Syria

US and Iran: The Worst of Friends

Posted by Cutler on October 07, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Syria / 2 Comments

The winds of war are blowing toward Iran.

General Petraeus is reportedly stepping up accusations against Iran.

And there is plenty of speculation that the Israeli raid on Syria was a dress rehearsal for a military assault on Iran.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly seems like a man frantic to reduce Iranian isolation on the Arab street in an effort to undermine Arab support for anti-Iranian initiatives.  Most recently, Ahmadinejad reportedly accused Israel on Friday of using the Holocaust as a pretext for “genocide” against Palestinians.

And yet…

Hugh Naylor of the New York Times has filed a story under the headline “Syria Is Said to Be Strengthening Ties to Opponents of Iraq’s Government.”  It sounds simple enough: more US griping about Syria’s role as a “rogue” regime playing an “unhelpful” role in Iraq.

Buried within the article, however, Naylor delivers up his real news flash: Iran and the US appear to be allies in an uncoordinated effort to halt Syrian outreach to opponents of Iraq’s government.

In July, former Baathists opposed to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki scheduled a conference for insurgent groups — including two of the most prominent, the 1920s Revolution Brigades and Ansar al Sunna — at the Sahara Resort outside Damascus….

The July conference was canceled at the last minute, however, indicating the political perils of Syria’s developing strategy. It was called off by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, participants, diplomats and analysts said, primarily because of pressure from Iran.

Iran is Syria’s chief ally and a staunch supporter of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Damascus just days before the conference was to have taken place….

Syria is walking a fine line, forging an “enemy of my enemy” relationship with the Iraqi Baathists and insurgents while still maintaining an alliance with Tehran…

In an interview, a senior Defense Department official praised Damascus for canceling the opposition conference

I know Iran and the US want to want to hate each other.  But geopolitical strategy seems to be getting in the way.  The US and Iran are, to the apparent chagrin of all concerned, becoming the worst of friends.

Were it not for Naylor’s mention of the senior Defense Department official who praised the Syrian decision to cancel the conference, I could almost have imagined a way of explaining Iranian efforts as anti-American.

Consider, for example, Naylor’s account of the relation between Baathist factionalism and Syrian political intervention:

Thabet Salem, a Syrian political commentator, said Syria was also exploiting a rift between two former Iraqi Baath Party leaders, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former vice president under Mr. Hussein, and Muhammad Younis al-Ahmed, who is believed to be living in Syria…

Younis al-Ahmed is trying to go under the umbrella of the Syrians as a way to unite the Baathists,” Mr. Salem said. “And the Syrians quietly support him…

Some Syrians speculated that he wanted to take a more conciliatory stance with the Iraqi government and the United States. His rival, Mr. Douri, who is suspected of having stronger ties with insurgent groups, rejected the conference.

According to that scenario, Syria could be accused of trying to placate the US by sponsoring “conciliatory” Baathists factions while Iran’s attack on the Syrian initiative could be viewed as a gesture of solidarity in support of “irreconcilable” Iraqi insurgents linked to Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.

This would presumably be the interpretation championed by figures like Michael Ledeen who insist that the Iranian regime has allied itself with (and provided arms to) radical Sunni Arab insurgents.

What, then, to make of the alleged Defense Department praise for the cancelation of the conference?  Wouldn’t that tend to undermine the Ledeen scenario?

And there is one other element of Naylor’s report that might give one pause:

“Douri deeply distrusts working with the Syrians because he distrusts the Iranians, who are strong allies with Syria,” Mr. Salem said.

If Naylor’s source, Thabet Salem, has his story right, then there are considerable tensions between the Iranian regime and Iraqi Baathist insurgents like Douri.

Perhaps Iran supports the Sunni Arab Baathists as an insurgency in Iraq insofar as such support prevents the US from establishing control over Iraq.

If so, that support may only go so far.

Will Iran favor the restoration of Sunni Arab political control over Iraq?

Will Iran support (reportedly) anti-Iranian Baathists like Douri?

If Naylor has his story right, the answer is: No.

Iran and the US are both backing the Maliki government in Iraq.  Neither appear willing to dump Maliki in exchange for a Sunni Arab Baathist coup.

In this regard, Peter Galbraith may not be wholly incorrect in his recent assertion about US-Iranian relations:

[I]importantly, the most pro-Iranian Shi’ite political party is the one least hostile to the United States.

In the battle now under way… the United States and Iran are on the same side….

Iran does not oppose Iraq’s new political order. In fact, it is the chief beneficiary of the US-induced changes in Iraq since 2003.

Reading the Map Correctly in Israel

Posted by Cutler on May 04, 2007
Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Syria / No Comments

Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is under pressure for his execution of the so-called “Second Lebanese War.”  Tens of thousands of protestors rallied in Israel, calling for Olmert to resign.

