Bouncing Back

By Armanazi, Ghayth | The World Today, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Bouncing Back


Armanazi, Ghayth, The World Today


Political fortunes ebb and flow rapidly in the Middle East. Within months both Israelis and Palestinians have installed new leaderships. And a year after its most serious reverse, Syria is feeling new confidence.

JUST A YEAR AGO, IN APRIL 2005, SYRIAN TROOPS COMPLETED THEIR hurried withdrawal from Lebanon. Despite all attempts to dress up that retreat as a mission accomplished, there was no escaping the view that it was nothing short of a humiliating reversal of major geopolitical significance. For decades Syria's grip on Lebanon was a mainstay of its strategic landscape. The oftrepeated mantra 'the unity of the two tracks' - meaning the convergence of the two countries' policies with regard to negotiating a final peace embodying the return of the Golan Heights, but also implying the closest coordination on all foreign policy issues - became irrefutable doctrine.

The late President Hafez Al Assad considered Lebanon a great strategic asset in the regional game of nations and his patience, perseverance, and tactical shrewdness paid off. Other claimants to a stake in Lebanon, Arab as well as non-Arab, beat a retreat, more often than not leaving behind a trail of blood and tears. Only the Syrians, it seemed, possessed the long-term leverage, and were prepared to put up with the cost of pacifying Lebanon.

President Bashar Al Assad continued in the same vein, after succeeding his father, but gradually brought Syrian troop levels down in a bid to counter the growing vociferous protests of a Maronite-led opposition which became more forceful. These events happened in tandem with the coming to power in Washington of an administration heavily influenced by a neoconservative agenda, and, hence, less sympathetic to an inherited view of Syria's benign influence in Lebanon.

This attitude was heavily reinforced by the mindset created by the attacks of September 11 2001, and especially by Syria's stand regarding the war launched on Iraq. Nevertheless, until the middle of 2004, there was no serious hint that the Syrian position in Lebanon was under threat. The events since then are common knowledge, with France taking a leading role, and with Syrian miscalculations, such as an insistence on renewing Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate, resulting in the passing of security Council Resolution 1559. In this the international community, reacting to heavy pressure from the newly re-formed Franco-US alliance, put Syria on notice that its days of monopoly power in Lebanon were numbered.

GOING FOR THE JUGULAR

The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri raised the level of pressure on Damascus, and Syria complied with the demand for withdrawal, in the hope that by doing so, the heat would ease. But it was not to be; the Americans immediately pounced on the opportunity to both tighten the screws on Damascus and thus neutralise its 'spoiling' role in Iraq and Palestine, while simultaneously basking in the glory of a 'Cedar Revolution' inspired by United States President George Bush's vision of a Middle East on the path to democracy.

France, for reasons of its own, one being the famously close relationship between President Jacques Chirac and the late Hariri, and another a near petulant reaction to the perceived dismissal by Damascus of French attempts to mastermind and co-opt the Syrian reform agenda, also went for the Syrian jugular. The mechanism for bringing Syria to its knees was the UN Commission investigating the Hariri killing.

When the first of those reports was delivered to the security Council last October, it was seen as a devastating document. The Head of the Investigating Commission Detlev Mehlis pointed the finger at Damascus and the Americans and French adopted ever more menacing tones about imminent sanctions, and enforcing international isolation.

Meanwhile, despite Syrian efforts to control the border with Iraq - which neutral observers, diplomats and even US military spokesmen acknowledged - the barrage of accusations of Syrian involvement in the Iraqi insurgency continued, not to mention the standard charge of Damascus' support for terror and its harbouring of Palestinian extremist groups and, of course, its links with Hizbollah. …

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