Was President Asad's Speech Radical?
Fadi's article on SC was quoted by UPI's interesting article by Claude Salhani
Was President Asad's Speech Radical?
Syria came out of the Lebanon war mercifully unscathed. It is now Syria's turn to repay Hizbullah for the strong support Nasrallah gave Syria when it was unceremoniously expelled from Lebanon in April of 2005. When Bashar was down, following the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and needed time to consolidate his forces and repair internal divisions at home, Nasrallah stepped forward in dramatic fashion to reassure Syria that it was not alone and attack Syria's enemies. He organized a stunning demonstration of support for Syria in the heart of Beirut and publicly thanked Syria for all it had done for Lebanon in bringing the civil war to an end and preserving "Arab" values. I was living in Damascus at the time; Nasrallah's speech was a great tonic for Bashar and his regime and aleviated much of the anxiety and self doubt Syrians felt about their government's involvement in Lebanon and Bashar's abilities.
The President's speech to Syrian journalists a few days ago was Bashar's effort to pay Nasrallah back. It was meant to lift Shiite spirits in Lebanon and assure them that they had strong and loyal support in Syria and beyond. Nasrallah is in no position to take a hard and combative stand at this time. He must triangulate for the next several months, allow the divisions within Lebanon to emerge and ferment without seeming to drive them forward. Asad has stepped forward to play this role.
The anti-Hariri politicians in Lebanon see this as their moment to place the blame for the war on Hariri and America's allies in Lebanon. They have been emboldened by the war with Israel, which discredited Hariri's promise that he could protect his country with Western support. Nasrallah is not in a position to drive forward this debate because he must lay low and concentrate on getting as much government and international support for rebuilding the south as possible. He must also make sure the cease-fire holds and Israeli troops are withdrawn from Lebanon. Asad can drive forward the attack on Hariri's parliamentary majority. He is acting much like Newt Gingrich in the US Republican Party. No Republican campaigning for office can declare that the US is fighting World War III, but Newt can. His job is to put backbone into the American right and shore up his party's all or nothing stand on Iraq and the War on Terrorism. He is serving his party by dishing up the fire and brimstone militarism that those officials running for office dare not.
Asad has temporarily stepped into the role of party whip, while Hizbullah repairs its home base and Iran faces its own troubles at the UN. With international pressure temporarily off Syria, Asad must stop forward to take the fight to the opposition.
Asad's speech was not so radical, however. Yes, he blamed Hariri and his people for being on the side of Israel and set off powerful counter-attacks from Hariri and Jumblat. But this is nothing new. The two sides have been at war for almost two years now. What is more, Hariri and Jumblat got in some good digs of their own. All the same, Hariri was forced on the defensive. He was obliged to open his speech with a condemnation of Israel, claiming "The history of Israel is a black history, a hateful one, of destruction.... Israeli attacks can destroy Lebanon (physically) but will not touch Lebanese unity." He said, Israel had a history of "living off the blood" of Palestinians, Lebanese and other Arab people. He also was forced to praise Hizbullah's fierce resistance for placing Lebanon at the forefront of the Arab cause and for winning it respect from friends and foe alike. Hariri was forced to claim Hizbullah's struggle as his own, something his enemies must take pleasure in hearing.
Asad is tilling the ground for the demand for new Lebanese elections, which many Lebanese politicians have already begun to demand. This was their demand during the National Dialogue of March and April and it has only become shriller in the aftermath of the disastrous war.
But at the heart of Asad's speech was Syria's demand to reopen negotiations with Israel over Golan. This is anything but radical. He is appropriating Israel's long announced stand in favor of land for peace.
By accompanying his demand for peace with an equivalent insistence that Syria has a military option as well is simply normal politics. George Bush would not suppose to negotiate with his adversaries without stating that America has a military plan and that "all options are on the table." The use of both carrots and sticks is accepted diplomatic procedure.
Syria would be foolish not to draw lessons from Hizbullah's successful resistance and military tactics. Israel is now discussing how to counter Hizbullah's successful tactics. The Baath Party's announcement that it will do the same is smart. Syria will hire Hizbullah officers to train a new Syrian force in methods to resist an Israeli attack. This is not only smart for the military, it is also good domestic politics: many Syrians feel the army is backward and incapable. They want to be at the cutting edge. Many Syrians wanted to join Hizbullah because they feel their own government is doing nothing. Syria would be foolish not to try to import Hizbullah knowledge and tactics. Whether it can adapt such tactics to its highly centralized military command structure is doubtful, however. All the same, Syria would be foolish not to try.
Was Asad's speech directed at internal consumption alone? Following Asad's confrontational speech, Germany's Foreign Minister announced the cancellation of his imminent visit to Damascus. Many believed a visit of such a prominent European official was an important coup for Damascus and a first step in easing Syria away from the diplomatic isolation in which it has been sequestered. They were non-plussed by Asad's willingness to scuttle it.
I spoke to an officer at one of Germany's leading think tanks yesterday, who explained that Asad must have been focusing on his domestic constituency and had "made a mistake" by not taking Germany into consideration.
I suggested that Asad had not made a mistake. As evidence, I mentioned that when I spoke on the Charlie Rose Show the other day and explained that Syria wanted to break out of its isolation and looked forward to a call and possible visit of the Secretary of State, Imad Mustapha, Syria's Ambassador in Washington, corrected me. He explained that Syria doesn't want dialogue for dialogue's sake. It wants substantive negotiations as an equal and respected power. This explains why Asad reacted coldly toward the visit of the German Foreign Minister. He was coming to Damascus to ask the Syrians to stop supplying arms to Hizbullah. Germany declared that it would not be sending troops to police the south of Lebanon, but would send officers to help police the border crossings with Syria in order to stop weapons from being smuggled in from Syria. Asad is not interested in stopping such traffic unless it is part of a larger regional deal that involves the Golan. He was letting Europe and the US know that he is not begging to find a way out of isolation under any terms. He is demanding a price.
Asad knows the Bush administration is gunning for regime change in Syria, if not sooner, then later. Washington's support for Israel's war on Lebanon and refusal to bring Syria in on the cease-fire negotiations did nothing to dissuade him from this conviction.