The protests are politically “vague” about the substance of the critique of Olmert, but insofar as Netanyahu and his Right Zionist allies are highly critical of Olmert’s execution of the war, the protests may bolster the case against Olmert.

Back in 2006, I wrote several posts describing Right Zionist dismay (here and here) with Olmert’s “cautious” execution of the battle in Lebanon.

The most “candid” Right Zionist critique of Olmert, however, comes from Meyrav Wurmser of the Hudson Institute who–along with her husband, David Wurmser–is part of the “family” of Right Zionists allied with Cheney.  In an extraordinary December 2006 interview, Meyrav Wurmser was very explicit about Right Zionist frustration with Olmert:

MEYRAV WURMSER: “Hizbullah defeated Israel in the war. This is the first war Israel lost,” Dr. Wurmser declares…

YITZHAK BENHORIN: Is this a popular stance in the [US] administration, that Israel lost the war?

MEYRAV WURMSER: “Yes, there is no doubt. It’s not something one can argue about it. There is a lot of anger at Israel.”

YITZHAK BENHORIN: What caused the anger?

MEYRAV WURMSER: “I know this will annoy many of your readers… But the anger is over the fact that Israel did not fight against the Syrians. Instead of Israel fighting against Hizbullah, many parts of the American administration believe that Israel should have fought against the real enemy, which is Syria and not Hizbullah.”

YITZHAK BENHORIN: Did the administration expect Israel to attack Syria?

MEYRAV WURMSER: “They hoped Israel would do it. You cannot come to another country and order it to launch a war, but there was hope, and more than hope, that Israel would do the right thing. It would have served both the American and Israeli interests.

The neocons are responsible for the fact that Israel got a lot of time and space… They believed that Israel should be allowed to win. A great part of it was the thought that Israel should fight against the real enemy, the one backing Hizbullah. It was obvious that it is impossible to fight directly against Iran, but the thought was that its strategic and important ally should be hit.”

“It is difficult for Iran to export its Shiite revolution without joining Syria, which is the last nationalistic Arab country. If Israel had hit Syria, it would have been such a harsh blow for Iran, that it would have weakened it and changes the strategic map in the Middle East.

“The final outcome is that Israel did not do it. It fought the wrong war and lost. Instead of a strategic war that would serve Israel’s objectives, as well as the US objectives in Iraq. If Syria had been defeated, the rebellion in Iraq would have ended”…

“No one would have stopped you. It was an American interest. They would have applauded you. Think why you received so much time and space to operate. Rice was in the region and Israel embarrassed her with Qana, and still Israel got more time. Why aren’t they reading the map correctly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem?

Now, is this Likudnik critique of Olmert shared by organizers of the anti-Olmert rallies?

No.

It is instructive to note that the rally has been attacked from both the Israeli  “Left” and “far-Right.”  If the far-Right is to be believed, the rally is–like the rebellion by Olmert’s own Foreign Minister, Tsipi Livni–part of a centrist effort to get Olmert out as Prime Minister, but to salvage the Kadima-led coalition government and preempt calls for new elections.

Why?  Because new elections could well result in the election of Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.

If Cheney is going to have another pass at war against Syria this summer, then the clock is ticking for snap elections.

The Israeli Labor party will be under pressure to quit the Kadima-led government, but it appears to be scrambling to find a way to forestall demands for a fresh election any time soon.  This may become increasingly difficult, however, if Olmert survives in office until late May when Labor party primaries may force the leadership to split with Kadima.  The Economist explains:

Though the Labour primary is an internal vote among party members, from whom Mr Peretz has more support than among the public, most bets are on Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and army chief of staff, or Ami Ayalon, an ex-admiral and domestic intelligence chief. Mr Ayalon has already said he will pull Labour out of the coalition if he wins, almost certainly forcing an election. If, on the other hand, Mr Barak gets in, his dilemma will be whether to stay on as defence minister and share the flak with Mr Olmert, or risk an election race against the right-wing Likud party.

Cheney has a (Right Zionist) plan for the Middle East.  Act II of that plan was supposed to begin last summer.  It failed.

If Netanyahu is restored to office, Cheney may find himself with allies “reading the map correctly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

Needless to say, the clock is ticking.

Or, from the perspective of Right Zionists like Michael Ledeen, “Faster, please.”

Mr. Negroponte, I Presume

Posted by Cutler on February 28, 2007
Foreign Policy Factions, Iran, Iraq, Right Arabists, Right Zionists, Syria / No Comments

It may be time to abandon all talk of “the Bush administration.”  What we have in Washington are two Bush administrations at war with each other.

There is, of course, the Cheney administration, spoiling for a fight with Iran and sweet on the Shiites of Iraq.

Then there is the other administration.  Call it the “establishment” Right Arabist” of the administration.  That is the one that yesterday resurrected the Baker-Hamilton Report and announced plans to support diplomatic discussions with Iran and Syria.

The last time the Bush administration “blinked” on Iran in June 2006, Right Zionists like Richard Perle blamed Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice.

