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.