December 14, 2010

Syria: American foreign policy failure

Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad

It was just five years ago that the so-called Cedar Revolution in Lebanon* forced Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to withdraw his forces from the smaller country, handing the Syrian leader a major foreign policy defeat. In the aftermath of the February 14, 2005 assassination of former, and well-respected, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the Lebanese body politic unified in a manner rarely seen in the multi-confessional and multi-factional country. Thousands marched in the streets to demand the removal of the Syrian military forces that had been in the country since 1976 when they intervened in the Lebanese civil war.

The perpetrators of the assassination are thought to be the Hizballah terrorist organization with Syrian military intelligence support and complicity. It's not hard to believe that these two groups were responsible. It was no secret that there was no love lost between al-Hariri and al-Asad. Al-Hariri had resigned his office a few month earlier in protest to Syrian hegemony over the country.

At the time of the murder, nothing of significance happened in the country without Syrian knowledge or approval. Syrian military intelligence maintained an extensive network throughout the country to ensure Damascus was involved in all facets of Lebanese life. Hizballah merely executed the al-Hariri assassination on Syrian orders; the group has a lot of experience with truck bombs, after all. Evidently there is reason to place credence in the belief that Hizballah was involved. The United Nations tribunal on Lebanon is believed to be on the verge of handing down indictments against senior Hizballah officials for the murder. Of course, Hizballah denies it, and Syria claims the evidence was fabricated.

The removal of Syrian troops was surprising to many Syria-watchers, myself included. I remember clearly the day that Syrian troops entered Beirut in 1976. The spring of 2005 was the first time in almost 30 years that Lebanon was free of a huge Syrian military presence.

This should have been a golden opportunity for American foreign policy. For the first time in decades, there was a serious crack in Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. Many Lebanese factions had united against a common enemy. The alliance included former friends and foes alike: virtually every group and party in the country except Hizballah and resident Syrians joined to protest the continuing Syrian presence. The overwhelming belief was that the real culprits in the al-Hariri assassination reside in Damascus.

In the intervening years, the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration adopted different strategies to deal with Syria; both have failed. Immediately after the al-Hariri assassination, the United States recalled its ambassador, believing (correctly in my opinion) that Damascus was complicit in the murder. The Bush Administration continued to try to isolate the Syrians until the end of its term.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, he instituted a policy of engagement toward Syria, hoping that a more positive tone might yield better results. The goal of Obama's Syria policy was, and is, to restart the moribund Israel-Syria track of the Middle East peace process. That sounds easy, but is not. In order for progress to be made toward peace between Tel Aviv and Damascus, several difficult objectives must be met. For Syria, nothing will happen without a commitment by the Israelis to return the occupied Golan Heights to Syrian control.

Israel will extract a price for the return of the Golan which it has occupied since seizing the area in 1967. In addition to spending millions of dollars on agricultural infrastructure, it has built a huge intelligence gathering station at Har Avital (Tal Abu Nada to the Syrians). It will not easily give up its ability to monitor events in southern Syria, nor will it want to give up its control of the headwaters of the Jordan River.

For the Israelis, any agreement will require that Syria stop providing weapons to Hizballah, and stop permitting Iran to use its airspace and territory to provide the terrorist group the money, weapons and training it needs to survive. The Syrians and Iranians have resupplied Hizballah since the 2006 Israel-Hizballah conflict with more and better weapons than before.

In the years after the 2006 war, not only has Hizballah emerged as the main political power in Lebanon, Syrian influence is on the rise. Many of the former leaders of the Cedar Revolution that opposed Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs have "converted" and now toe the Syrian line. Most notable among the pro-Syrian leaders is none other than current Prime Minister Sa'ad al-Hariri, son of the slain Rafiq al-Hariri.

The Obama Administration named a new ambassador to Syria in its attempt to engage the Syrians. Robert Ford was nominated by the President in February 2010, but the Senate has yet to consider the nomination. I doubt it will make much difference. The opportunity has passed, and Syria has outmaneuvered the United States again. It remains firmly in the Iranian camp, and casts a large shadow over Beirut, despite al-Asad's claims, "We (Syrians) don't want to intervene, we don't want to interfere in an internal Lebanese situation."

* The term "Cedar Revolution" is a western press invention. The Lebanese refer to it as the "Independence Intifadah."