Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Syrian Situation

Despite the January elections in Iraq during the current US Occupation, President Bush called for complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in March:
I'd like to reiterate my call, and that is, in order for those elections to be free in Lebanon, there must be -- the Syrians must remove their troops, as well as their intelligence services. One of the things a lot of people don't understand is that Syrian influence is heavy-handed through the involvement of intelligence services throughout the government. And they must remove both in order for the election to be free.
Support of Saad HaririThis tacit about-face in US policy towards Lebanon and Syria followed closely on the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri assassination in February and the ensuing riots. What preceded it was an intricate game of balance between recognizing Lebanon as a sovereign state and staying on the good side of Syria. In the current Bush administration, ties had been even closer with Syria as it was seen as another country to bolster international support for Bush's "War on Terror". The former Syrian alliance in Desert Storm I also played into US policy as Bush planned for a preemptive war against Iraq.

The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin documents the strong ties between the US State Department and Syrian authorities as early as 2001 (well before the Iraq War and 9/11):
During his March 7 testimony before the House International Relations Committee, Secretary of State Powell presented a rather odd and flattering portrayal of Assad. The Syrian president, he said, supports the administration's new sanctions policy because "he, too, is concerned about weapons of mass destruction" - a rather surprising statement given that Syria possesses the Middle East's largest chemical weapons arsenal. In response to a question from Rep. Engel about what the administration is doing to press for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, Powell said cautiously that it would be beneficial to all concerned parties if "eventually at some point" the Syrian army left Lebanon. "I'd like to see it tomorrow, but it isn't going to happen tomorrow," he added, conspicuously neglecting to actually call upon Syria to do so.

Powell's decision to abruptly cancel a stopover in Beirut after discussing tensions in south Lebanon with Syrian officials was interpreted by many Lebanese as a tilt toward Syria at the expense of Lebanon. Surprisingly, this decision even managed to offend members of Lebanon's pro-Syrian puppet regime. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri angrily declared that "it is not enough for him to visit Damascus" in a televised interview. Addressing Powell directly, Hariri added that "Lebanon is Lebanon and Syria is Syria."

More ominously, Bush and Powell both refused to meet with the patriarch of Lebanon's Maronite Church during his visit to the United States this month, despite considerable prodding from representatives of the Lebanese American community. Powell even declined to make an appearance at a luncheon held in Sfeir's honor at the Vatican embassy in Washington on March 9, saying that his schedule was too full.
In 2003, Congress issued the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act after much public pressure after the Iraq invasion. Then in 2004, US forces detected a large concentration of insurgents flowing from Syria and Iran into Iraq. This not only threatened to slow down US operations in Iraq, but also expose the instability of Bush's terrorism policies. Bush declared economic sanctions against Syria based on the following reasoning:
Similarly, I urge the Syrian government to offer its full support to the goal of a stable and sovereign Iraq, beginning with redoubled efforts along the border to prevent the movement of foreign fighters into Iraq. The Syrian government has taken some steps in this regard, but must do more, given that individuals bent on sowing terror continue to cross into Iraq from Syria.

Additionally, it is time for the Syrian government to comply with its obligations under UN Security Council resolution 1483 and immediately transfer assets belonging to the former Iraqi regime to the Development Fund for Iraq.
The very brief mention of "occupation of Lebanon" proves how important the Iraqi relationship was in changing the entrenched US attitudes toward Syria. The Lebanese assassination was used as a vehicle to prove to Damascus the seriousness of US interests in the region. Perhaps, as the US "encouraged" the Ukranian Orange Revolution through protest training, organization and funding, the ensuing riots in Beirut were also "encouraged". It was not the freedom of the Lebanese people that was at stake here, but Syrian compliance with Iraq.

Like any symbolic gesture lacking real support, the results were mixed.

Responding to three weeks of anti-Syria demonstrations, a massive, Hizballah (Hezbollah)-organized rally filled a central Beirut square on March 8th to show support for Syria and reject the withdrawal. Hizballah, defined not only by its support of Syria, but also as an Islamic terrorist organization by the US State Department is extremely popular in Lebanon, despite its Syrian ties. Earlier in June, Hezbollah and its allies won all the parliament seats for South Lebanon with overwhelming support:
The alliance won all 17 contested seats, in addition to six seats where there had been no challengers. The two anti-Israeli, pro-Syrian groups won more than 80% of the votes. Turnout was 45%, officials said.
This, despite the Hariri-led alliance's victory after the third of four rounds of parliamentary votes on Sunday. The 44 -35 lead by the Hariri alliance over Hizballah is a tenuous majority. Today's car bomb killing of a former anti-Syrian politician proved that. It also reiterates the importance of the global community in supporting this fledgling democracy after a long brutal occupation.

It also offers as ominous foreboding in the protracted US occupation of Iraq. Will the world community at some point also demand US withdrawal from Iraq as they did of Syria from Lebanon? Will the recent Iraqi elections be seen as illegitimate as the previous Lebanese elections under Syrian occupation?

Let us hope it won't come to that. The American people have to wake up before that happens...

... right?


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