It detracts little from Rice’s influence in the administration to suggest that the “establishment” wing of the administration also received some reinforcement with the formal arrival–also yesterday–of John Negroponte as Deputy Secretary of State, Rice’s number two at Foggy Bottom.

The North Korea deal that so unsettled John Bolton was probably the first sign of a new “establishment” offensive.  Now comes Iran.

The Right Zionists have not yet weighed in about the news of the diplomatic initiative with Iran and Syria, but it won’t be long before the battle is joined.

Still, all is not lost for the Right Zionists.  There is, of course, still Cheney and his wing of the administration.

And–surprise!–things are looking up in the Senate where Dem Zionists are reliably hawkish on Iran and Syria.

Just for kicks, check out Michael Ledeen’s effusive praise for Democrat Senator Carl Levin:

Carl Levin, NeoCon [Michael Ledeen]

Read it twice, I had to. But Carl Levin has endorsed my longstanding proposal to go after terrorist training camps and weapons assembly facilities in Syria and Iran.

Carl Levin, you say?

Yeah, Carl Levin, the newly minted neocon from Michigan. My kinda guy. Just read it and cheer. It’s from hearings yesterday:

SEN CARL LEVIN (D-MI): “Now, in terms of the weapons coming in from Syria, those weapons that you’ve described as coming in from Syria and perhaps other Sunni neighbors are killing our troops. Do we have a plan to address the Syrian weapon source — of killings of our troops?”

JOHN MCCONNELL, Director of National Intelligence: “Sir, I know the military is working that border area to close it down from not only weapons but also jihadists coming in —”

LEVIN: “It’s more than just — we’re trying to close down the Iranian border area too. The problem is that these weapons are coming from a state which is — doesn’t recognize Israel either, just like Iran doesn’t. We’ve got to try to stop weapons coming into Iraq from any source that are killing our troops. I agree with the comments about trying to stop them coming in from Iran, I think we have to try stop them that are going to the Sunni insurgents as well as to the Shia. I was just wondering, does the military have a plan to, if necessary, to go into Syria to go to the source of any weapons coming from Syria? That are going to Sunni insurgents? That are killing our troops? … I think we ought to take action on all fronts including Syria and any other source of weapons coming in, obviously Iran is the focus – but it shouldn’t be the sole focus.”

(Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, Hearing, 02/27/07)

Bashar and Baker

Posted by Cutler on November 23, 2006
Right Arabists, Right Zionists, Syria / No Comments

It would seem that the assassination of Pierre Gemayel–a leading figure from the Lebanese “Cedar Revolution” and a member of a very prominent Maronite Christian family–has undermined James Baker’s plans for engagement with the Syrian regime less likely, at least for now.

The very fact that Baker–along with Tony Blair and some political elites in Israel–were pressing for a dialogue with the Syrian regime makes it all the more surprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have chosen this moment to flaunt his capacity for political violence.

There are two related ways of understanding how events might have moved toward a Syrian attack on Gemayel and his alllies in the so-called “March 14” movement.

First, even as Baker and Co. were pressing for engagement with Syria, Right Zionists and US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, were pressing for a tribunal to hear evidence against those allegedly involved in the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In a September 1, 2006 Washington Post column, for example, Charles Krauthammer had this to say about US relations with Syria.

We should be especially aggressive at the United Nations in pursuing the investigation of Syria for the murder of Rafiq Hariri…

And John Bolton was, indeed, aggressive–even as the Russians and Syrians tried to delay an agreement on a the formation of an international tribunal while Syria’s allies pressed for enhanced political power in Lebanon.  According to a November 8, 2006 report in the New York Sun:

The United Nations is pushing for the tribunal to be organized as quickly as possible, even before the completion of the U.N. investigation into the February 2005 Hariri assassination, a U.N. spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told The New York Sun yesterday.

“We’ve got a number of changes we want, but we’re very concerned to move quickly to set up the tribunal,” the American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, said yesterday. “We think that’s very important to do as a political signal.”

Presumably, this was not exactly the same “political signal” that James Baker was trying to send to Demascus.

But the Bolton v. Baker split is not the only factional angle to this story.

There may also be a similar split within the Syrian regime itself.

Speculate a bit: Bashar may not have a firm grip on power in Syria.

On the one hand, the US, France, and Saudi Arabia have already cultivated an alternative “government in waiting” prepared to step in at any moment.  This, along with the outreach of figures like James Baker and Tony Blair, make it very attractive for Bashar al-Assad to adopt a moderate approach to regional relations.

On the other hand, if an accord with the US means submitting to an international tribunal then Bashar may be either unable or unwilling to cross that bridge.

