Friday, February 18, 2005

This Time, Syria is Vulnerable in the Face of US Anger

Times Online:
Is America's sudden spike of anger at Syria going to persuade it to change its ways? There is one sign that the answer is yes: the speed with which Syria rushed to distance itself from Iran’s unilateral declaration on Wednesday that they shared a “united front”. “We are not the enemy of the US and we do not want to be drawn into such an enmity,” said Imad Mustafa, Syrian Ambassador to the US.

Well said. That is an entirely sensible response from Damascus, in the name of self-protection. So, too, was its instant condemnation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanese opposition leader, on Monday.

Syria does not want to be “next” in America’s sights, a notional competition in which it has always been a contender.

But its scrambled attempt at buying itself distance cannot have bought it peace of mind, given the pitch to which US fury has risen this week.

Relations between the US and Syria, frosty for decades, have worsened since the Iraq war. The US has accused Syria of allowing al-Qaeda militants and Baathist sympathisers to cross the border into Iraq.

But the US appeared prepared, given its troubles in Iraq, to regard Syria as an annoyance that did not need urgent attention. After Hariri’s death, Syria cannot assume that so tolerant a view still holds.

The Bush Administration is exploring at least three separate ways to convince Damascus that it should extract itself from 30 years of interference in Lebanese politics.

As a measure of the new heights of US anger, the Bush Administration is pushing European governments formally to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Shia group, receives its support from both Syria and Iran, and is the most tangible demonstration of an alliance.

President Bush will raise the subject directly in a meeting with President Chirac of France on Monday, at the start of his European trip. However, it looks as if France will say no, for now.

Its officials regard the move as dangerously inflammatory within Lebanon. No other European country with a stake in the question is much inclined to argue the opposite. Many officials privately regard the designation as symbolic rather than truly important.

The most important practical result of slapping on the label “terrorist” would be the obligation to crackdown on financing. But although the US persuaded European Union countries to treat Hamas, the Palestinian group, as terrorists nearly 18 months ago, the effect on its finances is said to be slight.

Despite the disagreement over Hezbollah, the US and France have linked up to put pressure on Syria through the UN. This is the second focus of US efforts, and perhaps has the best chance of success.

In September, the Security Council passed Resolution 1559, sponsored by the US and France, telling Syria to pull its 15,000 troops out of Lebanon and stop meddling in its affairs.

The Security Council is due to assess progress next month. There has been none so far, beyond a limited pullback of Syrian forces which is essentially meaningless.

The US’s third tool is to look at ways, on its own, of choking off the finances of Syria itself. It could stop Syrian organisations having access to US banks — and even some in other countries. It could also try to freeze Syrian assets in the US.

Those levers are all designed to prise Syria out of Lebanon. But Washington is also keen to remind Damascus of the cost of any alliance with Tehran, at the top of its list of threats, along with North Korea.

The Bush Administration has made clear it is not going to let the question of Iran’s nuclear ambitions dribble away in months of stop-start European diplomacy. That message seems to have got through to Damascus, judging by its anxiety this week to keep an appearance of distance from Tehran.

Will this pressure on Syria work? Or are its rewards from meddling in Lebanon great enough to warrant a refusal? In the past, Syria’s motives were clear. It believed that by controlling Lebanon, it had more influence in the region overall, and access to Lebanon’s resources. It could use Lebanon to put pressure on Israel. It also had the diplomatic fig leaf provided by Israel’s presence in Southern Lebanon.

Those excuses have gone, or are going. The Lebanese are losing faith that the occupation holds any benefits for them, as the support for Hariri showed. International condemnation of the Syrian position has never been so solid.

But one of the greatest fears of Hariri’s supporters is that US anger will fade. They have not forgiven it for its spasmodic attention in the past. They are well aware of the rival claims on its attention — Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq itself.

They hope that this time, the US will not be distracted, at a point when there is a sign of nervousness in the overbearing neighbour to the north.