A new initiative by the United States and France to seek a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for engineering an unconstitutional second-term for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud comes in the context of a long spiral of deteriorating relations between Washington and Damascus. The resolution is expected to pass if introduced, possibly later this week, in spite of pleas from the Lebanese government and others that it would be unhelpful.
“By pressing for such a resolution, the French and Americans will themselves by intervening in Lebanese politics, and thereby defeating their own stated purposed,” Murhaf Jouejati, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a specialist on US-Syrian relations, told The Daily Star.
Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, said: “I don’t think anything is going to stop the deterioration right now; Syria has dug in its heels and the US has set terms that the Syrians can’t possibly meet.”
Landis said that Syria was creating serious problems for itself, because the Lahoud issue would “force many fence-sitters in Lebanon to choose between Lebanese nationalism and some sort of Arab identification.”
“I think Syria is going to lose from this,” he said. “Syria has nothing to gain from driving this fight internationally and in Lebanon.
“On the other hand, the regime has never been stronger domestically and has been able to make peace with a large array of domestic opponents,” Landis added.
The Lahoud affair could be raised bilaterally when US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns and a delegation of other senior officials visit Damascus as part of a planned Sept. 8-16 trip that is also set to include Cairo, Jerusalem and London. The trip was planned before the issue of the Lebanese presidency became a diplomatic controversy.
Syria’s role in Lebanon adds another charge in the bill of particulars against Syria being pressed by neoconservatives and supporters of Israel. These already include the charge that Syria harbors Palestinian terrorist groups, that it allows foreign fighters to pass across the border with Iraq, that it has a chemical weapons program, and even – according to the most ardent critics of Syria – that the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein may have transferred weapons of mass destruction to Syria prior to the US invasion of Iraq.
“This is yet another hook against Syria, and this administration has been moving from hook to hook, so much so that this is truly a downward spiral in the relationship between the US and Syria,” Jouejati said.
In the year following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Syria and the US enjoyed an unprecedented spell of cooperation against Al-Qaeda extremists, so much so that the Syrian government was publicly credited by senior US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, as having provided information that saved American lives.
This relationship was described in greatest detail by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine. Hersh wrote, “Syria’s efforts to help seemed to confound the Bush Administration, which was fixated on Iraq. … the Administration was ill prepared to take advantage of the situation and unwilling to reassess its relationship with Assad’s government.” According to Hersh, the administration “chose confrontation with Syria over day-to-day help against Al-Qaeda.”
Since then the accusations against Syria in Washington have only gained momentum, and the man reputed to be the most enthusiastic proponent of cooperation between the US and Syria, former CIA Director George Tenet, has resigned.
“The CIA has been neutralized – the last time it intervened in these matters was when they succeed in altering the language of US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton’s testimony before Congress about Syria’s weapons of mass destruction and exposed his language as highly exaggerated and containing a political agenda,” Jouejati said. “But since then Tenet is gone, Congress and the Defense Department have got the upper hand, and the only thing that can stop the downward spiral at this point is the Burns delegation and the talks that will occur on Sept. 9.”
According to Landis, “Washington right now is very divided – there are many people who don’t want to repeat what we did in Iraq in Syria, and who want to deal with Bashar, who has many promising qualities and who is trying to take Syria from being an autocratic state to being a liberal dictatorship, like America’s best friends in the Middle East – many realists are ready to embrace this under their traditional mantra of stability.”
“However, the neocons have got Syria clearly in their crosshairs and want to take down the regime,” Landis said. “They established the line early on that Bashar Assad and the Baathist regime are irrational and cannot be dealt with.” Landis said he thinks this is “the worst possible policy” for the US to follow.