Syria and Hizbullah on the Attack
The Hizbullah incursion into Israel to capture two Israeli soldiers to be used as a bargaining chip for the release of Lebanese prisoners being held in Israel was carried out smoothly. Ostensibly, it was an operation that had only limited goals. Hizbullah has been announcing for over a year that it would kidnap Israeli soldiers if Lebanese prisoners in Israel were not released. As Anthony Shadid writes from Lebanon:
The attack Wednesday was almost sure to bolster the martial reputation of Hezbollah, which probably enjoys more support in the rest of the Arab world than in Lebanon itself, where other sectarian factions have pushed for it to disarm. Nasrallah has vowed on numerous occasions to seize soldiers as a bargaining chip for the Lebanese prisoners; in one speech, he said it would happen this year.But in the larger arena of the Middle East, Hizbullah's attack on Israel was clearly timed to increase pressure on Israel and the US when they are most vulnerable. Passions in the region have been inflamed against Israel and the US by Israel's aggressive incursion into Gaza and attempt to force the rapid collapse of the Palestinian Authority led by Hamas.
Normally, Hizbullah would have to be very cautious about embroiling Lebanon in another round of fighting with Israel for fear that Lebanon's other sects would condemn it. But with the Gaza situation having aroused general anger against Israel, Hizbullah felt free to jump into the fight on the side of the Palestinians, knowing that even its Christian enemies in Lebanon could not condemn it for sacrificing Lebanon's infrastructure and all important tourist season.
Syria is thrilled by the opportunity to undermine America and Israel's general policies in the region. For years, Asad has insisted that the US is following contradictory, hypocritical and unrealizable policies in the region and has opposed them. The United States has condemned Syria for terrorism and being a force of evil in the region because Syria not only refuses to help the US achieve its goals in the region, but has been actively working to frustrate them. Washington has asked Syria to help build a strong Hariri led government Lebanon, build a strong pro-American government in Iraq, and help Israel tame the Palestinians in the occupied territories while it establishes the wall through the West Bank as its border.
The US has sought to isolate Syria, cut off its regional trade, push it out of Lebanon, and starve it of international funds and assistance. Syria believes it must hurt the US where it can in order to force Washington to rethink its anti-Syrian and general regional policies. Syria insists that Washington must engage it if it wants even a modicum of Syrian cooperation. It will continue to encourage its allies to attack American interests in Lebanon and Israel until it gets that engagement. With the United States on the run in Iraq, frustrated by the Hariri government's weakness, extended in the UN by its losing showdown with Iran, and embarrassed by Israel's aggressive anti-Palestinian policies, Syria is feeling strong. It can now go on the offensive. Damascus feels confident that Washington cannot counter-attack at this time. It has few arrows left in its quiver.
So far it looks like Israel may be playing into Syria's hands by holding the Hariri government responsible for the Hizbullah attacks and not just Hizbullah and its backers. The New York Times quotes Prime Minister Ehud Olmert:
"I want to make clear that the event this morning is not a terror act, but an act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel without reason,” Mr. Olmert said. “The government of Lebanon, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to shake the stability of the region.” Israel is demanding that all three soldiers be returned and that militants stop firing rockets at Israelis from Gaza in the south and Lebanon in the north. But both Hamas and Hezbollah are holding out for an exchange for a large number of Palestinian and other Arab prisoners held by Israel.The New York Sun, quotes Israel's army's chief of staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, saying that the military operations being planned would "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years" if the kidnapped soldiers were not returned.
Israel threatens to reoccupy and strip of Lebanese land in the South. This will only relegitimize Hizbullah, which claims it is a legitimate Lebanese resistance movement fighting occupation. The bombing of the Beirut Airport will also serve to undermining the Lebanese government, not to isolate Hizbullah. By attacking the central government, Israel will push ordinary Lebanese onto Hizbullah's side, not deepen the divide between the two. This will speed up the collapse of Washington's Lebanon policy, which is to strengthen the central government and Hariri's Future Party. Olmert's need to prove his military toughness will undermine the West's standing in Lebanon and undermine its allies there. The central government in Beirut has no means to discipline or disarm Hizbullah, nor does the United States. George Bush tried to defend the Beirut government as Israel attacked it. This is not a good sign of unity. Syria and Hizbullah will play on this lack of unity for all they are worth in an effort to bring out the contradictions in Washington's policy: one-sided support for Israel and support for pro-American Arabs.
The US will expect pro-American governments in the region to condemn the Hizbullah action. But Saudi Arabi, Egypt, and the Lebanese governments will find themselves condemned by their own people if they take Israel's side in this fight.
Robin Wright of the Washington Post, who explains how the several Middle East crisis are all linked, explains that:
The White House said it is holding Iran and Syria responsible for the flare-up along Lebanon's border because of their long-standing support for Hezbollah. It charged that the seizure of two soldiers was deliberately timed to "exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence.Robert Malley, of the international Crisis Group, explained why the US has so little leverage to stop the violence this time around. "By cutting off its relations with states such as Syria and Iran it has very little ability to convince them to do favors for Washington."
"Hezbollah's actions are not in the interest of the Lebanese people, whose welfare should not be held hostage to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes," a statement said.
The Bush administration has few ways of directly pressuring Iran on any of the three fronts [Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria]. "They have sanctioned themselves out of leverage on Iran," Malley said. "They have cornered themselves out of a lack of influence on any of the parties that are driving this -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran. Counseling restraint or condemning actions is pretty meager when you think of the influence the United States should be wielding."
The United States reached out to Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- to weigh in with Syria and, through Damascus, to Iran. In Paris for talks on Iran's nuclear program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on all sides to "act with restraint." She also talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
But the U.S. options stand in stark contrast to the U.S.-brokered cease-fires in 1993 and 1996 between Israel and Hezbollah, via Syria.
In the coming months, we can expect Syria to move more forcefully to the counter-attack. Syria feels confident that it has the upper hand for the first time since 2003.
Syria wants to show Washington what a failure it is. Thus, it will turn up the pressure on Washington just as Washington turned up the pressure on Syria over the last two years. Damascus is determined to demonstrate to Washington that there is a price to be paid for not dealing with Syria as a respected power in the region.
Washington thought it could roll Syria out of Lebanon, destroy Hamas, and force the Iraqi government to boycott Damascus. Asad will do what he can to demonstrate that Washington does not have the power to do this and will fail in its anti-Syrian policies. Only by cutting deals with Damascus can Washington hope to run a successful Middle East policy. This is Asad's goal.
Now that American influence and power in the region is on the decline, Asad's is on ascendant. He will make trouble for pro-US politicians in Lebanon and support Hizbullah, he will do what he can to keep Hamas alive, and he will try to broaden his relations with Iraqi politicians in an effort to get trade deals and oil flowing through the Syrian pipeline again. In Iraq, Syria has little interest in promoting violence, which it has little control over and which can come back to hurt it. But it will try to make itself useful to the Iraq government and powers on the ground in order to get trade flowing to strengthen Syria.
He must prove to Washington that only a policy of engagement, not isolation, will work.