It would be in the name of “peace,” of course. Either John McCain or Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton for that matter) will most likely be faced with a choice at some early point in their administrations.
Do we continue our policy of isolating Bashar Assad’s gangster regime or do we engage them in a dialogue as part of a Syrian-Israeli peace deal? And if we engage, do we give Syria the only thing they want from us – our pledge not to interfere in Syria’s campaign to re-occupy Lebanon?
As Lebanon Daily Star editorial editor and contributor to Reason Magazine Michael Young points out, those are the grim choices that will face the next US President:
Is it really in the U.S. interest to engage Syria in this context, when its major Arab allies are in the midst of a conflict with Iran they view as vital? In fact, I’m not at all convinced that asking Arab states to change Syrian behavior through “more robust interactions and investments in the country” would work. The Arabs have repeatedly tried to change Syrian behavior through more congenial means, most prominently at the Arab League summit in Riyadh last year. The Syrians have ignored this. Why? Because they know the price for their return to the Arab fold would be to give up on a return to Lebanon. They’re not about to do that, because only such a return, one that is total, with soldiers, would give Syria the regional relevance it lost in 2005, when it was forced out of Lebanon.
It would also allow Syria, from Beirut, to undermine the Hariri tribunal, which threatens the future of the Syrian regime and which will probably begin operating next year. In this, Syria has the full support of Hezbollah, which realizes that without a Syrian comeback, the party will continue to face a majority in Lebanon that wants the party to disarm. I find it revealing that Jon failed to mention Lebanon once in his post. That’s because advocates of engaging Syria realize that the only way you can bring about an advantageous dialogue with Damascus is to give it something worthwhile. That something can only be Lebanon, the minimal price Syria would demand to offer positive concessions in return.
And that, gentle reader, is the bottom line. Obama can talk about meeting with Assad all he wants and it won’t advance the cause of peace with Israel one damn bit unless he’s willing to betray Lebanon.
Lebanon is not only the key to Syrian influence in the region it is also the key to Assad’s survival. Some may be unfamiliar with Syria’s role in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and the formation of a tribunal (now under UN auspices due to Lebanon’s political paralysis) to try and convict the perpetrators.
The ongoing UN investigation has shown that 4 Lebanese army generals (now in custody) in cahoots with Syrian intelligence, carried out the car bombing that killed Hariri. The prosecutors have also uncovered evidence that the subsequent political assassinations of several leading government parliamentarians, journalists, and other anti-Syrian figures was also masterminded by Syrian intelligence as well as leading members of Assad’s regime – including Assad’s own brother in law Assef Shawkat who became head of intelligence 30 minutes after Hariri was killed.
The Tribunal – if allowed to function fully and properly – will no doubt indict people very close to Bashar Assad himself. This would spell catastrophe for Assad and Syria which would come under severe sanctions by the US and the United Nations. Since Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, the economy has taken a nosedive thanks to the drying up of “protection money” and other means by which Syria milked the Lebanese economy to benefit the regime. The pressure to get rid of Assad would be intense. There would probably also be calls for regime change from both Arab and western governments.
In short, most analysts agree that the number one priority of the Syrian regime is to get back into Lebanon and try and derail the Tribunal. No deal with the Arabs or the west about Iraq, about WMD, about the Golan, or about their relationship with Iran will take place without a quid pro quo involving Lebanon.
And what of Syria’s main ally in Lebanon, Hezbullah? Clearly, Syria would be keen to have Hezbullah become politically ascendant in Lebanon if they were to move back in while simultaneously diminishing Sunni influence. The Christians, under Hezbullah ally Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement party would also share in the spoils of a Syrian re-occupation. So much for Lebanese democracy. So much for Lebanese independence.
The sad fact is that either a President Obama or President McCain will be under enormous pressure to bring Israel and Syria together, believing quite rightly that the best chance to avoid a regional war is to resolve the serious outstanding issues that exist between the two countries, especially Israel’s continued occupation of the Golan and Syria’s support for Hezbullah and their murderous rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. The price of a deal will almost certainly include giving Syria a free hand in Lebanon.
Would either or both be willing to pay that price? Almost all terrorism analysts agree that bringing peace to the Middle East is important to the War against Islamic extremism. And key to that process is making peace between Syria and Israel. Would both presidents see an overriding national interest in helping make peace between Israel and Syria at the expense of Lebanon? Michael Young again:
We are in a regional struggle for power, and Syria happens to stand at its nexus point. It is a weak link that some persist in wanting to strengthen by advocating U.S. engagement of it. But what are the conditions of such engagement? If it is that Syria must surrender Lebanon, Hamas, and Hezbollah to find its salvation in a better relationship with the United States, then be assured that Asad won’t accept such a patently bad deal. He prefers to take his chances with a fight, with Iran on his side. If there are those in the United States willing to give up on Lebanon’s independence, however, and by extension allow Syria to further bolster Hezbollah, then fine. But I again fail to see how that would be in the long-term U.S. interest.
It is impossible to see whether the short term gains made by engaging Syria would ultimately come back to haunt us. But the betrayal of Lebanon for the second time in a generation would be a blot on our history and a blow to our standing as a champion of freedom and independence.