In a November 22, 2006 Daily Star editorial, Michael Young makes the point:

The tribunal is Syria’s Achilles heel. Even if a mid-level intelligence operative is accused, the centralized nature of the Syrian system is such that prosecutors will soon end up at the peak of the security apparatus, perhaps reaching into President Bashar Assad’s inner sanctum. The fight over the future of the Syrian regime is taking place now, and the only option Assad might be left with if the process goes through is to rid himself of essential pillars of support. This could be as damaging to him as being held personally responsible for ordering the Hariri hit.

Let’s be more clear: the pillar of support in question is Bashar al-Assad’s own family.

According to the Associated Press:

U.N. investigators had earlier implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in the explosion that killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005. Among those linked to the killing was Brig. Gen. Assaf Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief and Assad’s brother-in-law.

Is Bashar al-Assad seeking to protect his brother-in-law Assaf Shawkat? Or, is Shawkat seeking to protect himself, without the knowledge or approval of the Syrian President?

If US officials believe that Bashar al-Assad is in a battle with Shawkat for control of Syria then Baker will find his way to Damascus, sooner or later.

If US officials believe that Bashar al-Assad has made his peace with Shawkat, then it would not be surprising to wake up to news of a coup in Syria one of these days.

Syria

Posted by Cutler on November 18, 2006
Syria / 1 Comment

Some Israeli foreign policy figures–chiefly those linked to the Labor Party, including David Kimche–want to try to pry Syria away from Iran.

This idea is also popular with some Right Arabists in the US who want to break the Syrian-Iranian link in order bring Syria back into the Arab fold (recall that Syria backed Iran in the Arab-backed Iraqi war against Iran during the 1980s).

There could be lots of reasons to want to court the Syrians (not all at the expense of Iran). One crucial reason might be oil.

If you want to pipe oil to the Mediterranean from either the Kurdish north of Iraq it would be very helpful to have Syrian support, especially insofar as the Turks not so happy transporting Kurdish oil out of an increasingly independent Kurdistan. Look at a map.

Just a thought.

Krauthammer: We Must Pretend

Posted by Cutler on September 01, 2006
Lebanon, Right Zionists, Saudi Arabia, Syria / 2 Comments

Keep hope alive.

That seems to be the thrust of a Charles Krauthammer essay–“Hezbollah’s ‘Victory’“–in today’s Washington Post.

The hope in question? Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution. As I noted in a previous post (and again, here), the Cedar Revolution was, in many respects, dead upon arrival when the latest hostilities broke out between Israel and Lebanon.

Some of Krauthammer’s article is, by its own estimate, simply wishful thinking:

We must pretend that Security Council Resolution 1701 was meant to be implemented and exert unrelieved pressure on behalf of those Lebanese — a large majority — who want to do the implementing.

At least Krauthammer implicitly acknowledges that there is no real prospect of UN forces disarming Hezbollah.

But Krauthammer also engages in some “analysis” that may also represent a kind of wishful thinking. He insists that the Cedar Revolution–a revolution in Lebanese politics–retains intact:

True, under the inept and indecisive leadership of Ehud Olmert, Israel did miss the opportunity to militarily destroy Hezbollah and make it a non-factor in Israel’s security, Lebanon’s politics and Iran’s foreign policy…

Nonetheless…

Hezbollah’s political gains within Lebanon during the war have proved illusory. As the dust settles, the Lebanese are furious at Hezbollah for provoking a war that brought them nothing but devastation — and then crowing about victory amid the ruins.

Hezbollah is under renewed attack — in newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, as well as by many Lebanese, including influential Shiite academics and clan leaders. The Arabs know where their interests lie. And they do not lie with a Shiite militia that fights for Iran.

So, here is the old hope: Arab-Iranian tension will allow Israel to play the Arabs against Iran.

How is that going, so far? Wishful thinking?

In Lebanon, I see know sign that Hezbollah has been politically weakened, and Krauthammer doesn’t offer much support for such a claim:

Even before the devastation, Hezbollah in the last election garnered only about 20 percent of the vote, hardly a mandate. Hezbollah has guns, however, and that is the source of its power. But now even that is threatened.

Of course, this is a bit of sophistry. The real issue is not Hezbollah’s political support nationally, but among Lebanese Shiites. Here, I would wait to see evidence that they have any less of a mandate than they did before the recent fighting began. Surely it would be a major strategic error to undermine Hezbollah’s grassroots support in southern Lebanon. Does Krauthammer really belive that the primary source of Hezbollah’s political power comes from the barrel of a gun?

But there is the neighborhood, as Krauthammer says: “Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt” etc.

Here, I would also propose that some caution is in order. Krauthammer’s analysis rests on some tenuous assumptions.

He insists that “The Arabs know where their interests lie.” True enough. But his emphasis is on Iran: “they do not lie with a Shiite militia that fights for Iran.”

If we are talking about the Saudis, it might be worth noting that they have two relatively distinct “interests”–one relating to Syria and one to Iran.

