Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The USS Cole and "Syrian behavior"

Our "correspondent in Amman" (Ryan K., who's there on a Study Abroad right now) asked if I might comment on the recent Christian Science Monitor report about the stationing of the USS Cole off Lebanon .
"It's the start of a new campaign to change Syrian behavior," says Sateh Noureddine, a columnist with Lebanon's As Safir newspaper. "It's just the first signal from Washington that the Bush administration is fed up with Syrian behavior in Lebanon, Iraq, and the region. I think the Syrian regime will realize in the near future that it cannot continue challenging the whole world."
For one thing, the political situation in Lebanon is very highly charged right now, and newspapers there have been coming down very hard as either for or against the current government, which is led by prime minister Fouad Siniora, who is backed by the US and most of its allies. The columnist quoted above (and as-Safir is a major Lebanese paper) seems obviously a backer of the Siniora government. However, Lebanon is mired in a political crisis right now, centering on a parliamentary impasse that has made it impossible to elect a new president. Lebanon's sectarian politics are - and have always been - extremely complicated, more so than in perhaps any of the post-World War I states of the Middle East, including Iraq, but put simply, the major political party opposing the Siniora government is Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran - and by Syria.

To put this in deeper historical context, ever since Lebanon was carved out of Greater Syria after WWI, the government of Syria - especially after the end of the French mandate there after WWII - has insisted on maintaining its influence there. (Indeed, many in Syria and throughout the Arab world - and beyond - believe that the West illegitimately carved Lebanon out of Greater Syria to begin with, going back as far as 1860.) During the civil war of 1975-1990, Syrian forces actually invaded and occupied portions of Lebanon (with, by the way, the acquiescence of both the US and Israel at the time) as a supposedly stabilizing element. Syrian forces remained in Lebanon until only a couple of years ago, when pressure from the US (which was then riding high on the wave of "Mission Accomplished" in both Iraq and Afghanistan) and its allies compelled them to leave after the court of world public opinion pinned on Syria (probably with good reason) and its relative neophyte president, Bashar al-Assad, the blame for the bombing-assassination of former Lebanon prime minister Rafik Hariri. But even in the turmoil post-Hariri's assassination (which included the much-touted, but now moribund, "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon), the Syrian government was intent on maintaining significant influence there. That entails Syria supporting Hizbullah as well, as a home-grown domestic political proxy in the Lebanese political system and a partner against both US and Israeli interests.

Except for a brief period centered on the 1990-1991 Desert Shield - Desert Storm operation against Saddam's Iraq, when Syria (under the current president's much more capable and respected dad, Hafez al-Assad - the "Lion of Damascus" in the eyes of many) sided with the US's coalition, Syria and the US have been at odds. As an enemy of Israel, and especially after the the 1967 war when Israel invaded and occupied (as it still does today) the Golan Heights region of Syria, Syria has opposed Israeli and US designs in the Middle East (and sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War). After the Soviet Union fell and Syria had lost its most powerful patron, there was a brief moment of possible rapprochement when Bill Clinton involved the US in various Middle Eastern peace processes and Israel briefly entertained the possibility of negotiating a land (the Golan Heights)-for-peace deal with Hafez al-Assad. But that fell through. Meanwhile, the men who would emerge as the neocons under George W. Bush were already composing position papers (including the now infamous "A Clean Break" paper) advocating US solidarity with Israel in fashioning a new political order in the Middle East.

Then came 9-11, the Iraq invasion in 2003, and the heady days of Mission Accomplished when, as the neocons said, "real men" were going to move on to Tehran - and Damascus. Although the influence of the neocons has waned considerably, their ideas still have tremendous appeal to people in the Bush administration (Dick Cheney and Elliott Abrams among them), who would love nothing better than to bring down the Assad regime, by labelling Syria as

1. the mortal enemy of Israel;
2. supporters of Hizbollah, as well as Hamas (whose political leader, Mr. Haniyeh, lives in Damascus), and, of course, of Iran - therefore, in Bush's eyes, supporters of terrorist evildoers;
3. a conduit for Sunni insurgents into Iraq (and this indeed has been a problem from the US perspective for awhile);
4. as a supporter of Hizbollah, an opponent of "freedom" and democracy in Lebanon;
5. a repressive dictatorship, which in many ways it is - but so is our oil-rich "ally" Saudi Arabia.

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