthlessly crushed. This comes as Qaeda-linked groups are trying to spread the jihadist contagion regionally, according to an alleged letter from Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri last week.

Critics say that the Bush administration isn't encouraging Syria's democrats just now—but neither is it willing to work with Syria's dictator. And in the absence of any cooperation between governments, jihadists are moving across Syria's 310-mile border with Iraq to join the insurgency. Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to Washington, told NEWSWEEK that Damascus ended all security and intelligence cooperation with America several months ago, and it has not resumed.

Why? The ambassador says that while Damascus is still detaining jihadists on its own, it got "fed up" with the Bush administration's public al-Assad bashing, even after Washington had privately lauded Syria for handing over Saddam's half brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan, earlier in the year. Moustapha also confirmed an account from a U.S. intel official who said Damascus was angered when Washington exposed one of its operatives. "We are willing to re-engage the moment you want—but on one condition," Moustapha says. "You have to acknowledge that we are helping."

That's not likely to happen. While U.S. officials stop short of accusing al-Assad of actively aiding the insurgency, they say he has permitted jihadist transit and training camps to exist in the open. After the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned last month that "time is running out on Damascus," U.S. officials even debated launching military strikes inside the Syrian border against the insurgency. But at an Oct. 1 "principals" meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice successfully opposed such a move, according to two U.S. government sources who are not authorized to speak on the record. Rice argued that diplomatic isolation is working against al-Assad, especially on the eve of a U.N. report that may blame Syria for the murder of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri.

The goal seems to be to "get [the regime] by the throat, and then really squeeze," says Josh Landis, a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who runs an influential blog called syriacomment.com. Maybe it's working: diplomats in Damascus say they've seen signs in recent months that al-Assad is trying to police Syria's southern border better.

But Moustapha says Syria could do much more if intelligence was shared as it once was. Some U.S. intel officials agree. They say that valuable cooperation is being sacrificed at a critical moment when Iraqis are to vote on a new government and insurgents seek to undermine that effort. "We won't take yes for an answer from Damascus," says one intel official who declined to be identified because his work is classified. In the last few years before contacts were cut off, he says, Syrian intelligence helped avert two major attacks on U.S. targets, including a Navy base in Bahrain. U.S. pressure, he adds, may be "radicalizing the country." That is one risk, perhaps, of engaging with no one in Syria—neither dictators nor democrats.
US ‘seeks new Syrian leader' as pressure mounts By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Financial Times: October 9 2005
As it steps up pressure on Damascus, the US is actively seeking an alternative who would take over from President Bashar al-Assad, according to sources close to the Bush administration.

Washington has consulted its allies in an inter-agency search co-ordinated by Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser. The US is also said to be considering military strikes on the Syrian border in response to its alleged support for Iraqi insurgents.

“They are tasking inside and outside the administration with finding an alternative. They would like to find someone to give them a soft landing,” said a former official who asked not to be named. “They would probably accept a military figure but it would be very hard to identify someone to step in and work with the US.”

A US official in Washington said policy was aimed at “behaviour change”, not “regime change”.

In Cairo on Sunday David Welch, a senior State Department official, spoke of US concerns over Syria's “interference” in Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “These are very, very difficult issues, and we would ask the Syrian government not to interfere in such matters.

“It appears they are not listening and it seems that this behaviour is not changing,” Mr Welch told reporters after meeting Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president.

President George W. Bush, in an important speech last week on the war on terror and the ideology of Islamic radicalism, denounced Syria and Iran as “outlaw regimes” that acted as “allies of convenience” to the militants.

The US, Mr Bush said, would not make a distinction between those who committed acts of terrorism and those that supported them. Syria and Iran “deserve no patience from the victims of terror”. Flynt Leverett, analyst at the Brookings Institution think-tank, believes the Bush administration is looking at mounting cross-border military operations into Syria.

He said that the objective was to put pressure on the regime and get the message to Syrians inside or out-side the government that it was time to “dump” Mr Assad.

A US official told the FT last week Syria had made the “unwise choice” of “allowing its territory to be part of the Iraqi battlefield”.

1 Comments:

At 10/14/2005 06:58:00 PM, Blogger Joseph ALi Mohammed said...

Is professor Joshu Landis so eager to save the Assad regime because he loves the Syrian people, or because he loves this dictatorial backward criminal regime?

I have never encountered any Assadist in person who wishes to defend this regime so shamelessly. Every one of those Assadists is really shy to show his love of this criminal regime whenever I spoke to any one who so ever, even people in authority (I know many, Allawis and Sunnis). But Josh is at ease trying hard to save this regime.


A deal or not, the regime is on its way to be trash soon.


JAM

 

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