Will Syria Get Respect?
At the most basic level, the present conflagration in Israel and Lebanon is all about gaining "respect" in the tough and nasty street wars of the Middle East. The region's leaders, many of whom are new and untested, are seeking to demonstrate where true authority and might lies now that the tide of American power that swept over the region following 9-11 is draining away. A tectonic shift is taking place as local actors who have had their ears pinned back for several years are beginning to assert themselves anew.
Sami Moubayed clearly and concisely lays out the motivations of Hamas' and Hizbullah's leaders in sparking the present escalation of war with Israel in his article, "Its war by any other name."
Khalid Meshal, Hamas' Damascus based leader, intended to assert his authority over Hamas and its new Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya, who was voted into office earlier this year. Haniyya "wants to run a country" and "needs to bring money into the Palestinian territories," Sami writes. "Haniyya made several gestures of goodwill toward Israel (much to the displeasure of Meshal), to improve the livelihood of the Palestinians" and ensure the survival of a Hamas government. "Meshal had other plans for the Hamas-led government," Sami assures us. He wants it to fail and Hamas to return to the opposition, where it does not have to make concessions. That is why he ordered the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier on June 25 - to scuttle Haniyya's plans and bring down the Hamas government.
Meshal's tactic worked perfectly because Olmert shares his desire to see Hamas moved back into the opposition. He will not grant concessions to Haniyya and did not like his advances any more than Meshal did. Israel's new Prime Minister has taken refuge with his hawks in order to assert himself and build his tough guy credentials.
Olmert's re-occupation of Gaza, destruction of Hamas' infrastructure, and round up of Hamas government ministers and parliamentarians, who he had dragged before a military court bound hand and foot in chains, was a stunning display of Israeli strength. It enflamed Arab passions and opened the door for Hizbullah's coup.
Nasrallah, in carrying out his cool cross border operation, could act as if he was coming to the aid of the Palestinians, while really intending his fury for Siniora's ineffectual and paralyzed government. Like Olmert, Nasrallah is demonstrating to the world that Hariri and his men are nothing. They do not have an army, they cannot defend themselves. They cannot defend Lebanon. All their cozying up to the United States these last few years got them nothing. Washington will not stand by its new friends in Lebanon when Israeli bombs are falling. Nasrallah has dramatically and irrevocably underlined for the Arab World that the United States is not on the side of Arabs and not on the side of Lebanon. All Washington’s honeyed words about standing by Lebanon's side in its tough battle with Damascus, Hizbullah and terrorism were nothing but cotton candy. With a small summer rain, they melted away.
Nasrallah has been waiting for just such a moment to display the stunning new power Hizbullah has amassed with its longer range rockets and well trained militia. He has surprised Israelis and Arabs alike in his ability to cause pain.
For this reason, Saad Hariri's people have been unable to unequivocally condemn Hizbullah as a terror organization that has started this outburst and deserves the blame for Israel's destruction of Lebanon. Hariri is caught in Hizbullah's logic. Enough of Lebanon still thinks Arab, making it impossible to put the blame squarely on Hizbullah, which is posing as the Arab champion. Israel is refusing to fall for the old Lebanese line - "indulge me while I have an identity crisis for another decade." Olmert is cutting Hariri and Siniora no slack. If the government cannot rein in Hizbullah, Israel will have no patience for Hariri. Those who cannot rule will get no respect when the bullets start flying -- not from Israel, not from the US, and most importantly for Hariri and Siniora, not from the Lebanese.
Ynet News writes that Israel has given Syria's Asad 74 hours to bring a halt to Hizbullah and get its soldiers released. It also reports that Al-Hayat reported that
“a senior Pentagon source warned that should the Arab world and international community fail in the efforts to convince Syria to pressure Hizbullah into releasing the soldiers and halt the current escalation Israel may attack targets in the country.”Some credibility is given this report by the fact that the Defense Department has asked congress to allocate close to $300 million for jet fuel to be supplied to the Israeli air force.
Al-Hayat quoted the source as saying that “the US cannot rule out the possibility of an Israeli strike in Syria,” this despite the fact that the Bush administration has asked Israel to “refrain from any military activity that may result in civilian casualties.”
'Hizbullah made the same mistake'
al-Hayat reported that President George W. Bush has repeatedly put much of the blame for the recent escalation on Syria.
“It is no coincidence that the Hizbullah operation comes at a time when the international community is working to impose sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear program and settle the score with Syria by establishing an international court to try those behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri,” the Pentagon source said.
According to the source, Hizbullah made the same mistake as Hamas when it did not predict the ramifications of its actions and ignored the regional and international changes since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The source said that Israel has indicated that it “will not end its military activity until a new situation is created that will prevent Syria and Iran from using terror organizations, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, to threaten its security.”
