The “pacification of Syria” represents an important stepping stone towards the final destination charted in President Bush’s Middle East Roadmap. While, in essence, the much-talked-about plan is aimed at solving the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli dispute, it would be difficult to separate the rest of the region from the overall blueprint needed to bring about lasting stability to the Levant. “Syria, Lebanon and Palestine are interwoven,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general, told me in Beirut last spring, only a few days after American tanks rolled into Baghdad, toppling Saddam’s statues and forever changing the landscape of the Middle East. “You cannot solve the problems of one without the other,” added the militant Shia cleric, speaking in his Beirut stronghold.
Indeed, the politics of the region are such that it would prove highly ineffective to try to pave a road to peace that passes through Jerusalem and Ramallah or Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh without having it go via Damascus and Beirut as well. For the peace to hold, it is imperative to incorporate all the pieces of the complicated Mideast mosaic simultaneously. Otherwise, it is likely to crumble.
Immediately following Saddam Hussein’s fall from power, it appeared for a brief while as though the United States was likely to keep its tanks rolling from Baghdad to Damascus. To maintain the momentum of their victory in Iraq, and with their eyes firmly set on the Roadmap, some in the Bush administration believed no time should be wasted in bringing Syria into the fray. Understandably, as Washington rattled its sabers, the mood in Damascus (and Beirut) was one of great apprehension. Many in the leadership, from President Bashar al-Asad downwards, repeatedly asked the question, “Are we next?” And for a few tense days in mid-April, it felt as though Damascus was clearly the next target. President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and even the usually more dovish Secretary of State Colin Powell kept throwing accusations at Syria that sounded frighteningly similar to those initially hurled at Saddam in the buildup to the Iraq war.
Amid reports that some Iraqi leaders had sought refuge in Syria, and that Syria possessed weapons of mass destruction, Damascus had the misfortune to get caught in the euphoria that followed Saddam’s removal from power. With regime change in Iraq now a reality, the natural course of action for the Bush administration seemed to focus on the next phase of its Middle East initiative: pacifying Syria and eradicating terrorism. Since 9/11, fighting terrorism, after all, had become the driving force behind America’s new foreign-policy agenda. It was, in part, what had propelled American troops into Iraq.
The importance of including Damascus and Beirut, but primarily Damascus, in a final Middle East peace initiative stems from the fact that Syria to some extent controls and, when convenient, directs groups such as Hezbollah. Washington includes the militant Lebanese Shia political and paramilitary organization, as well as the Islamist Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad (IJ), on its list of terrorist organizations. Since the end of hostilities in Iraq, Washington has placed renewed focus on these groups. During the secretary of state’s visit to the Syrian capital in early May, according to diplomatic sources, Powell told Asad that Hezbollah is a provocative force on the (Lebanese-Israeli) border, and that it can be a destabilizing factor, which is not in Syria’s interest. Powell added that there were two immediate goals: keeping the border quiet and restricting the supply of armaments from Iran transiting through Syria.
Damascus insists that Hezbollah is an independent Lebanese organization, which to a large extent it is. Without Syrian support, however, Hezbollah could not continue to operate its military wing for very long. The arms, munitions and support it receives from Iran pass through Syria. The visit to Beirut in mid-May by Iran’s president, Ali Mohammad Khatami – the first visit to Lebanon by an Iranian head of state since the 1979 Islamic revolution – is an indicator of the importance the Shia group currently plays in the Middle East political scene. It also demonstrates Iran’s desire to remain involved in the Middle East imbroglio, and Washington’s recent alarm over Tehran’s support of terrorism.
A recent study conducted by the Alliance for Research on National Security Issues, a project developed by Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and Frank Gaffney, who heads the Center for Security Policy, and overseen by San Francisco pollster Gary Tobin, also acknowledged the possibility that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Secretary Rumsfeld further hinted to reporters that Iran-based al-Qaeda operatives were involved in the May 12 bombings in Riyadh, and a State Department official was quoted as saying the United States believes al-Qaeda operatives are working out of Iran.
Damascus is reluctant to relinquish its hold on these Lebanese groups. It feels American favoritism towards Israel will play heavily against it when the time comes to negotiate a future Middle East peace settlement. Thus, the “need” of Damascus to maintain this card for future discussions. Washington, however, is determined to force an end to relations between Mideast states and what it considers terrorist groups. But Syria’s “old guard” – which President Bashar al-Asad inherited from his father, Hafiz, along with the presidency – remains extremely reluctant to accept changes. These highly influential and powerful Baath party members, who occupy key positions in the current government, such as Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam, Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa and Defense Minister Gen. Mustapha Tlass, would very much like to maintain the status quo. The continued state of no peace, no-war is their raison d’être after all; it’s what has allowed them to maintain their grip on power for three decades.
They, among other top-echelon leaders in the regime, have prevented the young Asad from implementing much-needed socioeconomic and political reforms he initially tried to carry out after assuming power. Asad today is in a precarious situation. “The father was at least able to read a Roadmap,” said Martin Indyk, senior fellow and director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. “But his son, surrounded by old-timers of his father’s regime, was unable to read the map.”
But two major recent changes in the Middle East political scene must have awakened the Syrian old guard to the reality that they are dinosaurs in a fast- changing world. The ousting of Saddam Hussein from power in Baghdad and the sidelining of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in favor of the new Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), along with President Bush’s May 9 proposal for a “Middle East Free Trade Zone,” are clear indications that more radical changes in the Middle East are forthcoming. If the influential neocons surrounding the president get their way, the post-Saddam Middle East is likely to be a very different world, where events will sporadically move forward at a dazzling pace, particularly when compared to the stagnation of past decades.
Asad is not in an enviable position. Pressures from within prevent him from moving forward with needed reforms, while demands that will be imposed by the United States are likely to leave him no choice but to re-think his ties to the old regime – including his strategic links to “terrorist groups.” Asad may eventually be forced to put distance between himself and some of the old guard. His regime may survive this test, but its current policies cannot continue. American officials were quoted at the time of Powell’s visit to Damascus as saying that the situation in the Middle East has changed and that Syria ought to be thinking about changing, too. “While Syria is no Switzerland, things are already changing for the better,” admitted a high-ranking Syrian diplomat in Washington.
Syria feels the pressure economically and politically, if not militarily. No sooner was Iraq “liberated” than Rumsfeld ordered the closure of the pipeline that transported 150,000 barrels a day of cheap oil to Syria. The Syria Accountability Act continues to hang over Damascus as a Damoclean sword, should Syria step too far out of line. And, says Stephen Seche, deputy director for Lebanon, Jordan and Syrian Affairs at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, the Patriot Act is “a tool to use as leverage.” Additionally, with the presence of more than 200,000 American and British combat troops encamped in neighboring Iraq, the Syrians can certainly feel the heat. Soon they will begin to realize the full economic impact of their lost relationship with Iraq: about $2 billion a year’s worth, according to one Middle East analyst quoted in a May 12 Washington Post report. While not a gigantic amount of money, by Syrian standards it is a considerable sum.
To Asad’s credit, he was quick to assess the seriousness of Washington’s threats and did not hesitate to take needed measures to ease the tension. The immediate result appears to have worked. The likelihood of a military assault on Syria has waned, but the pressure on groups thought to engage in terrorism, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, will certainly continue to increase in the months to come, given the Bush administration’s determination to eradicate them. As President Bush keeps reiterating, support to terrorists must cease in order to allow the peace in the Middle East to occur.
“The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001, and still goes on,” said President Bush in his “victory speech” declaring the end of major combat operations in Iraq on May Day. Speaking to a group of about 5,000 U.S. sailors and Marines from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the president made it clear that the war in Iraq was just one phase of a broader fight against terrorism. “The terrorists and their supporters have declared war on the United States. And war is what they got,” said the president. In no uncertain terms, Bush went on to say that the United States would go after anyone and any country that harbors or supports terrorism:
Any person involved in committing or planning terrorist attacks against the American people becomes an enemy of this country, and a target of American justice. Any person, organization or government that supports, projects or harbors terrorists is complicit in the murder of innocents and equally guilty of terrorist crimes. Any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction is a grave danger to the civilized world, and will be confronted.
It remains a fact that these groups, can, as wild cards, greatly upset the delicate peace process. As it stands, the negotiations that the administration is now committed to see advanced are already having a tough time getting off the ground, despite the two recent Middle East summits. The spate of terror bombings carried out by Hamas and IJ across Israel in mid-May demonstrates just how easy it can be to upset and derail the fragile talks. This is just one of the many obstructions on the Roadmap. The toughest battle for the Bush administration is yet to come: convincing Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to accept the very concept of the Roadmap. Israel has raised no less than 14 objections to it. Sharon, for his part, has said that he’s in favor of the plan “in principle,” though he has pushed for specific changes. It appears highly unlikely that Sharon will concede to demands that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories be frozen precluding even “natural growth” and that some even be dismantled, as called for by the Quartet (U.S., Russia, EU and UN).
Being the tactful politician he is, Sharon will never say no to Bush. He will say, “yes, but . . .,” just as he did at Aqaba, when he said Israel would dismantle illegal “outposts.” He never mentioned the word “settlements.” Sharon’s full acceptance of the Roadmap would be nothing short of political suicide and would go counter to everything he has stood for all these years. According to well-informed Israeli sources, the Roadmap will not be the “final working document” leading to Palestinian statehood, as intended by Bush, but will become a working document. In years to come, predicts Imad Mustapha, a senior Syrian diplomat in Washington, “the Roadmap will become similar to past Middle East peace proposals, such as U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338, the Rogers Plan, the Tenet Plan, the Mitchell Plan, and all the other resolutions and plans that have fallen by the wayside since 1948.” It will become yet another document on which to build the peace process.
Ironically, Sharon does not need to do much to force a rejection of the plan. He just needs to sit and wait. Time is squarely on his side. The onus, in this instance, falls on the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas’s primary task will be to insure security and curtail violence, particularly preventing suicide bombings by Hamas and the IJ, among others, who remain opposed to the peace plan. Failing to accomplish this will endanger the implementation of the Roadmap. But if the Palestinian Authority actively takes steps to prevent attacks against Israel from occurring, it could lead to civil war between Palestinians.
All that Sharon needs to do is continue to drag his feet on security issues, keep on demolishing Palestinian houses in retaliatory raids or, as Jackson Diehl pointed out in “Ariel Sharon’s Plan B” (The Washington Post, May 5), “continue – as he has – Israeli assassinations and raids against Palestinian militants, thereby inflaming the extremists and making Abu Mazen’s security forces appear to be Israel’s deputy sheriffs.”
Although they deny it, Damascus does offer some assistance and some logistical support to Hezbollah, as well as Hamas and IJ, the Palestinian Muslim fundamentalist groups active in the Palestinian territories and responsible for many of the violent acts, such as suicide bombings. Syria, however, insists that these groups operate only media bureaus in Damascus. It regards its support for and association with these groups as the ace up its sleeve to be brought out at the appropriate moment.
With the disappearance of Saddam Hussein from Baghdad and the dismemberment of the Iraqi army, once the largest and most powerful Arab military force, Syria now remains the sole Arab state that could represent any real threat to Israel, or for that matter, pose a serious roadblock to the peace process. On the other hand, Syrian participation in the peace initiative could be greatly beneficial to the entire process. Egypt and Jordan have already signed peace treaties with the Jewish state. Lebanon, the remaining country sharing a border with Israel, would not on its own represent much of a menace if Syria decided to restrict Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups operating from its territory and over which it wields considerable influence. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) headed by Ahmad Gibril, for example, has launched several Katyusha rocket attacks against Israel from southern Lebanon since Israel’s withdrawal from that area in May 2000. Gibril is based in Damascus, and, given the stringent security measures and tight control imposed on Palestinian groups by Syrian security services, it is doubtful that he could have operated without at least the acquiescence if not the outright approval of Syrian authorities. Ergo the thinly veiled American threats to Damascus and the importance at this juncture of bringing Syria into the peace camp to eradicate these threats.
This brings us to the Lebanon segment of the puzzle. Before Hezbollah can be militarily weaned from south Lebanon and distanced from the Israeli border area, the void their withdrawal would cause needs to be filled by units of the Lebanese army.
This, however, is unlikely to happen; the Lebanese army under current circumstances is simply not up to the task. Additionally, as long as Israel continues to occupy the area known as the Shebaa Farms – a small parcel of land where the borders of Syria, Lebanon and Israel converge and which Lebanon claims as theirs – Hezbollah is unlikely to withdraw. To further complicate matters, Israel insists these “farms” belong to Syria and would be unlikely to cede this area prior to an overall peace agreement with Damascus. But before Damascus is likely to sit down at the negotiating table, it would want to seek certain assurances from the United States. This will necessitate some serious political muscle flexing by the U.S. government on both sides of the Middle East dispute.
Mistrust of America runs deep in the Arab world, and events that have recently unfolded in Iraq have not built confidence. In the months to come, Washington will have to convince Damascus that the alternative to peace would be extremely unpleasant for the ruling Baath party in Syria. Perhaps simply raising the specter of Saddam and the fate of the Iraqi Baath would jolt the Syrians back into today’s political reality. “The Syrians have only to look at what happened next door to recognize the importance of recent events in Iraq,” said Theodore Kattouf, the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, on the Dubai-based TV satellite network al-Arabiya in April.
Initial negotiations by the U.S. government with Syria will insist that Damascus suspend all aid and support to the “terrorist” groups. As Ahmad Gibril, the aging leader of the PFLP-GC who is also on the State Department’s terror list, told this correspondent in April shortly before the Syrian government banned him from talking to the press, “The U.S. will barter with Syria and the Palestinians.” It’s a longstanding Syrian demand that Israel withdraw to its pre-June 5, 1967, borders, returning the Golan Heights as a precondition to any lasting peace arrangement with Israel and before any long-term stability can become a reality in the region. If peace is to be achieved, the United States will have to persuade Israel to return the strategically significant Golan to Syria. Here is where the process becomes somewhat more complex. Washington will, at the same time, need to convince Jerusalem that it, too, needs to get serious about the peace process, and address the thorny issue of Israeli settlements. Not an easy task by any means.
While Israel has the Golan with which to negotiate a peace deal with Syria, Syria holds no bargaining chips other than the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups. Syria can offer Israel recognition and peace, but its control over Hezbollah is its trump card. Hezbollah can, if it chooses, undermine any peace. The stability of the region therefore includes Lebanon, which remains under Syrian tutelage.
Thus the importance of Hezbollah. Fighting terrorism (and uncovering WMD), after all, was what propelled the U.S. invasion of Iraq – to sever links the Bush administration accused the Iraqi regime of having with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Preemptive deterrence had become the leitmotiv of Bush’s post-9/11 policy. The avowed aim was to prevent the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was accused of possessing from falling into the hands of terrorists.
After accusations were lobbed at Syria in the ebullience that followed the overthrow of the Iraqi Baath party, Syria reacted by sealing its borders with Iraq, a clear indication of how seriously Damascus took those warnings. That was clearly the easy part. Dealing with the “terrorist” groups will not be as simple. While Damascus might aid and abet some of those groups, in reality it does not fully control them. “We are part of the (American) target,” admits Sheikh Qassam, deputy chief or Hezbollah, who realizes that the United States will try to persuade and pressure Damascus to withdraw the support that Shia group currently enjoys.
The United States has long believed Hezbollah to be responsible for a slew of deadly anti-American attacks. These include the destruction of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in April 1983, when an explosives laden truck rammed the diplomatic legation, and the massive bombing of the U.S. Marine compound near Beirut airport that killed 241 American servicemen in October of the same year. While Qassem does not admit that Hezbollah carried out the attacks, he says that “the forces that attacked the Americans were fighting against their presence in Lebanon.”
Hezbollah has no desire to expand outside Lebanon or the region. In fact, the militant Shia movement, whose name means Party of God in Arabic, has, since Israel’s withdrawal from most of south Lebanon, limited its attacks to Israeli military positions in the Shebaa Farms. But the United States (and Israel) would like even that to stop. As Washington begins to move forward in its post-Iraq-war policy, it will realize that compartmentalizing the region’s problems and addressing each one individually might not be entirely feasible. In the next phase of implementing its post9/11 Middle East planning, the United States will have to address several issues simultaneously.
“Our situation is different from the Iraqis’,” said Qassem. “They did not have the support of the people. The Iraqi government was defending itself, not the people of Iraq. It had no friends left in the region.” Hezbollah, on the other hand, is seen in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world as a legitimate resistance movement. In Lebanon, where it has several members serving in the parliament, it enjoys strong popular support even among some Lebanese Christians, who view it not as a religious but as a resistance group. It was largely Hezbollah’s guerilla war against Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon that eventually forced Israel to withdraw after 22 years. In the eyes of many in the Arab world, by pressuring Israel through continuous guerrilla attacks, Hezbollah managed to accomplish something that no Arab army has ever been able to do. This is why pressure is bound to come down on Hezbollah. Yet Qassem says his group does not fear pressure. Furthermore, “Syria could say Hezbollah is a Lebanese group that we (Syria) do not control.” This might be somewhat over-simplified.
If the United States feels stronger today after its relatively easy victory in Iraq, Hezbollah, too, feels it is stronger, “both politically and militarily,” says Qassem. The Shia cleric is quick to add, though, that this is not because they want to do anything other than defend themselves. If the United States views the world differently pre and post-September 11, “for us,” adds Qassem, “nothing has changed since 9/11. The United States considered us terrorists before, and they still do now.”
This view might need to change if the region is to see stability any time in the near future. Militarily, it would be suicidal for the United States to attempt a head-on confrontation with Hezbollah. As Qassem pointed out, Beirut is not Baghdad; unlike Saddam, they enjoy the support of the local population. The narrow streets and crowded alleyways of Beirut’s southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s stronghold, would be a deathtrap for American soldiers, much too constricted for Abram tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. It is worth recalling that the Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982 lasted 83 days and was met by fierce resistance, despite a medieval-style blockade and relentless ground, naval and aerial bombardment. By comparison, the capture of Baghdad was a walk in the park.
While no one in the Middle East believes a military confrontation between the United States and Hezbollah is in the cards, politicians and analysts are almost unanimous that the United States would have to accept a “Hezbollah-lite” version of the group. “Over the years I have watched Hezbollah become a political party,” says Richard Murphy, senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. They have shown “extraordinary self-discipline,” adds Murphy, a career foreign-service officer who was ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.
In all likelihood, following an agreement with Israel over the remaining land dispute – the Shebaa Farms – Hezbollah would forsake its military wing and become solely a political entity, something which seems already to be in progress.
“Syria,” says the militant cleric, “sees Hezbollah and the Palestinian resistance as part of its strength.” So the pacification of Syria could not come about without a settlement of the other two issues as well. These are parallel tracks on the long, tortuous road to peace. As Asad told Powell during their May meeting, the most effective way to deal with Hezbollah is to deal with the occupied territories. He was, of course, referring to the Golan Heights.