Saturday, December 26, 2009

The ascent of the little dictator

From Commentary Magazine, 22/12/09: Assad Returns as the Strong Horse, by Michael J. Totten:

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri just spent two days with Syrian strongman Bashar Assad in Damascus, and you’d think from reading the wire reports that Lebanon and Syria had re-established normal relations after a rough patch. That’s how it’s being reported, but it’s nonsense.

Hariri went to Damascus with Hizbullah's bayonet in his back.

Assad's regime assassinated Saad Hariri's father, Rafik, in 2005. There is no alternate universe where Saad Hariri is OK with this or where his generically "positive" statements at a press conference were anything other than forced.

I was invited to dinner at Hariri's house earlier this year. Trust me: the man is no friend of the Syrian government or Hizbullah. His political party, the Future Movement, champions liberalism and capitalism, the very antithesis of what is imposed in Syria by Assad's Arab Socialist Baath party regime and the totalitarian Velayat-e Faqih ideology enforced by the Khomeinists in Iran and in the Hizbullah-occupied regions of Lebanon.

Hizbullah and its sponsors in Tehran and Damascus have forced Hariri to surrender to its continuing existence as a warmongering militia that threatens to blow up the country again by picking fights with the Israelis. The national army isn't strong enough to disarm Hizbullah. At the end of the day, Hariri has to do what Hizbullah and its friends say unless someone with a bigger stick covers his back. When Hariri went to Damascus, everyone in the country understood it meant Syria has re-emerged as the strong horse in Lebanon.

The U.S. and France did effectively isolate Assad with Saudi assistance when George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac were in charge, but presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy think they can save the Middle East by “engaging” its most toxic leaders.

Syria, therefore, is no longer isolated. Lebanon’s little anti-Syrian government doesn’t stand a chance under these circumstances, especially not when Hezbollah is the dominant military power in the country.

“It’s a dangerous game these people are playing,” Lebanese activist and political analyst Eli Khoury said last time I spoke with him in Beirut, “but I think it’s only a matter of time until the newcomers burn their fingers with the same realities that we’ve seen over and over again.

... now the U.S., France, and Saudi Arabia are bringing Assad in from the cold and giving him cocoa. His influence, naturally, is rising again, in Lebanon and everywhere else. That's good news for Hizbullah and Iran. It's bad news for the Lebanese, the Americans, the French, the Saudis, and the Israelis. None of this was inevitable, but - in Lebanon, at least - it was predictable.

From Jerusalem Post, 23/12/09: Domino Effect Seen in Lebanon, by Jonathan Spyer*:

Last week's visit by Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri to Damascus is the latest marker in the return of the coercive Syrian presence in Lebanon. It is also an indication of Syria's successful defiance of the west.

The pro-western and pro-Saudi March 14 movement, led by Hariri, achieved a modest victory in elections in June. This victory was effectively nullified in the lengthy coalition "negotiations" that followed. The new government as finally announced in November represented the unusual spectacle of a wholesale capitulation of the electoral victors before the vanquished.

The Hizbullah-led opposition kept their effective veto power in the Cabinet. The government's founding statement included an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Hizbullah's continued armed presence.

This substantive conceding by Hariri of his election victory has now been accompanied by a symbolic gesture.

The Hizbullah-led opposition conditioned their agreeing to join the coalition on the Hariri visit. But this condition was originally agreed to, according to reports, by Saudi King Abdullah, during his visit to Damascus in October. This visit was a gesture of rapprochement by the Saudis to the Syrians. The main backer of Hariri and March 14 appears at that point to have signaled Saudi willingness to concede its clients to the pro-Syrian interest in Lebanon.

Unlike the Syrian and Iranian clients in Lebanon, Hariri and Co. have no "hard power" or resistance option. The only game they can play is diplomacy. So once their main diplomatic patrons had offered them up, the game was effectively over.

But why did the Saudis choose to make this gesture? On one level, the Saudis hope to pull Syria way from Iran by welcoming Damascus back into the Arab "fold." But Syria has made abundantly clear that it has no intention of ending or even toning down its staunch, 30-year alliance with Teheran.

On another level, the Saudis and Syrians share an additional, common interest in ensuring a weak, vulnerable Iraq between them.

But even this begs another question. Why should the Saudis choose to begin to engage with Iran's main Arab allies - the Syrians - against the US-aligned Iraqis? Riyadh's own patron, after all, is the United States.

Here one arrives at the crux of the matter. Although the Obama administration has hesitated before rushing headlong into renewing relations with Damascus, it has undertaken a series of gestures that have demonstrated that any real policy of isolation is over. This goes hand in hand with the broader regional stance of the administration of attempting "engagement" with the Iranian regime.

Far from signaling to Middle Eastern powers that a new world of cooperation is about to commence, what this U.S. stance conveys to friends and foes in the region is that Washington no longer has the stomach for holding fast against the bid by Iran and its allies for regional hegemony.

The actors, therefore, move to make their accommodation with the changed reality. The small dominoes are falling, like Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who visited Damascus last week in a ritual gesture of supplication to Bashar al-Assad.

*The writer is senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.

From the Weekly Standard, 10/12/09: The Murdered Fathers Club: Washington's Allies in Beirut Are Now Bowing to Damascus, by David Schenker**:

Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the leaders of the Cedar Revolution, whose fathers were all but certainly killed by Syria, are paying homage to Damascus.

Perhaps the leading factor in the March 14 leadership's decision to return to Damascus appears to be Saudi Arabia's equivocating. To mitigate the threat posed by Tehran, Saudi Arabia is attempting to pry Syria away from its 30-year strategic ally, and the first Saudi down-payment in this ill-advised gambit has been its Lebanese allies.

At least in part, this dramatic change in policy is related to the perceived U.S. weakness on Iran. Absent Saudi confidence that Washington will prevent a nuclear Iran, Riyadh is hedging.

For Washington and March 14, of course, the Saudi shift and the imminent expeditions of the coalition's senior leadership to Damascus is not good news. Simply stated, it is indicative of the fact that Syria has a new lease on life in Lebanon.

Sadly, this pro-West coalition, which came to power on the battle-cry of Lebanese "independence," appears to have come full circle. March 14 politicians are already flocking to Damascus to ingratiate themselves with Asad, and the Lebanese president is starting to become a routine fixture in the Syrian capital.

The ongoing tragedy of Lebanon will be played out in the coming days, as the murdered father's club holds its next meeting in Damascus.

**The writer is director of the Program in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

No comments: