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The Syria Problem By: Lee Smith
The Weekly Standard | Monday, September 11, 2006


The civil war in Lebanon may have already begun, or perhaps it never ended and is now entering a new phase after 16 years of relative calm. Yesterday a roadside bomb injured Lt. Col. Samir Shehade of the Internal Security Forces and killed four of his associates.

Shehade had been assisting the U.N. investigation into the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. "The attempt was almost invariably linked to the investigation," says Beirut Daily Star opinion page editor Michael Young. "And it targeted the number two person in an ISF branch considered to be controlled by the Hariri Camp."

The ISF, which is not part of the Lebanese army, is also the body that American policymakers have sought to strengthen on behalf of the Siniora government with financial assistance and FBI training. An attack on that institution then might be understood as an attack on the Sunnis, and, more broadly, the Saudi-US-French project in Lebanon.

Before Hezbollah's war with Israel, that alliance was counting on the U.N. investigation to break Syria's hold on Lebanon and punish Damascus to an extent that the Assad regime might have trouble surviving. "Syria's overwhelming priority is to escape the murder rap by any means," says William Harris, a professor of political studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Indeed, it is so vital, says Harris, that Hezbollah's war with Israel should be seen in this light. Nasrallah wasn't fighting on behalf of the Iranian nuclear program, but to move the Hariri investigation to the bottom of the international agenda.

"From Iran's perspective," says Harris, "Hezbollah's use of the arsenal was probably premature. The nuclear issue is on a longer time-frame in which these few months are not critical. However, these months are critical for Syria's fate."

This theory also explains the media campaign Bashar al-Assad's regime is now openly waging against Saudi Arabia, or what news sites close to Syria's presidential palace have started to call "The Kingdom of Scattered Dust."

"Assad's inner circles are charging the Saudis with all kinds of sins," says Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and editor of Syria Monitor. "Everything from accusing the Saudi military attaché of reaching out to Syrian tribal leaders trying to get them to revolt against Assad, blaming Prince Bandar for coordinating with Assad's opponents, former VP Abdel-Halim Khaddam and Muslim Brotherhood head Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, and claiming Riyadh supports the Israelis."

Some of those charges may contain a kernel of truth. "I suspect the Syrians were especially angry with the Khaddam and Bayanouni interviews on Hariri's Future TV," says Michael Young, "which might partly explain targeting the ISF deputy yesterday."

As for supporting the Israelis, it's no secret that Riyadh wanted Hezbollah defeated and their Syrian and Iranian patrons pushed back.

Badran explains this war of words as Damascus's way of highlighting its strategic commitments. "This is another indicator that Assad has made his choice to hitch his ride to Iran. The notion circulated in U.S. diplomatic and media circles about prying Syria away from Iran is ignorant of the reality in Syria."

Last time we checked in on Damascus, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel were all ambivalent about regime change. The United States was worried about regional stability, and, more specifically, a Muslim Brotherhood take-over. That was also a concern for the Israelis, as was the possibility of the United States saddling them with a Syrian Abu Mazen--another weak, though ostensibly moderate, Arab leader for whom Washington would demand concessions, notably the Golan Heights. The Saudis just didn't want to see another Arab regime fall for fear the Americans might make a habit of it.

Things have changed. The United States is rumored to be meeting with Muslim Brotherhood representatives among other opponents of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, according to the Arabic-language website Elaph, refused to meet with a Syrian emissary, and is instead giving the enemies of Damascus enough air-time to make their case. So, where does Israel stand?

It's hard to tell. Right after the war, Amir Peretz, Israel's novice minister of defense, and former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter talked about opening up peace channels with Damascus, which Olmert thankfully shot down. Maybe Jerusalem has good reasons to look past its problems with Syria--Iran being the number one threat to the Jewish state--but it may also indicate that Israel's national security strategy has hit something of a wall.

Many Israelis believe that a major benefit of the recent war is that Hezbollah is no longer seen by the international community as a national resistance outfit but rather as an instrument of Syria and Iran. However, it remains unclear whether or not anything will be done to stymie that relationship, even by those nations that dispatch UNIFIL troops. Ironically it is Israelis, who have distrusted the U.N. ever since 1967, who are now counting on the moral clarity of the international community. Their neighbors to the north, if they had a choice, sure wouldn't.

Given the nature of Lebanese sectarianism and the fragility of the Lebanese state, the Lebanese themselves have long viewed their political situation with an eye toward regional and international conflicts, mindful that Lebanon is a stage on which many outside actors pursue their own interests. The Israelis, of course, have long been isolated from most of the region's powers. For Israel, things are relatively simple: They must consider the Americans, a host of enemies, and a Europe full of nuisances. As we have seen, Lebanon's obsession with other interests, and frequent courtship of them, has rendered the country incapable of saving itself. And yet, the Lebanese are adept at convincing others that their interests lie in helping to rescue that beautiful damsel that is Lebanon.

Of course, it will be a long time before the Arabs believe it is to their advantage to help Israel openly. Still, it says something about the relative insularity of Israeli strategic thinking that so many here should be surprised to find themselves, all of a sudden, on the same side as the region's conservative Sunni regimes.

Even before the end of the war, Israeli intellectuals had started to hammer away at the failures of the political and military leadership, though they did so in the absence of an accurate assessment of the damage to Hezbollah. Introspection and unsparing self-criticism is what distinguishes Israeli society from every other country in the region, and perhaps the world; moving at such a pace, however, does not seem conducive to formulating a good long-term strategy: Oslo and Disengagement are the two most obvious examples of this problem.

Maybe some Israelis were surprised when Siniora rebuffed Olmert's vague peace overtures. As every Lebanese, pro- or anti-Israel, knows instinctively, the bottleneck is Syria. If it will be a long time before Israel can have a real accord with its neighbor, the country's leaders can learn at least one thing from the Lebanese experience: Syria is a problem that will not go away.

Lee Smith, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut, is writing a book on Arab culture.

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