Tabler and Young on Syria's Future
Here are two editorial from the IH Tribune. Both journalists know that that Syria is unlike to cooperate with the international investigation so long as all the leaders of the regime are targets. Andrew Table, a Syrian based journalist, proposes that America offer Bashar al-Asad a way out by refraining to target him personally and by offering to open the oil pipeline between Iraq and Syria as a sweetener. Michael Young, a Lebanese journalist, suggest that the Syrian opposition take maters into its own hands, become a more effective force, and overthrow the regime.
Addendum: Michael Young just sent me this correction. He is right, of course. Sorry Michael:
Josh,America should test who's in charge in Damascus
Thanks for highlighting my IHT piece, but can I ask you to write a correction on your blog. You write: "Michael Young, a Lebanese journalist, suggests that the Syrian opposition take maters into its own hands, become a more effective force, and overthrow the regime." In fact I didn't say that at all, and am far more ambiguous about the issue than you make it sound. All I did, as you can clearly read in the last paragraph, is say that persistent uncertainty in Syria might lead to that outcome. I wasn't advocating anything here, and I'm surprised you should state this since the paragraph is quite clear.
Andrew Tabler, International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2005
DAMASCUS The UN investigator Detlev Mehlis's implication of "senior Lebanese and Syrian officials" in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is sure to set off a firestorm of debate on how to pressure Damascus to comply with the ongoing investigation. As all eyes turn to President Bashar al-Assad and what he will do next, it is imperative that Washington not miss an opportunity to determine who is worth dealing with in Damascus.
For nearly five years, I have worked as a journalist and researcher in Syria covering the country's reform process. Over dinner with diplomats and other foreign visitors in Damascus, one question arises more frequently every year: Is Assad in control of Syria?
CNN even asked Assad himself the question last week. Assad answered, "You cannot be a dictator and not be in control." Or can you? Since Assad came to power in July 2000, everything from the slow pace of reform to Damascus's reticence to pull its troops out of Lebanon has been blamed on Assad's weakness vis-à-vis the "old guard" -regime members who remain from the 30-year rule of Bashar's father, Hafez.
When this belief began to affect relations with America - most notably U.S. demands on Syria concerning Iraq - Washington changed its Syria policy from one of "constructive engagement" to "constructive instability." This has included increased sanctions, public threats and even reported cross-border skirmishes along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. And most notably, there has been a conspicuous lack of incentives for good behavior.
Then last week, out of the blue, with the Mehlis report looming, a high-ranking U.S. official confirmed rumors that Washington had offered Damascus a deal to get it off the hook in Lebanon for its accused involvement in Hariri's assassination in exchange for halting its alleged support for the Iraqi insurgency, ending all interference in Lebanese affairs and cutting off support for Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist groups. Damascus has reportedly turned down the offer.
It is perhaps understandable that such a proposal went nowhere, since it is unclear that there is anyone in Syria with enough authority to rewrite its foreign policy of the last 30 years. The penultimate version of the Mehlis report that was accidentally released, which names names, indicates just how fragmented this regime might actually be. The possibility that the president's brother and brother-in-law took it upon themselves to organize the assassination of a Middle Eastern statesman shows that, at the very least, Syria might be ruled by committee.
We need to find out if someone on this committee is in a position to negotiate with the United States, even as the sanctions process rumbles forward. Sanctions by themselves could be disastrous, creating chaos when the last thing we need is chaos in another Middle Eastern country. Multilateral pressure will only increase nationalist sentiments and regime paranoia that will hamstring an already troubled reform process.
Damascus's reform program is heavily assisted, if not sustained, by UN and European Union projects. Increased multilateral pressure on the regime could politicize Syria's already limited reform space, grinding progress to a halt. Such a situation needs to be avoided at all costs. Syria's high population growth rate of 2.85 percent, combined with pitifully low labor and capital productivity, means that current unemployment levels of 11 percent to 20 percent would only increase rapidly - something that could serve to fuel Islamic radicalism in Syria and the region.
So instead of just using the Hariri investigation to push Damascus to the brink through sanctions and watch Syria sink into the abyss, Washington should give Assad a chance to prove he is in charge. America could offer him a very special carrot to go along with the sanctions stick.
Allowing the reopening of the oil pipeline between Kirkuk in Iraq and the Syrian port of Banias, to see if Assad can keep it operating without acts of sabotage, would be a good first step in determining the degree to which he controls Syria. This would also alleviate U.S. troubles in exporting Iraqi oil and give Assad and the Syrian people a material incentive to help stabilize their neighbor. And, perhaps most important, this would open the door to a peaceful solution to what is looming as the next big crisis for the United States in the region.
There are some signs that Assad could be in a position to make good on such a deal. After the Hariri assassination in February, it appears that Assad has been consolidating power. Several high-ranking officials were retired during the Baath Party conference in June. Interior Minister Ghazi Kanan, a possible rival to Assad, died last week in what officials are calling a suicide.
At least for now, America needs someone inside the Assad regime it can deal with. But the Assad regime does not necessarily need America. The regime has plenty of experience surviving sieges, however chaotic. Damascus has been under U.S. sanctions since 1979, and it has become skilled at sneaking around them. It also has about $18 billion in cash reserves, the equivalent of about three years of current imports. Syria's Baathists are masters of the waiting game: Even if Bashar can't outwit or outplay George W. Bush, history shows that an Assad is capable of outlasting two-term U.S. presidents.
(Andrew Tabler is a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs based in Damascus and Beirut, and consulting editor for Syria Today magazine.)
Michael Young, International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2005
BEIRUT The release last week of a United Nations report on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon threatens to create a perfect storm of adversity for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. By satisfying the international community's call that Syria cooperate with the inquiry of the UN prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, Assad would undermine his domestic hold on power; by avoiding this, Assad would ensure Syria's almost total isolation and perhaps the imposition of international sanctions.
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council began discussing the Mehlis report. This came after Assad wrote a letter to the council, dated Sunday, in which he affirmed that while Syria was "innocent" of Hariri's Feb. 14 assassination, he was "ready to follow up action to bring to trial any Syrian who could be proved by concrete evidence to have had connection with this crime." The question now is how will Assad interpret his pledge.
In his report, Mehlis stated that his "investigation is not complete," and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, subsequently extended the inquiry until Dec. 15. But the prosecutor had enough confidence in the information he had garnered to add that there is "converging evidence pointing at both Lebanese and Syrian involvement in this terrorist act." The investigators further underlined that the Hariri assassination was prepared over several months, and was "carried out by a group with an extensive organization and considerable resources and capabilities."
Most damning, the report offered a context in which to interpret the findings, implying that individuals at the top of the Syrian and Lebanese political systems were aware of the Hariri plot: "Given the infiltration of Lebanese institutions and society by the Syrian and Lebanese intelligence services working in tandem, it would be difficult to envisage a scenario whereby such a complex assassination plot could have been carried out without their knowledge." This hit close to Assad: His brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, heads Syria's military intelligence.
There was more: A witness also pointed to the involvement of Assad's brother, Maher, who as commander of the Republican Guard is another essential regime prop. While his name was removed in the official version, in the initial Microsoft Word document released to the media, the deletion was plainly visible after activating the "track changes" option. This has led to speculation that Mehlis allowed the name to be conspicuous as a warning to the Syrians that the investigation could hit very high, perhaps reaching the president himself.
If the revelations did anything, however, they made it more likely that Assad will be inflexible. His letter to the United Nations (where for some reason the promise to bring Syrians to trial was only included in the text sent to the United States, France and Britain) will provoke more questions than answers. Where would the Syrian suspects be put on trial? In a recent CNN interview, Assad hinted that because he considered Hariri's murder "treason," so a Syrian court might be the appropriate venue. What evidence would Syria consider "concrete" enough to mandate handing over suspects?
Mehlis has asked that Syrian officials be interviewed outside Syria, and it is obvious from his report that he would include both Shawkat and Maher Assad. Indeed, the investigation team had asked to speak to the president himself, but this was rejected. Fulfilling these requests would be the minimum required of Damascus to stave off the prospect of punitive action at the United Nations. But it is highly improbable that either Maher Assad or Shawkat would agree to leave Syria.
Where does this leave Assad? Bogus cooperation will not go far, nor will efforts to try the possible suspects in Syrian courts, unless this follows an internationally endorsed Syrian investigation. It is unlikely that a political deal - where Syria might be offered breathing room in exchange for ending its support for the Iraqi insurgency, leaving Lebanon alone and cutting its ties to Palestinian militant groups and Hezbollah - could avert a handover of officials who might have participated in Hariri's assassination. At best, Assad can play for time and avoid giving Mehlis anything to strengthen his case.
This may be suicidal, but the logic is compelling. Assad knows his final card is the uncertainty surrounding what would follow the demise of his regime. He also knows that if he avoids addressing Mehlis's demands, the Security Council will move into a divisive debate over sanctions and retribution. The Americans and French can push, but can they shove, given Russian and Chinese reluctance and American difficulties in Iraq? Assad will enforce unity inside, but may also accept confrontation outside.
Can it work? The probability isn't very high, but it's all Assad has. The real question, however, is whether political forces inside Syria will sit idly by as the regime takes the country into a period of prolonged uncertainty. There may be no alternatives today to Bashar Assad, but as his regime prepares for a siege, political spaces may be filled by those who do not wish to suffer for the Assads.
(Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star in Lebanon, and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.)