Most of the heat that initially sparked the Cedar Revolution was between the Saudis and Syria, not Iran. The issue was not the disarmament of Hezbollah, but control of the Lebanese Presidency–specifically, Syria’s move to have Lebanese President Lahoud remain in office for a third term–and, implicitly, control of the economy.

On this front, the sparks have once again begun to fly. There are live tensions between the Saudis and the Syrians and–as I noted in a previous post–these tensions may have become worse since the end of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

Right Zionists in the US, like the Saudis, have little patience for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Krauthammer wants to keep the heat on the Syrian President:

We should be especially aggressive at the United Nations in pursuing the investigation of Syria for the murder of Rafiq Hariri…

Likewise, Right Zionists like James Woolsey were clear at the start of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah that he was ready to take the fight to Syria. At the time, Woolsey told Fox News,

I think we ought to execute some air strikes against Syria, against the instruments of power of that state, against the airport…

At least part of the trouble–for Krauthammer and Woolsey–is that Right Zionists aren’t running the whole show in Israel.

Shimon Peres is part of the Olmert government. And Peres-aligned Zionists want to open a dialogue with Syria, presumably in an effort to pry Syria away from Iran.

See, for example, the essay by Ron Pundak of the Peres Center entitled “There Is Someone to Talk To.”

For a similar perspective, see the recent essay by Dennis Ross–“A Cease-fire Reality: Dealing with Syria“–in the Washington Post.

The Bush administration, which has expressed an interest in weaning Syria away from Iran, won’t be able to do that without talking to the Syrians.

Moreover, there is far more evidence of current Saudi tension with Syria than there is of current Saudi tension with Iran.

True, the Saudis are certainly supportive of US efforts to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But Iran’s priority in Lebanon is Hezbollah and as I noted in a previous post, the Saudis–and their proxy in Lebanon, the Siniora government–made peace with Hezbollah back in January.

Krauthammer says that “Hezbollah” is under renewed attack in newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. Most of the media reports that received attention in the US were about Syria–not Iran or Hezbollah–coming under renewed attack in such newspapers.

If the Peres crowd is hoping to pry Syria away from Iran, the Saudis may be trying to pry Iran–and Hezbollah–away from Syria. Indeed, this has been a risk for the Syrians since the advent of Saudi-Syrian tensions.

Where are the signs of Saudi-Iranian tensions? Immediately after the ceasefire took hold in Lebanon–amidst a veritable shouting match between Syria and Saudi Arabia–Saudi King Abdullah hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki for a meeting in Jeddah.

Did you hear lots of shouting and name-calling after that meeting? I didn’t.
Did you see Saudi Kind Abdullah welcome the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem to Jeddah? Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see the Saudis roll out the red carpet for the Syrians.

The “hope” for Right Zionists, if there is any, would seem to be in the future of Saudi-Syrian tensions. I’m not sure the Saudis are actually spoiling for a battle with Iran right now.

Have I missed the signs of the times?

Playing into Israel’s Hands?

Posted by Cutler on August 16, 2006
Egypt, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria / 2 Comments

Can’t we all just get along? At least the “rejectionists”?

I have in mind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israeli Likudnik Dore Gold who find common ground in their analysis of the war between Israel and Hezbollah.

Here is an Associated Press report on Assad’s speech from Tuesday, August 15, 2006:

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad yesterday said that America’s plan for a “new Middle East” collapsed after Hezbollah’s successes in fighting against Israel…

“The result was more failure for Israel, its allies and masters,” he said.

On the same day, Dore Gold was a guest on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal (no transcript is available on-line; transcription is my own; citation is minutes and seconds into Washington Journal program). Gold was just as clear as Assad. He said Israel required a period of “tremendous introspection” and “self-criticism” because the “goals” of the campaign in Lebanon “were not reached” (40:37).

Both Assad and Gold contrasted the recent failures with with Israel’s 1982 campaign.

Assad explained,

Bashar said this war revealed the limitations of Israel’s military power.

In a 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Israeli forces surrounded Beirut within seven days of invading, he said.

“After five weeks it [Israel] was still struggling to occupy a few hundred metres.”

“From a military perspective, it [the battle] was decided in favour of the resistance [Hezbollah]. Israel has been defeated from the beginning,” Bashar said.

“They [Israelis] have become a subject of ridicule.”

Gold made a similar point, emphasizing that “air platforms” can tackle long-range missiles coming from Lebanon, but ground troops are required to deal with the “greater challenge” of short-range rockets:

In Israel’s Lebanon War of 1982, northern Israel was struck by Katusha rockets, launched not by Hezbollah but by the PLO.

At that time, Israel invaded Lebanon with three divisions and within 48 hours all Katusha rocket fire from southern Lebanon into northern Israel had been terminated” (46:32).

The blame will probably fall hardest on Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. According to Time, Halutz was quoted on July 14th saying,

“In this day and age, with all the technology we have, there is no reason to start sending ground troops in.”

