It's time to act

(By Tony Badran)

By now, the objective behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s contacts with France and Saudi Arabia is rather clear: Attempting to create a renewed consensus for a full – if possible, military – return to Lebanon. This is being marketed under the pretense of a Syrian divergence with Iran over Lebanon. In order not to be left with a fait accompli at odds with its interests, the US needs to assert its leadership at this juncture in order to ensure its allies do not wander off and stumble into a detrimental arrangement with Damascus.


Assad has identified a potential opening in the French and Saudi concern over Lebanon’s stability after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) hands down indictments, which, presumably, will name several Hezbollah operatives.


Both Paris and Riyadh have apparently convinced themselves that there is now an exploitable rift between Iran and Syria in Lebanon. For instance, the French saw the recent statement by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in which he declared anything issuing from the STL to be “null and void,” as proof of daylight between the two allies’ “agendas” in Lebanon.


Incredibly, the French have somehow managed to believe that there was something “reasonable” about Assad’s attitude toward the STL, as opposed to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s position. As a result, the French are now reportedly “relying” on Assad to “restrain” his allies in Lebanon.


For the French, one primary concern would be the safety of their UNIFIL contingent, which, not coincidentally, has been singled out for harassment recently, for added pressure. Their logic, according to anonymous official French sources, appears to be as follows: Syria does not have an interest in the outbreak of violence in Lebanon, because things might not remain confined to that theater. Should Hezbollah mount a coup, the French sources reasoned, it might lead to an Israeli campaign, which in turn could escalate and drag Syria into a war with Israel.


Yet, this thinking ignores how Syria’s ventriloquist dummies in Beirut have explicitly suggested that sectarian violence in Lebanon would lead to a Syrian military intervention.


Indeed, according to pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar newspaper, Assad reportedly took French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s request of a Syrian role to its logical conclusion. The paper claimed that during their conversation, Assad allegedly told Sarkozy that Syria wouldn’t interfere in Lebanon, should sectarian clashes erupt, “unless it was officially and publicly asked to interfere to stop it.” Assad couldn’t have been clearer regarding what he was after: an official and public mandate to reenter Lebanon, in a reversal of UN Security Council Resolution 1559. A tall order, to be sure.


The premise underlying French (and Saudi) reasoning – the notion of a Syrian rift with Iran in Lebanon – is an equally gross misconception. Certainly, Syria would love to enhance its position in the alliance by recapturing the upper hand on the ground in Lebanon, now occupied by Hezbollah, or in having exclusive say in shaping future governments (a desire evident in the leaked Syrian talking points).


Meanwhile, for its part, Iran would prefer to remind everyone of the fact that it, and not the Syrians, is the primary interlocutor for all matters Lebanese by virtue of Hezbollah – Iran’s long-term project in Lebanon to which there is no Syrian parallel. If anything, Khamenei’s statement was such a reminder.


However, these maneuverings change nothing in the strategic bottom line shared by Tehran and Damascus. As any perusal of Syrian talking points and statements clearly shows, Syria considers the preservation of an intact Hezbollah a red line not to be crossed.


Consequently, the idea that Assad’s attitude toward the STL is somehow more “positive” than Iran’s is untenable. When Assad’s advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, rails against the tribunal as a Zionist plot aimed at dividing the Arabs, where exactly does she depart from Khamenei’s pronouncement about the STL as a tool in the service of US-Israeli interests?


Similarly, as the pro-Syrian As-Safir newspaper reported on Tuesday (a report that Syria has yet to deny), Assad informed the Saudis that any agreement must be premised on the rejection of the indictment and the prevention of its publication, comparing the battle against the indictment to the war to rescind the ill-fated May 17, 1983 peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel. Therefore, any notion of a constructive Syrian attitude – especially when Syria remains a primary suspect in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri – is simply absurd.


Then again, that Assad feels he has a shot at pushing through his audacious gambit is the net result of the Elysée’s failed Syria policy, which has allowed Damascus to pose as France’s primary outlet to regional relevance. Equally problematic has been the approach of Prince Abdel Aziz bin Abdullah, the Saudis’ point man on Syria, whose competence has been subject to serious doubt.


Perhaps sensing the fecklessness of the approach of these US allies, an anonymous US official made a telling statement to the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat that Washington was not informed of any “Syrian-Saudi deal,” cautioning against such deals at the expense of the tribunal. At a moment when certain Arab commentators and pro-Hezbollah papers were fantasizing about a behind-the-scenes Syrian-US “grand bargain,” the official’s dismissive statement was timely.


Unfortunately, this will be undercut by US President Barack Obama’s ill-advised decision to bypass Congress and force through during recess a number of frozen appointments, including the US ambassador to Damascus. That move sends a terrible message that only reinforces these fantasies of the US bargaining with Syria.


Washington has to be forceful at this point in order to ensure that France and Saudi Arabia don’t stray off the reservation, especially with a secondary actor like Assad. The US has already suffered from an abdication of leadership in Iraq. It cannot allow itself to be blindsided by Saudi or French maneuvers in Lebanon, leaving it to face an adverse outcome that undercuts its interests and its leverage. The time for assertive American leadership is now.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. This article was first published on NOW Lebanon.