The Region: Stay away from Syria

Damascus is partners with bin Laden, and the chief enemy of Lebanese democracy.

By BARRY RUBIN
September 25, 2006 20:24
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barry rubin column 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Why is the West so eager to appease the current state sponsor of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida? Five years after al-Qaida carried out the September 11 attacks, amid all the mourning and commemoration for that anniversary, the US, Europe, and even misguided Israeli leaders are rushing to negotiate (and aching to make concessions to) the country that is the closest thing to a sponsor of al-Qaida today. I refer to Syria. The facts are simple and public: The main battle being waged by bin Laden's men today is the Iraqi insurgency, whose leaders openly acknowledge their adherence to bin Laden and his organization. Syria is the main sponsor of the Iraqi insurgency, which means it is meeting with, paying off, training, arming, giving safe transit to, and probably making plans with al-Qaida. And if there is a war on terror today, it is Syria which sponsors not only Hamas and Hizbullah, but also other groups in Lebanon like the Palestinian Asbat al-Ansar and the Sunni Lebanese group, Islamic Action Front, of Fathi Yakan. Why is all this forgotten when it comes to assessing the role of Syria in the region? Iran, too, backs many such groups but at least, unlike Syria, it is not massively and directly supporting an al-Qaida war of terror on both the West and Arab Muslims. In the next few days the UN-sponsored commission on the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 is going to issue a report blaming Syria for the killing. This is clear from the interim reports that have already been released by it. There will be attempts to establish an international tribunal to try for murder the very top Syrian leaders, including the brother and brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad. As if this were not enough, one increasingly hears proposals to sell out Lebanon to the Syrians in exchange for behaving better, or even giving both the Golan Heights and Lebanon back to Damascus if Syria promises to restrain Hizbullah, or something like that. IT SEEMS very difficult for people to understand the rather obvious principle that dictators and extremists don't always tell the truth. The only thing keeping the West from giving hundreds of millions of dollars to a Hamas-led Palestinian government is that group's being either dumb enough or principled enough not to pretend it recognizes Israel. Thus Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas runs around, most recently to the UN, claiming that his supposed national unity government (which doesn't seem to exist in reality) will ensure the moderation of Hamas. This is clearly a fig leaf plan whose sole purpose is to get Western aid money. This money would be used, for example, to pay the salaries of teachers taking orders from a Hamas education ministry to instruct children that Jews are subhuman, and that the West consists of Crusaders trying to destroy Islam. Yet Hamas keeps spoiling things for Abbas by making clear that it still maintains a hard-line goal of wiping Israel off the map (or, in international legal terms, genocide). IN CONTRAST, Syria has no trouble playing a double game and outwitting its adversaries. Back in 2004 Syrian dictator Bashar Assad told a visiting American that he was ready for serious secret negotiations with Israel. A whole conference was planned, including senior Americans and Israelis, only to be cancelled by Assad at the last moment. Yet this kind of strategy - call it stall and deflect - serves Assad well; especially since Western analysts don't see through his game. What Syria wants is the exact opposite of the things Westerners suppose that it needs. Clearly, controlling Lebanon is worth 20 times the value of the Golan Heights in material terms. For Assad, Lebanon is the equivalent of what Kuwait was for Saddam Hussein in Iraq: a neighbor that can be looted for big profits to be distributed to buy loyalty. And if you have a whole wing of the economy based on smuggling, counterfeiting, the drug trade, and the massive employment of Syrians in Lebanon, who needs economic reform at home? Syrian officials can scarcely talk about anything without making a threat. Right now there are thinly veiled hints that the international forces in Lebanon will be attacked - no doubt by Syrian agents using made-up organizational names - if they really try to block arms‚ smuggling to Hizbullah, or interfere with Syria's interests. The Syrian formula for this is to denounce the "internationalization" of Lebanon, which is supposedly trying to uproot it from its Arabism (that is, Syrian control) and make it part of the West. In Lebanese politics Hizbullah is acting aggressively to get control of the central government. The alliance of Hizbullah, pro-Syrian politicians and renegade Christian leader Michel Aoun is pitted against the March 14 alliance of Christians, Druse, and Sunni Muslims, who want Lebanon to be a real sovereign country with a functioning government. The March 14 moderates would like to win over Nabih Berri, whose Amal group has support from about 20 to 25 percent of Shi'ite Muslims and can challenge Hizbullah, whose popularity is not so high as its constituency faces the costs of Hizbullah's war on Israel. But why should the real defenders of Lebanon, much less Berri, take on a group that has lavish support from Iran and Syria, while they enjoy no help from the West? BEHIND THE political maneuvering is the ever-present threat of violence. No pro-Syrian figure has ever been assassinated in Lebanon, while leaders of all three predominantly oppositionist communities have been killed by Syria. In the last 18 months there have been at least 14 attempted assassinations, many of them successful, of those criticizing Damascus. If the West really wants to aid the Lebanese people it will support those seeking to preserve that country's independence and help it establish a government capable of controlling its territory. After a three-decade-long collaboration with Syria's domination of its neighbor, it is both a moral (as well as strategic) obligation, and the least that can be done to promote stability in the region. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

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