This is a moment of truth for all belligerent parties in the Middle East. Hariri’s assassination has once again focused the world’s attention on the need to get some major Levantine matters resolved and soon. The quickest solution to these “complex problems” is to shed all complexity and keep it simple. Get Syrian forces -- including intelligence operatives -- out of Lebanon. And compel the Israelis to remove all settlements and end the occupation of the Golan Heights.
With the pressure mounting on Syria to immediately implement Security Council resolution 1559, Damascus should accept that now is the time to put aside pride and demand a concurrent implementation of UN resolution 242, which obliges Israel to return the Golan. It is understandable that the Syrians do not want any comparisons made between the two resolutions. The Syrians entered Lebanon at the invitation of an internationally recognized Lebanese government and no Syrian settlements have ever been planted on Lebanese soil. On the other hand, Israel’s belligerent occupation and subsequent annexation of the Syrian Golan has been exposed as a vulgar expansionist project – as evidenced by the dozens of Jewish settlements that have been built on expropriated native land.
As always, the Syrians are sensitive about their pan-Arab credentials. But it’s time to wake up and smell the Turkish coffee. The Arab League simply doesn’t matter. It only exists because bureaucracies are easy to set up and difficult to dismantle. Today, the League is no more than a building in downtown Cairo where nostalgic Arabs can go to reminisce about what could have been if they were not so prone to tribalism. The only time The Arab League has ever proven effective was when George ‘daddy’ Bush skillfully manipulated it to get Arab armies to join desert Storm.
Despite public protestations to the contrary, virtually every Arab country in the Gulf was involved in the American invasion of Iraq -- including Saudi Arabia. They were certainly aware that a monstrous civil war could be ignited and that Iraq might never emerge intact. The Gulf Sheiks willingly took the risk that Saddam’s inheritors in Baghdad might look to Tehran for future guidance. Did it bother them that an infinitely larger and more permanent American military presence would be established in the Gulf? Hardly. As far as they were concerned, it would only mean more protection for their oil plantations and more intimate relations with the ‘Big White Father’ in Washington.
Despite continuing official denial, the Egyptians were the first to make a separate peace with Israel. Hosny Mubarak makes no apologies about putting “Egypt First.” And the politicians in the Maghreb have their own domestic worries. As for the Palestinians, they gave up on Pan Arab rhetoric a generation ago. They know better than to depend on their “Arab brothers” -- except for the occasional miserly handout or a statement endorsing the non-existent “peace process” -- worded to cater to the sensibilities of America’s neo-con lords.
Pan-Arab posturing aside, what Damascus needs is a little frank soul searching about the roots of its “Lebanese” troubles. It should be recalled that Syria’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976 was coordinated with Henry Kissinger -- on the promise that it would improve the chances of securing the liberty of the Golan Heights. That Syrians took the bait. Both Syria and Lebanon eventually paid a heavy price for falling into Kissinger’s trap and Damascus still has troubles owning up to that catastrophic mistake.
All this is old history and it is best to avoid bringing up such messy matters -- even if they are part of the public record. It is best to move on. This is Syria’s moment to publicly state that its national interests revolve around three major demands -- a complete and immediate end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, security guarantees against further aggression from Tel Aviv and a stable Lebanon that is also immune from Israeli adventurism. The key to success is to keep matters simple -- and avoid being lured into complicated “step by step” endless back roads using old “road maps” that lead to dead ends. If Bush is so impatient, let him get the ball rolling on both the Lebanese and Syrian fronts.
The American Likudniks have Damascus figured out. They can always count on Syria to let pride take precedence over national interests. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to link the Israeli occupation of the Golan to a Syrian retreat from Lebanon. But it takes Syria’s stubborn sense of honor to pretend that these two problems are disconnected. At the end of the day, Lebanon will become fully independent. The question is whether we shall simultaneously witness the liberation of Syrian lands from Israeli occupation. That outcome is entirely dependent on Syria’s willingness to take assertive and bold moves -- even at the cost of losing its Pan-Arab credentials on the streets of Cairo or Beirut.
It’s no state secret that Lebanon is being held hostage to give the Syrians a little leverage in dealing with the Israelis. The wisdom of Syria’s strategy would only make sense if America or Israel really cared. They don’t. Damascus can count on the Bush administration to uphold the Kissinger tradition. George Bush will demand all kinds of immediate Syrian concessions without so much as mentioning the Golan Heights.
Detractors will point out that America’s sudden interest in Lebanon is driven by the “Bush Sharansky” doctrine. Granted. Only this time, America is posturing as a defender of the will of the United Nations. The Syrians can offer to implement a four-digit resolution (1559) in exchange for the immediate implementation of two outstanding three-digit resolutions (242 and 338). They should leverage the French connection. If Bush is not serious, Chirac certainly is. If Bush sees the developments in Lebanon as a welcome distraction from his troubles in Baghdad, Chirac has a deep and genuine interest in bringing peace to the Levant.
It goes without saying that Syrian credibility can be greatly enhanced by a transparent and rapid investigation leading to the capture of those responsible for assassinating Rafiq El Hariri -- a personal friend of Chirac.
Damascus needs to abandon its passion for gamesmanship. Since 1974, they have scrupulously abided to the truce with Israel -- even when the Israelis have attacked the Syrian heartland. In subsequent negotiations sponsored by Clinton, Barak played Damascus like a fiddle without ever intending to reach an agreement. Israel’s only goal was to derail implementing Oslo and put the Palestinians on the back burner. Sharon has found all kinds of excuses for refusing to even initiate a dialogue with Bashar El Assad.
So, what has Damascus gained from three decades of patiently waiting for the “international community” to reward their good behavior by compelling Israel to return stolen Syrian property? Nothing, unless you want to count the constant Israeli maneuvers to get Washington to put Syria in the doghouse.
It just might be that the best Syrian effort to get a just resolution to its Israeli problems might result in the independence of Lebanon and no forward movement on the Golan Heights. It is even probable that George Bush will take his marbles and walk away if the Syrians and Europeans demand linkage. But my gut instinct tells me that Chirac really wants to push both issues and demand accountability from all the belligerents – including the ones in the White House. The best course for Bashar is to make a large bet before the casino closes down and George Bush finds other distractions. He can begin by demanding a four-digit UN resolution linking 1559 to 338 and 242. This will certainly hurt Syrian pride, but it might do wonders for his country and the region.
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