As the campaign wore on, Halutz began to change his tune. On July 21, 2006 the Jerusalem Post quoted Halutz:

You cannot plant a flag in the ground with an F-16.”

Even then, however, the Israeli Cabinet apparently rejected the call by Halutz for significant ground troops. According to a July 27 Jerusalem Post report:

[T]he security cabinet decided on Thursday against significantly widening the IDF’s operations in southern Lebanon, rejecting a recommendation by Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz to escalate the offensive against Hizbullah…

As a result of the cabinet decision, the IDF said the operation in Lebanon… would retain its current format, according to which brigade and battalion-level forces – not division-level as Halutz had requestedcarry out pinpoint incursions on specific targets.

Whatever the actual source of the Israeli failure, the Syrian and Iranian victory dances are in full swing.

(Needless to say, Dore Gold is not celebrating the Israeli defeat–although his allies in the Likud party will certainly try to make political hay in Israel from the need for political “introspection” and “self-criticism” in light of the Kadima party’s responsibility for military failure.)

Assad: Playing into Israel’s Hands?

Syrian President Bashar Assad is not only celebrating victory over Israel. He is also going out of his way to snipe at other players in the region. A UPI report entitled “Assad Slams Lebanon Foes,” suggests that Assad used his speech to attack elements of the Lebanese government:

Syrian President Bashar Assad has snapped at anti-Syria Lebanese groups, accusing them of complicity with Israel in the war against Hezbollah.

In a speech Tuesday… Assad made it a point to brand as “traitors” the so-called “March 14″ gathering of multi-sectarian Lebanese groups opposed to Damascus…

Assad accused his Lebanese opponents of having encouraged Israel to wage war on pro-Syria Hezbollah in order “to boost their political stance” on the international level…

Assad… said the role of anti-Damascus groups is to salvage the Israeli governmentwhich was embarrassed by its defeat at Hezbollah’s hands.

They will do that either by provoking strife in Lebanon to move the crisis from inside Israel to the Lebanese scene or by forcing the disarmament of Hezbollah’s resistance,” Assad said.

Furthermore, the Boston Globe carries and Associated Press report that says Assad also implicitly attacked Arab regimes–like Saudi Arabia and Egypt–that criticized the initial Hezbollah raids into Israel:

In his speech, Assad lashed out at Arab regimes that criticized Hezbollah for capturing two Israeli soldiers July 12 and setting off the war. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan — all US allies — opposed Hezbollah’s actions at the start of the conflict.

We do not ask anyone to fight with us or for usBut he should at least not adopt the enemy’s views,” Assad said.

Oqab Sakr, a Lebanese analyst, said Assad’s remarks were tantamount to “a final divorce from the Arab regimes and a full marriage with Iran.”

Quite a bit is riding on whether Oqab Sakr is correct in his assertion that Assad has initiated “final divorce” proceedings from Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It is the notion of such a divorce that leads Juan Cole to suggest that in these attacks,

Al-Asad is playing into Israel’s hands

[He] seems to want to pit Hizbullah against the reformers. But that is exactly what the Israeli hardliners were hoping for, as well.

According to the Boston Globe article, Assad has already prompted an Egyptian backlash:

A front page editorial in a state-run Egyptian newspaper derided Assad’s speech–a rare overt criticism by one Arab government of another. Al-Gomhuria daily scoffed at Assad, saying he was celebrating “a victory scored by others.”

“You should be prepared now for political and economic pressure put on you because of this speech,” it said.

Assad’s bold tone is intended to cement his earlier political victories in Lebanon–discussed in previous posts here and here.

If Assad is risking a backlash, it will not likely emerge independently from Lebanese political officials like Prime Minister Siniora or Lebanese MP Saad Hariri. They may have the will to battle Syria and disarm Hezbollah, but they almost certainly lack the power to do so.

Unless, that is, they have the support of the Saudis. Hariri and Siniora will both take their cue directly from the Saudis.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Daily Star reported that Siniora was under pressure from Hezbollah–back in January 2006–to declare that “the resistance is not a militia.”

At first, Siniora resisted.  According to the Daily Star:

A spokesperson for Premier Fouad Siniora told The Daily Star Monday: “The Cabinet cannot say explicitly that Hizbullah is not a militia, because it will cause Lebanon problems with the international community.”

Shortly thereafter, however, Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Abdel-Aziz Khoja was quoted in the Daily Star as saying,

[Saudi Arabia] is proud of Hizbullah’s achievements,” adding that the “disarmament is an internal issue and should be resolved by the Lebanese.”

In almost no time, Siniora reversed himself and the Lebanese government officially declared that Hezbollah was a resistance movement, not a militia (presumably meaning it would not have to be disarmed under the terms of UN Resolution 1559). Hezbollah promptlly ended its boycott of the Lebanese government. On February 2, 2006 the BBC reported:

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora told the Lebanese parliament on Thursday that Hezbollah had always been considered a resistance movement.

