Thursday, January 19, 2006

Syria and Iran, an Axis of Upheaval

Michael Young, The Daily Star:
If you ask Druze leader Walid Jumblatt what he's worried about these days, he'll mention the growing rapprochement between Iran and Syria, which this month will reportedly spawn a bilateral strategic cooperation agreement.

That, and the fact that Hizbullah will derive new vigor from the revivified amity between Tehran-Damascus (enabling it to better resist calls to disarm), partly explains why Jumblatt has been so publicly hostile to the party in recent days, after trying to mediate between it and the parliamentary majority a few months ago. But behind these parochial concerns, new regional alignments are taking shape and what happens with Iran and Syria lies at their very heart.

How will regional change affect Lebanon? READ MORE

The aborted effort by Saudi Arabia and Egypt to sponsor a Syrian-Lebanese deal last week showed how vulnerable both Cairo and Riyadh are in facing a Syrian regime fighting for its survival. The Saudis are apparently afraid that Syria might sick Al-Qaeda on them - and the disclosure last week that Syria had infiltrated radical Islamists into Lebanon (a scenario officials in Beirut take very seriously) did little to reassure them that President Bashar Assad would avoid provoking regional instability to save himself.

As for Egypt, all Assad has to do is mention the Muslim Brotherhood for President Hosni Mubarak to break into a cold sweat. If the Baath were to collapse in Damascus in favor of the Brotherhood, Assad may have warned, how would the Egyptian regime be able to contain its own Brotherhood, which did alarmingly well recently in parliamentary elections? Worse, if Assad were ousted, how would the project to promote Gamal Mubarak - another son slated to inherit power from his father - fare? Not well; in fact Bashar's failure would probably be a killer blow to Gamal's chances.

So, the Lebanese can expect little from the butter-legged Arab "powerhouses" who fear the unknown of Assad's departure far more than they do the persistent instability the Syrian president has visited on them and the region since he decided last year to extend the mandate of President Emile Lahoud. This has led the two countries into a flagrant contradiction, where they routinely call on Syria to cooperate with the United Nations investigation into Rafik Hariri's assassination, even as they know the truth would likely mean Assad's downfall. Their calculation seems to be that Syria must buy time for the investigation to lose its momentum through divisions in the international community.

However, that doesn't quite explain why the Saudis allowed former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam to appear on Al-Arabiyya at the end of 2005, only to later spike his interviews with Saudi-owned newspapers. There seems to be dissonance in Riyadh, and that suave paragon of Arabic diplomatic immobility, Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal, may have reasserted control over the kingdom's Syrian policy, after it was momentarily taken over by Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to the United States. In a Financial Times article published this week, Prince Saud was familiarly wary of change when mentioning his new proposal to reduce Lebanese-Syrian tensions: "We have enough problems as it is. It's about time we resolve the ones we have - Palestine, Iraq - instead of establishing more." On the basis of what the Saudis were willing to accept last week, however, it is Lebanon, not Syria, that can be expected to come out of the process the more displeased with its results.

More important, however, is how the five permanent members of the Security Council address the Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah triad. Here, there are a number of possible permutations that may either strengthen the Syrian regime and Hizbullah, or weaken them and ensure that pessimists, like Jumblatt, are wrong. Much will depend on how the permanent five deal with Iran's nuclear capability. The reason is this: what they decide on Iran may lead to tradeoffs involving Syria.

For example, if the Russians specifically go along with the U.S. and the European Union-3 - Britain, France, and Germany - and vote on a resolution punishing Iran at the Security Council, Moscow may demand, in exchange, greater flexibility from the U.S. and France on Syria. That doesn't necessarily mean Russia would undermine the UN investigation, but it might seek to lift the accelerator on punitive UN action, or merely stronger Security Council resolutions addressing Syrian noncompliance in the Hariri case. Absent tougher measures, Assad would have more latitude to string the new investigator, Serge Brammertz, along, wasting time while awaiting more propitious international circumstances.

Conversely, if Russia and China hinder the Americans, British and French on Iran at the Security Council, they may have to compensate by approving, or merely abstaining, if the UN decides to tighten the screws on Syria. Iran is worth more to the Russians and Chinese than Syria is, but it is also viewed as a greater threat by the Bush administration. Despite this, the U.S. must prepare a fallback position where Russian and Chinese obstruction on Iran can be cashed in elsewhere, particularly on Syria. Now that former Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer has revealed in a recently-published memoir that Assad sought in 2003 to provoke a Shiite uprising against the American-led coalition, the Bush administration could make a strong domestic case that the Syrian regime has proven itself to be beyond the pale.

One might have to factor in another development. If Syria and Iran formalize a strategic relationship soon, the Bush administration will interpret this as a return to the Damascus-Tehran axis of the 1980s - no less "evil" than the one outlined by George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address. Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be caught in the crossfire between the Americans on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other. This could considerably complicate Arab efforts to save Assad's skin, since the Saudis and Egyptians won't readily want to run afoul of the U.S.

The greater likelihood is that there will be no clear-cut outcomes. The Russians and Chinese will give Syria sustenance whatever happens, because autocracies tend to band together; the U.S. and France will push as hard as they can on the Hariri investigation, because that alone can decisively trap Syria. The Arab states will try to help Syria, but probably won't resolve the inconsistency of propping Assad up while also demanding he collaborate fully with the UN inquiry. Compromises will have to be made on all sides, but where these will lead is unclear. Iran's friendliness to Syria might help Assad; or it might seal his doom.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.