Today the US is on a collision course with Syria. Monday, tipping its hat to international pressure, Syria began a redeployment of its military forces in Lebanon to the eastern Bekaa Valley.
The Bush administration reacted to the announced redeployment plan by bluntly stating that it is insufficient. In so doing the US held to what has been its remarkably consistent policy since the current Lebanese crisis was instigated with the February 14th assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri: Syria must remove not only its entire force of 14,000 troops, but also all its non-uniformed intelligence personnel from Lebanon before the Lebanese elections scheduled for May.
When attempting to analyze the possible and likely course this Syrian-US showdown will take in the immediate and intermediate term, it is necessary to understand what is at stake for both the Ba'athist regime in Damascus and for Washington.
Today, after 29 years of Syrian interference in Lebanon and 15 years of Syrian control of the country, Lebanon is at an advanced stage of Syrian colonization. According to New York based Lebanon expert Gary Gambill, today the Syrian economy and hence the Ba'athist regime is dependent on its control of Lebanon. "The remittances that Syria receives from the 1.4 million Syrian workers in Lebanon; the profits from Syrian agricultural exports to Lebanon; and the money that Syrian intelligence officials extort from Lebanese are more important to the Syrian economy than oil sales," he says.
So from Assad's perspective, Washington's demand that Syria end its occupation of Lebanon is tantamount to an American demand that the Ba'athists give up their power in Damascus. Syria's latest moves must be seen as attempts to maneuver itself out of the corner it has been put in by the US and France.
To this end, Syria has been operating on three levels simultaneously. First the Syrians have been using violence and the threat of violence. Exiled Lebanese president Michel Aoun has been known to quip that that Syria is a "pyromaniac fireman" because Syria achieved and maintained its control over Lebanon by abetting violence which it then quelled. In this manner Syria has secured for itself the reputation of being the only force capable of bringing stability to the country.
Since Saturday, according to the Nagy Najjar the director of the Lebanese Foundation for Peace – a consortium of anti-Syrian Lebanese exiles with close connections to the Lebanese opposition operating within the country – the Syrians and their Lebanese allies have orchestrated increasingly violent attacks against anti-Syrian activists throughout the country. On Saturday night, pro-Syrian militiamen backed by Syrian intelligence operatives attacked residential buildings in an anti-Syrian neighborhood in Tripoli. Late Saturday night, in the Ashrafiyah neighborhood in Beirut, pro-Syrian gunmen shot and wounded people sitting on their balconies. In the southern suburbs of Beirut and in Nabatiyeh in south Lebanon, Hizbullah members held pro-Syrian demonstrations accompanied by automatic rifle fire.
Hizbullah's planned demonstration for Tuesday afternoon in Beirut in an area directly adjacent to Martyrs' Square where the anti-Syrian demonstrators are located, like Syria's recently signed defense pact with Teheran and its expanded relations with Russia are all meant to demonstrate and increase Syria's strength. Taken both separately and together, there can be little doubt that Syria has the power to destroy any chance for stability in Lebanon and a proven track record in initiating chaos in order to entrench its own control.
Aside from flaunting its capability and willingness to destabilize Lebanon, Syria is also trying to find the proper combination of concessions it can offer the US to get Washington to relent in its demands. Last week's Syrian handover of Saddam Hussein's half brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan to the Iraqi government is one such concession. The symbolic but ultimately insignificant troop redeployment is another such concession.
Finally, Assad is following the traditional Arab pattern of trying to deflect criticism of his own misdeeds by linking his bad behavior to his country's conflict with Israel. Over the past several months, each time the US has increased its pressure on Syria to end its support for the insurgency in Iraq, Assad has responded by offering to begin diplomatic negotiations with Israel. The hope is that the US State Department and CIA will see his interest in negotiating with Israel as a justification for standing down in the current crisis.
For its part, the US is checking Syria's every move. Clearly implementing one of the central lessons from Iraq, the US is not limiting its demands to the removal of Syria's uniformed military forces from Lebanon. What Iraq has taught the Americans is that for Arab governments, the military is only one means of control. Saddam sacrificed his military and continued to fight with his intelligence agents and terror allies seeded among civilians.
As for Bashar's transfer of Iraqi fugitives and insurgency commanders to the Iraqi government, the moves are viewed as too little too late. The US has over the past two years provided Syria with countless opportunities to end its support of the terror war in Iraq. Syria has ignored them all.
Saturday Assad demonstrated that he remains committed to abetting the Iraqi insurgency when he claimed again that Syria is incapable of sealing its border with Iraq.
The US did not initiate the current crisis in Lebanon. It simply seized the opportunity presented by Hariri's assassination. And this opportunity is important to the US in waging the global war on terrorism. Lebanon as a vassal state to Syria is used as a base of operations by Iranian-backed Hizbullah, and has a growing al-Qaida presence in the Palestinian camps. If the US can peel Lebanon away from its Syrian and Iranian overlords and terror masters, it can weaken Hizbullah, prevent al Qaida from re-seeding in Lebanon and further isolate and weaken Syria and Iran – already diminished by the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns.
If the US stands down in Lebanon, it will be effectively throwing away any increase in its regional deterrence that it gained from its takeover of Iraq, something that will hold serious consequences for its ability to adequately respond to Iran's nuclear program.
Both the US and the Syrians are making clear that they understand that Lebanon is a zero sum game. With so much at stake, we can only hope that the US stays the course it has wisely chosen.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.