“We have never called and will never call the resistance by any other name but the resistance and it is a national resistance and we will not use any other expression to describe it but national resistance,” he said.

Then, as now, Siniora will take his cue from the Saudis.

So, in turn, will the French–who seem unlikely to put much into a multinational force unless Hariri and Siniora are prepared to disarm Lebanon.

According to the Financial Times:

French officials on Tuesday insisted Paris would resist leading a bolstered international force in southern Lebanon without Lebanese government assurances that Hizbollah, the militant Shia group, would be disarmed.

Paris’ requirements were spelled out on the eve of Wednesday’s visit by Philippe Douste-Blazy, French foreign minister, to Beirut – a visit likely to prove pivotal in deciding the fate of the multinational UN force proposed to police the fragile ceasefire between Hizbollah and Israel.

Officials in Beirut made clear that the army would not clash with Hizbollah and risk provoking internal conflict. Late on Monday, Elias Murr, Lebanon’s defence minister, told the local LBC television that the army had no intention of disarming Hizbollah in the south.

He suggested that Hizbollah understood that weapons could no longer be visible in the buffer zone, but said that if troops came across missiles they would not take them away.

Much, then, depends on the Saudis. Presumably, the future of the “marriage” (between Iran and Syria, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, on the other) is the main topic today when the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki meets in Jeddah today with Saudi Arabia’s King Abudullah.

Would love to be a fly on the wall for that meeting!

Status Quo Ante

Posted by Cutler on August 14, 2006
Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria / No Comments

A Wall Street Journal editorial–entitled “Status Quo Ante“–sums up what I take to be the disappointment of Right Zionists.

Ever since war broke out last month on the Israeli-Lebanese frontier, the Bush Administration has said it wouldn’t tolerate a return to the “status quo ante,” in which Hezbollah behaved as a power unto itself within the Lebanese state. Yet after reading the text of the U.N. Security Council’s cease-fire resolution adopted unanimously on Friday, we’d say the “status quo ante” is nearly what we’ve got.

And perhaps worse than that, because Hezbollah has now shown it can battle Israel to a military draw. The new resolution does call for disarming Hezbollah, just as resolution 1559 previously did, but without saying who will do it. Presumably that task is intended for the Lebanese Army, which is supposed to occupy the parts of southern Lebanon from which Hezbollah launched its attacks on Israel. But Lebanon’s army is a weak force, consciously undermined over the years of Syrian occupation, and is largely Shiite. There’s reason to doubt it will be able to disarm Hezbollah’s still-powerful Shiite military.

That just about says it all. If the point of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon was to disarm Hezbollah, that goal has proven elusive and–given the state of Lebanon’s politics–looks unlikely to be met any time soon.

Yesterday’s news of an impasse in the Lebanese Cabinet (discussed in a prior post)–where Hezbollah ministers balk at any move by the government of Prime Minister Siniora to disarm Hezbollah–is an exact replica of a similar crisis that began in December 2005.

According to the Daily Star, ministers from the two Shiite factions–Amal and Hezbollah–began a boycott of the Cabinet on December 12, 2005. At that time, they reportedly demanded, as a condition for their continued participation in government, that Lebanon send a letter to the UN Security Council saying that the Lebanese government had fulfilled the conditions of UN Resolution 1559..

Lebanon’s governmental crisis faced new complications Monday, with Christian ministers refusing one of the conditions set by the Shiite ministers to return to Cabinet. Talking to The Daily Star, Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis said his party, the Lebanese Forces, was not about to accept addressing the UN Security Council with a letter saying that the internal part of Resolution 1559 was implemented.

Resolution 1559 calls for, among other things, the disarmament of Hizbullah and Palestinian militias, but the Lebanese government had said the issue should be solved through internal dialogue.

However, addressing a letter to the UN indicating that Lebanon has fully implemented 1559 has emerged as one of the main demands of the ministers of Hizbullah and the Amal Movement to end their 15-day-long boycott of Cabinet meetings and to resume their duties.

At first, Prime Minister Siniora dug in his heals–at least in part to appease UN Security Council–especially, the United States. According to the Daily Star:

A spokesperson for Premier Fouad Siniora told The Daily Star Monday: “The Cabinet cannot say explicitly that Hizbullah is not a militia, because it will cause Lebanon problems with the international community.”

The spokesperson said that: “Such a statement would mean that UN resolution 1559 had already been implemented and thus put Lebanon in a state of confrontation with the Security Council.”

It was at this moment that the Saudis and Syrians met in January 2006 to try to patch things up.

At first, Siniora balked when the Saudis began to push accomodation with Syria and Hezbollah. According to a Daily Star article (“Lebanon Cool at Saudi Plan on Syria Ties,” January 18, 2006; unavailable on-line):

The Saudi plan made public this week seeks to patch up Syrian-Lebanese differences since the February killing of a Lebanese ex-prime minister in which a U.N. probe has implicated Syrian officials. More bombings have followed the assassination.

