by Jonathan Spyer
PART 1. SUBTLY AND DETERMINEDLY, SYRIA IS TAKING OVER LEBANON
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman is to visit Syria next week, to discuss the opening of diplomatic relations between the countries, a Lebanese official told reporters this week.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy last month hailed President Bashar Assad's expression of willingness in principle to establish diplomatic relations with Lebanon as "historic progress."
The establishment of a first-ever Syrian Embassy in Beirut is probably not imminent, for various reasons. Nevertheless, the signs of normalization in relations between Syria and Lebanon are significant. They are the latest indication of Syria's growing confidence, and far from being a harbinger of more peaceful times in the neighborhood, they offer clues as to the shape of possible further strife.
The formation of the new Lebanese government after the Beirut clashes in May represented a very significant gain for the pro-Syria element in Lebanese politics. Hizbullah now controls a blocking 11 of the 30 cabinet seats. With a Lebanese government of this type, there is no reason for Syria to be in dispute there. The short period when Damascus felt the need to express its will in Lebanon solely in a clandestine way is drawing to a close.
Still, Western hopes for the rapid establishment of formal relations between the two countries are probably exaggerated. Damascus is in no hurry. Syria's return to Lebanon is a work in progress. Assad has listed the preconditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations to become a real possibility. These include the passing of an election law, and the holding of the scheduled May 2009 general election.
BEHIND ASSAD'S HONEYED WORDS, ONE MAY GLIMPSE THE CONTOURS OF SYRIAN STRATEGY in the next stage. The election of May 2009 will be conducted under the shadow of Hizbullah's independent and now untouchable military capability.
Intimidation will go hand in hand with the real kudos gained by the movement and its allies because of recent events ursued by Syria, whereby its clients — for example Hizbullah — including the prisoner swap with Israel, and the Doha agreement that followed the fighting in May. The result, the Syrians hope, will be the establishment of a government more fully dominated by Hizbullah and its allies, in which the pro-Western element will have been marginalized.
Such a government would mark the effective final reversal of the events of the spring of 2005, when the Cedar Revolution compelled the Syrian army to leave Lebanon. Damascus would then go on to conduct friendly and fraternal relations with the new order in Beirut. Mission accomplished.
If this strategy plays out, however, it will represent not the normalization of Syrian-Lebanese relations, but rather the enveloping of Lebanon into the regional alliance led by Iran, of which Syria is a senior member.
On the ground in Lebanon, this regional alliance is still engaged in consolidating its gains. The lines separating the official Lebanese state from the para-state established by Hizbullah continue to blur. The new government's draft policy statement, which is still to be discussed by the parliament, supports the "right of Lebanon's people, the army and the Resistance to liberate all its territories."
This statement thus nominally affords the Resistance. i.e. Hizbullah, equal status with the Lebanese Armed Forces, and appears to consider it an organ of official government policy.
The new organ of government policy, meanwhile, is building its strength. Ostensibly for the mission of "liberating" 20 square kilometers of border farmland, Hizbullah has built a capability of 40,000 missiles and rockets, is frenziedly recruiting and training new fighters, and is expanding and developing its command and logistics center in the Bekaa.
The latest talk is of Iranian-Syrian plans to supply Hizbullah with an advanced anti-aircraft capacity that would provide aerial defense to the investment in rockets and missiles. Such a move would represent a grave altering of the balance of power. Serious moves towards it could well prove the spark for the next confrontation.
In all its moves, the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah alliance has known how to combine brutal military tactics on the ground with subtle and determined diplomacy. Its willingness to throw away the rule book governing the normal relations between states has been perhaps its greatest advantage. While the West sees states as fixed entities possessing certain basic rights, Iran and Syria see only processes of rising and falling power. They see themselves as the force on the rise, and the niceties of internationally fixed borders as a trifle unworthy of consideration.
THE REGION HAS KNOWN THE RISE OF SIMILAR SYSTEMS OF POWER AND IDEOLOGY in the past. Experience shows that such states and alliances have become amenable to change and compromise — if at all — only after experiencing defeat, setback and frustration.
The Syrians and their allies, of course, are far weaker in measurable military and societal terms than their rhetoric would suggest. Western (including Israeli) actions over the last years have tended to blur this fact. The general acceptance of the transformation of Lebanon into a platform for this alliance — and the lauding of it as 'historical progress' is the latest example of this. The reacquaintance of rhetoric with reality on all sides is long overdue.
PART 2. WE'LL TAKE THE DOWRY — YOU KEEP THE BRIDE
A fourth round of indirect talks between Syrian and Israeli representatives was concluded in Istanbul this week and as the Turkish mediators kept themselves in shape conveying messages between the hotel rooms of the two countries' delegations, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was keen to stress the urgency of the hour.
The time was approaching, the prime minister said, when gestures would no longer be enough. Rather, it would soon be time for the Syrians to make their choice between the "Iranian grip" and their partnership in the "axis of evil," and rejoining the "family of nations" in pursuit of peace and "economic development."
Actions and statements from Syria and its allies, however, convey a distinctly less pressing sense of the negotiations. More indirect contacts have been tentatively scheduled for later this month, but for the Syrians, the already considerable benefits derived from the very act of talking are more important than the talks themselves. Damascus's allies in Iran have also given no sign of real concern that their most important Arab allies are about to jump ship.
DAMASCUS'S MAIN AIM IN ENTERING THE TALKS WAS TO USE THEM AS A MEANS TO REBUILD RELATIONS WITH THE US AND OTHER WESTERN POWERS, in particular France. These reached a nadir in recent years, most importantly because of Syrian subversion in Lebanon, and suspicions of Damascus's involvement in the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri and a string of subsequent political murders in that country. Syria is determined to prevent the functioning of the international tribunal into the Hariri murder.
The talks with Israel are intended to demonstrate Syria's willingness to conform with Western hopes for a peace breakthrough in the region. They are part of a sort of "carrot and stick" strategy pursued by Syria, whereby its clients — for example Hizbullah — make tangible gains through the brute employment of political violence. Once it has been established that Syria and its friends cannot be ignored, Damascus then sets out to reap diplomatic gains by offering a cautious hand of reconciliation.
But this hand of reconciliation is intended to add a layer to the gains achieved through violence — not to bargain them away. This strategy has served Syria well in the past. It has been likened to an arsonist who offers his service to the fire brigade.
With regard to Syria's contact with Israel, the terms have been clear from the outset. Damascus is in no hurry. Syrian officials, speaking in Arabic, have made clear that they believe the negotiations would likely take between one and three years for completion, and that no summit meeting would be likely in the foreseeable future.
THE SYRIANS HAVE ALSO MADE CLEAR THAT DAMASCUS'S LONG-STANDING ALLIANCE WITH IRAN IS NOT A SUBJECT OF DISCUSSION in the talks, which are concerned with regaining the Golan Heights by Syria only. As Samir Taqi, the Syrian "independent researcher" who handled the initial contacts preceding the negotiations put it, "It would be naive to think Syria will neglect or abandon its strategic alliances that do not stem from the Arab-Israeli conflict."
So far, the strategy seems to be paying dividends. For the cost of the flight tickets and hotel rooms in Istanbul, Assad has ended Syria's isolation. He and his wife found themselves feted in Paris in early July where Syria was welcomed into French President Sarkozy's new Mediterranean Forum. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem beamed after his meetings with French officials that the Hariri tribunal had not even been mentioned.
The reception in Washington has been more cautious, of course. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welsh made it clear that he was not prepared to meet with Syrian official Riad Daoudi as part of talks with an "unofficial" Syrian delegation in the US last week.
But here, given Syria's projected time frame for negotiations with Israel, it is evident that Damascus is looking beyond its foes in the Bush Administration. Assad evidently expects a more friendly face in the White House by early 2009, and this offers a further reason for Syria's lack of haste.
With all this rapprochement going on, the alliance with Iran seems safe and sound. Muallem was in Teheran this week, and met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The two reconfirmed what Ahmedinejad called their "regional cooperation," and the Iranian president lauded the foiling of "the Zionist regime" and America's plans in Lebanon and Syria.
Thus, the act of talking in Istanbul seems a worthy investment. But it is the side benefits of the conversation which interests Damascus.
This was perhaps most eloquently summed up yesterday on the Web site of the official Syrian newspaper Tishreen. While the regional newspaper Sharq al-Awsat devoted two editorials this week to dissecting the negotiations, on the same day that the talks resumed, Tishreen's homepage failed even to acknowledge that they were taking place. Instead, the lead story on its Web site informed readers that his excellency President Bashar Assad met with a delegation of American churchmen. In the meeting, we are told, his excellency stressed the importance of dialogue between nations.
There could be few more eloquent demonstrations of Syrian intentions. When it comes to negotiating with Israel, Assad is keen to take the dowry, while showing little enthusiasm for embracing the bride.
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center (GLORIA) at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya Israel.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.