29 September 2007

Will the next war be in Syria?

By Liam Carroll

The winds of change are blowing through Syria and Lebanon and there is now much speculation about the internal power structures of these two relatively young countries. Opinions seem to vary as to who rules Syria and what their role is in supporting the Iraqi insurgency, Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad and several other candidates on the United States most wanted list. Throw in political assassination in Lebanon and you can understand why there is a body of opinion in Washington that believes Syria should be confronted more forcefully. A mysterious Israeli air strike in Syria some three weeks ago, for which concrete details remain elusive, are believed by some to be a beginning toward just such a confrontation.

Intimately related to the question of Syria is the question of who rules Lebanon. Although Syrian troops were forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 it is well known that they left a Syrian dominated intelligence service behind. Although some key Syrian intelligence officials have stepped down, the extent of continued military influence remains unknown. Western experts believe that the pro-Syrian military intelligence was running Lebanon as a private fiefdom, and to some degree still is.

Lebanon is however moving increasingly toward a more independent and sovereign state, despite the large number of assassinations and bombings that have targeted the anti-Syrian political community in recent years. Although there is no shortage of suggested candidates for the murders, from al Qaeda to Israel, the old pro-Syrian intelligence agencies are the most widely suspected. Whether Lebanon can endure yet another assault on its sovereignty remains to be seen, however in the wake of last years assault by Israel the signs are that the appetite in Lebanon for internal peace is strong. If Lebanon can sustain civil relations between its many factions and select a new President before the end of November, then the prospects for peace in that country are surely much improved.

The fate of Lebanon could, however, be contingent on events in Syria, and perhaps more importantly, on how Washington deals with those events. The big question in Washington appears to be whether or not Syria is more useful to US foreign policy in the region with President Bashar al Asad at its head, or whether they would be better off without him. Bashar al Asad comes from a minority Shiite sect (Alawite) and owes his position as President to his fathers rise through the army ranks and the ruling Baath Party. In power since his father’s death in 2000, Bashar, still at the relatively young age of 42, is considered by many to be unable to exercise authority over many elements in his regime, including that of the private fiefdom in Lebanon.

Senior officials in the US, including President Bush have been careful not to blame Bashar directly for the Lebanese bombs, and have vacillated between criticism and muted praise for his efforts in stemming the flow of insurgent activity across the Syrian-Iraq border. The hawks in Washington maintain that Bashar is still sanctioning cross border transfers while others maintain that he is simply powerless to prevent them. A similar division of opinion exists over the presence of militant organizations in the Syrian capital Damascus. Hizbullah and Hamas are popular in Syria and part of Bashar's legitimacy as a leader stems from his support for these organizations, leaving him no choice but to accommodate them.

Pro-democracy elements in Syria itself have warned against attempts to remove Bashar claiming that he has a genuine desire to reform and modernize Syrian society but is highly constrained by far harsher elements in the security apparatus who do not want change. They would go so far as to suggest that the bombs in Lebanon carried a message not just for Lebanese society, but also for Bashar himself.

There are elements in the US foreign policy establishment that would like to remove Bashar and bomb Syrian military assets. There are others that caution against such radical action on the grounds that Syria is a secular regime that, in spirit at least, if not in deed, is an ally both in stabilizing Iraq and in containing more violent Sunni militants such as al Qaeda and Fatah al-Islam. That Lebanon also might go up in flames again is another argument in favour of caution they argue.

For most of us the idea of smashing up another part of the Middle East with very little idea of what the outcome might be would of course be criminal insanity. The recent Israeli air strike in Syria and subsequent US talk of ‘nuclear facilities’ however, suggests that the debate in Washington hasn’t quite yet reached the same conclusion.