Learning nothing and forgetting nothing
By Michael Young -Daily Star staff
Thursday, February 22, 2007

Earlier this week, two statements neatly summarized the crisis in Lebanon. The first came from the EU's representative in Beirut, Patrick Laurent; the second from Syria's official Al-Thawra daily. Both reaffirmed in their own separate ways that the Syrian regime, since its army was forced out of Lebanon in 2005, has chosen to behave like the exiled Bourbons: learning nothing and forgetting nothing.

In an exchange with journalists, Laurent had this to say about Syrian behavior in Lebanon, and about European efforts to "engage" President Bashar Assad: "We tried everything, as did many others, employing both gentle means and pressure," but nothing seemed to work. As if confirming Laurent's doubts, Al-Thawra, in an editorial Tuesday, called for talks between Damascus and the US covering Lebanon, Palestine, the Golan Heights, and Iraq. "Syria insists on a serious and profound dialogue on all subjects without exception," the newspaper asserted.

Precisely where this extraordinary statement came from was unclear. Syria is a declining power, capable only of spreading instability in its neighborhood to ward off irrelevance. However, this game, which the late President Hafez al-Assad played to perfection, no longer works. By allying itself with an Iran that Saudi Arabia regards as an existential threat, Syria is in no position to make demands of the Arab states, let alone of the United States. The Syrians recently tried to take control of the Iraqi Baath Party, and failed. They tried to midwife a Fatah-Hamas deal in Damascus, and failed again. Assad has even managed to alienate Egypt, by thwarting its peace efforts on the Palestinian front and by ensuring that Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa's mediation in Lebanon would go nowhere. And in Lebanon, Assad has so angered the Sunni community that the prospect of a Syrian military return seems fanciful.

Most alarming from a Lebanese perspective, the Al-Thawra article showed that Syria has yet to grasp that the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1559 in 2004. In insisting on Syria's having a say in Lebanon's future, the newspaper disregarded that the resolution specifically asked Damascus to end its interference in Lebanese affairs.

Assad may have come out of his summit in Tehran last week invigorated by a sense that the Iranians need him in their confrontation with the Bush administration. It was always naive to assume that Iran would pressure Assad on the Hariri tribunal at a time when the nuclear issue was on the verge of reaching a climax at the UN - with more steps possibly coming at the Security Council to impose new sanctions on Tehran.

However, it is precisely because of this that Syria should be careful. Iran's ultimate guarantee against an American attack isn't the comradeship of Damascus, but a broad Arab consensus behind the benefits of a dialogue with Iran and the undesirability of an American military response to the nuclear standoff. Iran views its talks with the Saudis as the best means to avoid a war, but also to hinder approval of new UN sanctions and avert a Sunni-Shiite conflict that would cripple Iranian initiatives in the Middle East. In this context, Assad could emerge as a burdensome ally.

The Bush administration is more subtle than it has been given credit for. It authorized the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, realizing that this reflected the central Sunni-Shiite fault line dividing the Middle East. There are some in Washington who would love to bomb Iran, but there is no domestic traction for war, leaving room for diplomacy. This is where the Saudi-Iranian talks fit in. That Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the US, was named point man on the Saudi side surely reassured the Bush administration, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney.

As the Syrians look on, what is going through their minds? Their agenda can be reduced to a single item: undermining the Hariri tribunal. Neither in Iraq nor in the Palestinian areas is Assad indispensable. In Lebanon, Syria presumably faces Iranian "red lines" limiting the kind of intimidation it can employ, which is why the Syrian-Iranian compromise is for more stalemate, punctuated by controlled Hizbullah escalations. The latest scheme is for a civil-disobedience campaign. Yet this may end up backfiring like other opposition efforts did. Shiites would suffer as much as anyone from obstruction of the country's public administration.

Iran and Syria can agree over raising the heat in Lebanon to squeeze the Saudis. But beyond that the situation becomes more complicated. The Iranians want an advantageous deal in Lebanon, but not a civil war. They also don't want to break with the Saudis, because there will be more friction with the US and the Arab world in the coming months. An Arab League summit is to be held in Saudi Arabia in March, and there is nothing Iranian leaders would like less than for the predominantly Sunni Arab states to use that event to warn against the "Persian peril." This explains why the Syrians are so eager to act now in Lebanon, to ensure they can get something on the tribunal before eventual progress in the Saudi-Iranian relationship pushes their aims to the backburner. A Saudi-Iranian rapprochement would make it much tougher for Assad to kill the tribunal, whose passage the Saudi leadership considers non-negotiable.

Assad senses that the window of opportunity is closing. His last card is a Lebanese civil war, but it's not one that Iran and Hizbullah seem willing to play. However, the tribunal won't disappear. At best, if Syria aborts formal Lebanese endorsement of the institution, this will make the move toward Chapter VII of the UN Charter more likely. Only when Assad truly accepts Resolution 1559 and embraces Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, will he persuade anyone that his regime is worth saving.
**Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY