Friday, February 11, 2005

Lebanon's Fragmentation Will Ricochet Against Syria

The article below was written by Michael Young, Opinion Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is reproduced here with permission of the author.

By Michael Young

The cruelest punishment inflicted on postwar Lebanese society has been that unarmed citizens must frequently listen to the likes of pro-Syrian parliamentarian Nasser Qandil. Last week he was joined in the oratorical catacombs by Prime Minister Omar Karami, who blithely accused the opposition of being on the foreign payroll.

This theme was picked up on Monday, when a gaggle of politicians went to Ain al-Tineh to pledge allegiance to Syria, under the portentous gaze of the host, Parliament Speaker Nabih Birri, for once not condemned to playing runner-up as he was flanked by Karami and Hizbullah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. Birri said the opposition "was not guiltless of outside interference," while Interior Minister Suleiman Franjieh, also Monday, blamed the opposition because it called "for the implementation of the same demands as Israel."

This resort to the basest norms of Stalinism was instructive. It suggested that Syria's friends in Lebanon have fallen back to their last rhetorical retrenchments. Birri ignored an irony: the "outside interference" he referred to was that of the United Nations Security Council, whose Resolution 425 demanding an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon he rode to political prominence ages ago. Surely he could have done better than display double standards to make his point.

As for Franjieh, his charge that the opposition and Israel had parallel interests implied obligatory collaboration. Yet Franjieh's grandfather once fought the Palestinians even as the Israelis did; no one would accuse him of being an Israeli agent. Nor is it clear that Israel seeks an end to Syria's military role in Lebanon. A few months ago Israeli National Security Adviser Giora Eiland even suggested the opposite, warning that a Syrian withdrawal might allow Hizbullah to escalate conflict on Israel's northern border. The Israeli government rebuffed him, but the reasoning was probably more widespread than anyone cared to admit.

There was a revealing moment last week when Syria's deputy foreign minister, Walid Moallem, was asked about the possibility of a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. He sidestepped an answer by saying the matter was better discussed in the joint Lebanese-Syrian military committee. He thus undermined his own authority as a valid interlocutor with the Lebanese by reconfirming that, in relations between Beirut and Damascus, Syrian security officials still made the decisions.

The Syrians are enforcing order on the Lebanese scene, pistol in hand, though they never actually bothered with dialogue. When there was doubt as to whether Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would endorse an extension of President Emile Lahoud's mandate, he was, to quote Walid Jumblatt recently at St. Joseph's University, "made an offer he couldn't refuse, like in that scene from 'The Godfather.'" On his own account, Marwan Hamade learned a similar lesson (minus the offer) soon afterward, when persons yet unidentified tried to murder him.

The latest chapter in this dismal descent into B-movie politics was the round of statements by officials accusing the opposition of assured, yet strangely unproven and unprosecuted, subversion. The bitter exchanges prompted Jumblatt to go further than he ever had when he accused "the debris of the Baath of having, in the name of Arabism, killed Kamal Jumblatt."

Even Michel Aoun, so infuriatingly wary of his brethren in opposition, understood that he had been played for a fool with the bait of a Lebanese homecoming - transformed by Justice Minister Adnan Addoum into an assurance of arrest after the opposition demanded a full Syrian withdrawal last week. That leaves Aoun with few options but to join the Bristol grouping, or else guarantee fragmentation of the front uniting Syria's critics.

In Damascus, the UN's special envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, was apparently made to understand (during a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa) that insistence on implementation of Resolution 1559 was having a "negative impact" on Lebanon. If true, that was an underhanded threat to turn Lebanese stability into a hostage to Syrian interests. Roed-Larsen surely got the message; he reportedly emerged from the meeting with Sharaa looking unhappy, and was initially denied an audience with President Bashar Assad, the man he tried so hard to promote as a peacemaker weeks ago on an earlier Syrian visit.

It was but a small victory for Assad, as Roed-Larsen's backhand, if Syria persists in playing hardball, is likely to be a negative report on implementation of Resolution 1559 in April. Syria earned celebrity status last week as one of the very few states U.S. President George W. Bush listed in his latest gallery of rogues. In Paris on Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and French President Jacques Chirac demanded that Syria implement Resolution 1559 and allow transparent Lebanese elections. So, if the Syrians believe that heightening domestic friction among its Lebanese allies and opponents is the best way of confronting this growing international impatience with, if not hostility toward, Damascus, then Assad is being as shortsighted as a former ophthalmologist dares.

The Syrians are behaving like the scorpion hitching a ride on the back of a turtle to cross the creek. Midway into the ride, the turtle, none too sure about carrying the scorpion in the first place, feels a sting and knows he's been poisoned. "Why on earth did you do that," the turtle asks, "we're both about to drown because of your stupidity." The scorpion answers, "I know, but I just couldn't help it!"

Syria can help it in Lebanon, because the alternative, namely to smash the country if it is pried from Syrian hands, is suicidal. A broken Lebanon is far more dangerous to its neighbors than an independent one. And does the Syrian regime really believe that anyone, inside Lebanon or out, will give it the time of day if its intention is to beget a Lebanese wasteland to save its own skin?

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