Waiting for Mehlis
The media Tsunami has hit. Journalists of every color have been flooding into Damascus these last few days to study the grimaces of the regime as it must submit to the delicate tortures of the Mehlis report, international condemnation, and very likely, UN resolutions.
A journalist just called to ask me if I could be standing by at 12:00 midnight when the first inklings of the Mehlis report begin to filter out. The main office suggests it will be bad for Syria and it wants immediate reactions. The political class has been bracing itself in Damascus and trying to manage the reporters as best they can, but everything is done in a ham fisted way here. At such times of crisis, one realizes just how much of a third world country Syria is. Like a dear in the headlights, it has little clue what sort of terrifying machine is bearing down on it.
Ironically, the ordinary people are largely oblivious that their fate is being decided in the halls of distant capitals. Many don’t even know that a major clash is brewing between the US and Damascus. One taxi driver I spoke to yesterday had never heard of the Mehlis report and seemed surprised to be told that America and Syria were at loggerheads. He asked, “Is America going to invade?” When I reassured him that was not in the cards, he waved his hand in relief and said, “Oh, well, then it isn’t important.”
But even those who have some idea of what is transpiring believe it is a tempest in a tea pot. They have no influence over events anyway and seem oddly detached from “high politics,” as they call it. The streets are packed with Ramadan revelers looking for amusement and walking off their iftar.
We heard today that a nephew of Saddam’s had been captured in Iraq. Some are rumoring that the Syrian government had scooped him off the streets of Damascus and deposited him in Iraq, where local security was alerted they could find him. If this is true, which it very possibly may not be, it is part of the media war. Syria is desperately trying to signal to the world that they are happy to oblige the West and can deliver or make a deal if the West is willing to cooperate with Damascus. It is a bit like John Bolton’s leak last week that “a deal” was being offered Syria. It turned out not to be a deal, but an ultimatum. Quite possibly, Washington was making a last effort to show the world that it is not opposed to cooperation and has tried to reason with Syria, but gotten no positive answer. A last gesture of mercy before the guillotine drops. But these gestures by both sides are a bit like sign language between the blind. It is meant to ompress everyone else but the main interlocutors.
America does not want the deal Syria is willing to offer. Syria says it wants “dialog.” What this means is that Syria is willing to work with Washington on its four main demands: the Mehlis report, Hizbullah, Palestinian groups, and the Iraq border. But it wants to do it discretely and through diplomatic and security channels. This is what Syria used to do under Hafiz al-Asad. Washington wants a public and total Syrian climb down. In essence, it wants Syria to renounce its core ideology of Arabism. It wants Syria to concede that its regional policies and anti-American stand are wrong. In a sense it wants a public apology and mea culpa from Bashar. It wants him to take Syria on a 180 degree about-face, ideologically and strategically.
The Syrian government will probably refuse to do this. The Syrian opposition says the government will refuse because the government is too weak. Others claim the government is strong enough to weather sanctions. Still others suggest it is because the President’s and regime’s legitimacy is founded on Arab nationalist principles, thus it cannot abandon them without facing internal collapse. And there are other explanations. Perhaps the Syrian leaders really believe in their principles? Perhaps it is the Arab desire not to lose face and be publicly humiliated? Everyone has their pet theory, but most agree that it comes down to a clash of ideologies. Most insist things will have to get worse before they get better.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Waleed al-Mualem said France and the United States would use the report to implement a phased plan to isolate Syria and impose economic sanctions against it.
``The first stage consists in influencing Arab countries so that we cut our relations with Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon. We are now at the second stage, which aims to isolate us,'' Mualem told France's Le Figaro in an interview published on Thursday.
``The next one will be to impose economic sanctions via a U.N. resolution. But we think that the Russians and the Chinese will oppose these sanctions.''
The United States and France have led a diplomatic campaign that helped force Syria to end its 29-year troop presence in Lebanon in April. They were also instrumental in setting up the U.N. inquiry into Hariri's death.
Annan is expected to circulate the report on Friday to the 15-member Security Council, Lebanon and possibly, if Syrian officials are named, Syria, Lebanese political sources said.
The Security Council will discuss the report next week and consider its response, which could include sanctions if Syria fails to cooperate, the sources said.