Clearly the Defense Department is running with this and is prepared to use Israel as its stalking horse in the Middle East. How far Washington is willing to go in this game or how far Israel is willing to go is anyone's guess. My guess is that cooler heads in Washington will not allow Israel to drag the US into strikes against Syria or Iran. Both Muqtada al-Sadr and Iranian authorities have said that US soldiers will be targeted if Syria is hit. This is an election year. The US is trying to get itself out of the Middle East quagmire, not into it. The US was led down the garden path by Rumsfeld and Cheney once, it will not allow itself to be so easily led by the nose again. This time there is no believing that western bombs will be met by Arabs with flowers or eager democrats. I don't buy the Defense Department's bluster.
There are plenty of tough talkers in the US. The New Republic has come out swinging in its editorials, calling for the US to get tough with Syria. The Weekly Standard has done the same in an article by Jeffrey Azarva of the Enterprise Institute, entitled, "Getting Serious About Syria." Michael Young, the Lebanese commentator, has done the same in a New York Times op-ed, "Middle East II: Israel's invasion, Syria's war." He writes: "Unless something is done to stop Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, from exporting instability to buttress his despotic regime, little will change." He advises the UN to send troops into Lebanon to disarm Hizbullah, Israel to call off its invasion, and the US to talk tough with Asad. This all sounds reasonable, but the UN will never send troops to disarm Hizbullah. Israel has already been down that road with little success. If Israel cannot get Hizbullah to cry uncle, no one else will be able to. We will see how much success Israel has along these lines in the next week or so.
A secondary debate about Syria's role in Lebanon is being hotly contested. Does Hizbullah take its marching orders from Syria? Paul Pillar, a leading CIA analyst who got fired for giving bad news to Bush on Iraq, claims that Syria is not Hizbullah's master in the LA Times.
Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, said that Iran and Syria "subcontract" terrorist attacks through Hezbollah.
My own take on this question is that Hizbullah's relationship to Syria is much like Israel's with the United States. As Bush said yesterday, the US does not tell Israel how to defend itself. Nevertheless, no one would suggest that Israel does not run major foreign policy moves by its friends in Washington before launching them. It would not like to get too far out ahead of Washington and lose cover. The same goes for the relationship between Hizbullah and Syria. The two have a close relationship and in something as big as the present escalation, Hizbullah would not want to lose Syrian or Iranian support. Doing so would leave it very exposed. The three powers need to coordinate very closely in the coming weeks. If they can be divided, they will be easy prey.
Israel is attempting to cut Lebanon off from Syria so that Hizbullah will be isolated and unable to resupply itself. This Israel may be able to do. The majority of its targets so far have been aimed at cutting off Lebanon's communications with the outside world.
The Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said the air strikes would continue until the Israeli soldiers were returned and the Lebanese government took responsibility for Hezbollah’s actions. Israel, he said, also wanted to deliver “a clear message to both greater Beirut and Lebanon that they’ve swallowed a cancer and have to vomit it up, because if they don’t their country will pay a very high price.” Asked about possible Syrian intervention, General Halutz said, “There’s no reason for the Syrians to jump into a pool they might drown in.”
Such talk sounds tough and good, but how exactly does Israel expect the Lebanese government to "take responsibility for Hizbullah’s actions? How is it supposed to vomit up Hizbullah? Young has suggested that the UN should fly to the rescue, but that cannot happen until Hizbullah cries uncle and asks it to send in peace keeping troops. Hizbullah is not like the Palestinians who could be shipped off to Tunis. It is Lebanese.
Anyway, Hizbullah is intent on trumpeting its own tough talk. After his house was bombed by Israeli jets, Nasrallah exclaimed, “You Zionists, you wanted an open war and you will have it,” and he promised “to reach Haifa and even farther.” He continued: “You want your government to change the rules of the game? This game will change. Now you know whom you’re fighting with. You are fighting the sons of Muhammad and Ali.”
Helen Cooper, writing an analysis piece, "U.S., Needing Options, Finds Its Hands Tied," in the New York Times, explains how the US has hamstrung itself by refusing to talk to high ranking Syrians or Iranians. She writes,
The United States does not talk to Tehran, and its communications with Syria are few; Mr. Bush recalled his ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister, in February 2005.Robert Fisk, an old Middle East hand, believes that the US will be forced to talk to Damascus when the dust begins to settle. He writes:
That has left the administration to subcontract its diplomacy to others — the United Nations, Europe, Egypt, Jordan. None are superpowers, and their influence has been limited.
Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's affable Prime Minister, may have thought he was running the country but it is President Bashar Assad in Damascus who can still bring life or death to a land that lost 150,000 lives in 15 years of civil conflict.Fisk may well be right. If Washington and Israel do have to settle this by going to Damascus, then Bashar will have sent his message loud and clear: I am here. I demand respect. Cut out all the silliness about isolation and the blind eye doctor. Syria is an important player. Anyone who wants to do business in the region will have to address me politely and be ready to trade in kind. Syria is not a charitable organization.
And there is one certain bet that Syria will rely on; that despite all Israel's threats of inflicting "pain" on Lebanon, this war will run out of control until - as has so often happened in the past - Israel itself calls for a ceasefire and releases prisoners. Then the international big-hitters will arrive and make their way to the real Lebanese capital - Damascus, not Beirut - and appeal for help.