“This (Saudi) paper does not meet Lebanese ambitions,” Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora told reporters. “We see that there are steps that need to be stressed, beginning with the security situation and the need to stop the killing machine.”…

“To be precise on this subject, these are Syrian ideas that Prince Saud al-Faisal carried, there is no Arab initiative yet,” Siniora said.

Before long, however, Siniora was recalled to Saudi Arabia for a friendly visit and quickly changed his tune. According to a Daily Star article (“Siniora Sees Primary Role for Saudis,” February 15, 2006; unavailable on-line):

During his one-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday to revive Arab mediation efforts, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora reiterated that Saudi Arabia “was and will still be the main support for Lebanon.” Siniora has been meeting with Arab officials such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, both of whom have proposed the Arab initiative to “ease the tensions between Lebanon and Syria.”

The initiative is now being revived after it was thwarted when it was leaked last month to the leaders of the March 14 Forces, who viewed it as a “Syrian initiative that wants to restore Syria’s control on Lebanon.”

The revivial of the Saudi initiative took the wind out of any effort to disarm Hezbollah–and, not coincidentally, probably helped dull the UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

According to the Associated Press:

U.N. investigators had earlier implicated top Syrian and Lebanese officials in the explosion that killed Hariri and 22 others on Feb. 14, 2005. Among those linked to the killing was Brig. Gen. Assaf Shawkat, Syria’s military intelligence chief and Assad’s brother-in-law.

After the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement, the pressure on Shawkat seemed diminished. According to another Associated Press report, the UN pushed back the deadline for concluding the investigation.

Chief investigator Serge Brammertz, earlier reported to the Security Council that progress was being made but he refused to repeat accusations that top Syrian officials with links to President Bashar Assad were responsible.

It would seem that the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah have done little to change any of this.

Even the Wall Street Journal acknowledges that the Lebanese government may not have the power to disarm Hezbollah, even if it had the will to do so.

As to the will to disarm Hezbollah, that remains fragile at best. With its most recent retreat from participation in the Cabinet, Hezbollah is calling the bluff of Prime Minister Siniora.

One recent report from an Israeli source, Ynetnews, suggests some signs of political will among pro-Saudi Lebanese politicians to take on Hezbollah. But I can find no confirmation of the quotes from other news sources and it seems like slim pickings–as the analyst suggests:

We will obtain revenge against those who got Lebanon entangled,” Saad Hariri said fearlessly, while Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused Hizbullah of working for Iranian and Syrian interests, and not in the favor of Lebanon.

The Druze, the Sunni Muslims, some of the Maronite Christians, and maybe even some of the Shiites are lying in wait for Nasrallah,” explained Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria and Lebanon.

There is no doubt that they will hurl accusations at him for wreaking havoc in Lebanon, and there is no doubt that the issue of Hizbullah’s weapons will be raised.

But nonetheless, it still seems that there is no one who can disarm Hizbullah apart from Nasrallah himself. And southern Lebanon is the organization’s ‘home.’ It is reasonable to assume that it will do everything to rehabilitate and arm itself,” he added.

Only Nasrallah can disarm Nasrallah. Seems unlikely to me. How about you?

[Update…]

Just watched “Team Freedom” (Bush, Cheney, Rice) gather for a press conference to discuss the “Freedom Program” in the Middle East. Notwithstanding a lot of Right Zionist rhetoric, it was clearly a concession speech. At one point, in a response to a question about claims that Hezbollah won Bush said, “If I were Hezbollah I would claim victory, too.” Of course, he meant that everybody always tries to spin the news to their own advantage. But it was a telling statement. I don’t have a transcript yet, but there was also lots of talk about how “difficult” the battle against terror can be.

I think it might not be possible to overstate the importance of this defeat for the Bush administration. Either it marks a very new moment in US relations with Israel–and will undermine all future efforts to by Right Zionists to argue that Israel can help the US police the Middle East–or it will prompt the Bush administration to redouble its commitment to never lose again. I predict the former. This defeat is a far greater disappointment to Right Zionists than just about anything that has happened on Sistani’s watch in Iraq.

One final thought on the likelihood of anyone disarming Hezbollah now.

How about the French?

Not so much…

Here is the New York Times report:

Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, told Le Monde on Saturday that the purpose of the enlarged Unifil would not include the disarming of Hezbollah by force. “We never thought a purely military solution could resolve the problem of Hezbollah,” he said. “We are agreed on the goal, the disarmament, but for us the means are purely political.”

That is the kind of immediate backtracking from the resolution that worries the Israelis, and which they say justifies their continuing military offensive to push Hezbollah back beyond the Litani, because they do not believe that the Lebanese Army, even with Unifil, will do it.

A Foreign Ministry official pointed out that it was Mr. Douste-Blazy who, in Beirut, called Iran “a force for stability in the region” when Europe is trying, with the United States, to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons.