Thursday, March 08, 2007

Deal with Syria, but first impose Lebanese sovereignty

By Michael Young

Add Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht to the list of dignitaries who have left Damascus biting their fists in frustration. After meeting with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallem, on Tuesday, de Gucht said he was "disappointed" that Syria would not surrender its nationals to a mixed tribunal being set up to try suspects in Rafik Hariri's assassination. Moallem added: "If the United Nations wants anything of Syria, then it must talk to Syria and base the statutes of the tribunal on Syrian law."

That's revealing coming from a regime that supposedly had nothing to do with Hariri's murder, and that often affirms its "non-involvement" in the resultant judicial process. Thanks to Syria's continued refusal to concede anything on the tribunal, the Lebanese crisis continues. This coming weekend the Syrians will get a chance to practice more of their brand of diplomacy when Iraq's neighbors meet in Baghdad to discuss the country's future. The United States should not give Syria an opportunity there to break free from the tribunal, which provides the only real leverage over President Bashar Assad to change his regime's behavior.

It is perhaps understandable that a number of policymakers and analysts in the US feel the Bush administration's present policy of isolating Syria is going nowhere. Their framework for saying so is Iraq. My friend David Ignatius expressed this view in the commentary published above, pointing out that the "administration should also start a real dialogue with Syria - and in the process shelve any half-baked ideas about regime change that may be lurking in the Old Executive Office Building. The Syrians pose a deadly threat in Lebanon, which is all the more reason to be talking with them." Isolation, the argument goes, also isolates the US. If Washington negotiates, it can use its weight to bring about desirable outcomes.

There are several problems with this assumption when it comes to Syria. The first is that opening a new page with Syria is premature. If the aim of negotiations is to advance one's aims, then Syria has shown no willingness to consider those of the US and the UN - who told Syria in late 2004 that it was time to end its interference in Lebanon's affairs and recognize Lebanese sovereignty. To talk now, while the Syrians threaten Lebanon on a daily basis, would validate their claim that threats work, and that Syria can bring envoys to its door by spawning instability in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. That's precisely the wrong message to send. The right message is that Syria can only put an end to its isolation once it accepts international law - which in Lebanon means accepting the tribunal and giving up on the dream of reimposing its hegemony over the country.

That's why defending the Hariri tribunal is so essential. The body has international backing, which means that the credibility of the five permanent members of the Security Council is tied into its success. By initiating a dialogue with Syria, by therefore implying that the crime the tribunal is seeking to punish shouldn't reflect badly on relations with Damascus, the US would empty the tribunal of its meaning. Why give up this weapon when it can make future negotiations more successful?

The quid pro quo demanded of Assad would be a simple one, and the Saudis and the Egyptians have already floated it in one way or another: Any effort to narrow the Hariri tribunal's statutes, or even to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Syria, requires that Syria first change its conduct in Lebanon. Nor is isolation of Syria necessarily failing. Even Syrian allies like Iran and Russia can see that Assad's stance on the tribunal is untenable and might cost them politically. Iran is said to have agreed with Saudi Arabia on the principle of establishing the tribunal, even if it won't take a position that might alienate Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly told the Saudis that if the tribunal were blocked in Lebanon, Russia might abstain in a Security Council vote to place it under the authority of Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

A second problem with the invitation to dialogue with Assad is that there is no evidence Syria will get the message and alter its behavior. Here is the Catch-22: If you engage Syria, Assad will assume this is due to his intransigence, which will encourage him to remain intransigent in the expectation that this will bring more rewards. The Saudis and Egyptians know the pitfalls of this logic, but also see the Syrians caught in a more sinister vicious circle: Because Assad is weak he must export instability, which is only isolating him further in the region, making him even weaker.

The Europeans, never shy about engaging Syria for the sake of engagement, particularly with so many troops deployed in South Lebanon, are also beginning to see the light. De Gucht's regrets echoed those of the European Union's representative in Beirut, Patrick Laurent. He recently admitted that the EU had "tried everything [with Syria], as did many others, employing both gentle means and pressure." To no avail.

A third reason to be wary of engaging Syria is that Assad doesn't have the confidence to carry through on many of the demands that would be made of him. The Syrian president can intimidate his domestic foes, but his authority rests on a narrower power base than his father's. He can talk to the Israelis, but it's doubtful that he can reach a final deal with them, since peace would mean substantially dismantling the security apparatus that keeps him in office. He can pretend to help stabilize Iraq, but knows that actually doing so would mean that Syria becomes less relevant. He can claim to have played a positive role in the Mecca accord between the Palestinian factions, but he knows that this only came after he failed to sponsor such an agreement himself. Today, Assad fears a Hamas exit from the Syrian orbit, which is one reason why he has been trying to place pro-Syrian groups in a Palestinian national unity government.

And, most important, Assad knows that if he were to give up on Lebanon finally and unconditionally, he might face the wrath of those within his own regime who silently blame him for the debacle of 2005. But this all begs the question: Why, therefore, should Syria abandon Lebanon at all, or capitulate in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories, if nothing is to be gained from these concessions?

The reason is that Assad, though weak, would thus be able to win his long-term political survival. Such steps would buy him Arab and international forbearance. A new attitude would mean less resistance to a narrowing of the Hariri tribunal's statutes, more vital investment in Syria, a beneficial Syrian relationship with the US and the EU; and, once Assad can broaden his power base, peace with Israel. But building up Assad's confidence and then expecting him to relinquish his cards makes no sense. If a power struggle with Syria is unavoidable, so be it. With major Arab states, the US, the UN and the Europeans on the same wavelength, it will be tough for Assad to impose his will - unless the bell of dialogue saves him first.

That's why the US should remind Syria at the Baghdad conference that deeper contacts remain undesirable. Dealing with Iran on Iraq may be inevitable; dealing with Syria is not, particularly after Assad burned more bridges to the Sunnis by trying and failing to seize control of the Iraqi Baath Party. The Syrians have to be made to realize that their regime can only last if they make fundamental concessions in the region. Assad is too brittle to demand more than recognition of his survival.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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