Lebanon and Syria: Opportunities, Realities and Double Standards
Jun 1, 2007 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
June 1, 2007
Number 06/07 #01
This Update concentrates on analysis of recent developments in Lebanon that entangle Syria, Lebanon’s past overlord which still maintains ambitions to renew its direct dominance. In particular, the UN has just approved the tribunal to try the murderers of former PM Rafiq Hariri, and Syria is both a prime suspect and the strongest opponent of the tribunal. Syria is also alleged to be the main backer of Fatah al-Islam, which sparked much violence with the Lebanese army last week, and it continues to back the Hezbollah terrorist organisation, which also opposes the tribunal.
First up is the always insightful Professor Barry Rubin, who looks at recent events and draws the conclusion that efforts to engage or appease Syria are fruitless and counter-productive. Examining recent Syrian support for terrorism, including the Fatah al-Islam violence, he argues that the Syrian regime needs confrontation and conflict with America and Israel to stay in power, and that efforts to pacify the regime will therefore not work. For this important argument from a very knowledgeable source, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Canadian columnist and editor Jonathan Kay calls attention to the double standard involved in the low-key reaction to the Lebanese army’s incursion into the Nahr al Bared Palestinian refugee camp to fight Fatah al-Islam as compared to Israel’s much pilloried 2002 anti-terrorist incursion into the Jenin refugee camp. He points out that at Nahr al Bared, the tactics used by the Lebanese army were much more indiscriminate than Israel’s in Jenin, but that Arab behaviour against Arabs never seems to provoke the same outrage as when the perpetrators are Jewish or Christian. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson, terrorism experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argue that the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in France makes possible a change of policy which could cripple Hezbollah. They point out that French opposition under Chirac was the primary obstacle to Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist organisation in Europe, and that both Hezbollah’s own testimony and available evidence make it clear that Hezbollah’s freedom to operate in Europe is crucial to its functioning and funding. For their argument about a chance to deal a serious blow to both Hezbollah and Syria’s plans for Lebanon, CLICK HERE.
Ottawa Citizen, Monday, May 28, 2007
In the Middle East, violence is not the result of poor communication but a tool for political gain. Nothing proves that point better than Syria’s successful use of violence and terrorism to promote its interests. No amount of dialogue is going to change that reality.
Now Syria is using a Palestinian front group to start a war inside Lebanon, just as it employed another Lebanese client organization, Hezbollah, to battle Israel last year. The Syrian government’s message is simple: Lebanon will know no peace until it again becomes our satellite.
In two years, 15 major terrorist attacks targeted Lebanon’s independent-minded leaders. Most notorious was the assassination of popular former prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005, which also killed 21 bystanders.
In response, the United Nations set up an international investigation whose interim reports pointed the finger at Syria and even, in unpublished drafts, at president Bashar al-Assad’s closest relatives for the killing. Last week, the United States, Britain, and France introduced a resolution in the UN to set up a tribunal to try the murderers.
Since the tribunal is in co-operation with Lebanon, Syria must ensure that country’s parliament vetoes the plan. Suddenly, bombs start exploding in Beirut and a Syrian-backed Islamist group stages an uprising against the government.
People get the hint. Cross Syria and you get hurt. To hold the tribunal given events in Lebanon, says South African diplomat Dumisani Kumalo, “We would need to have our heads examined. We were for going very slow to start with. Now we are even slower.”
What is less understood is how the regime’s radical strategy is used at home and why this makes it impossible to gain anything from engaging with Syria. Like other Middle Eastern dictatorships, Syria’s rulers face a paradox. How to stay in power after failing so completely? The economy is a mess, there is little freedom, and the regime is dominated by a small Alawite minority which is historically secular.
Since taking power in 2000 on his father’s death, Bashar has met this challenge. He sends terrorists against Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and even the U.S. military, but nobody retaliates in kind against him. At home, the regime sounds increasingly Islamist; abroad it is the biggest sponsor of radical Islamist groups in the region.
As a result of their interests and as a matter of survival, Syria’s rulers need anti-Americanism and the Arab-Israeli conflict to mobilize support and distract from their failings. For example, when Syrians demanded reforms after Bashar took power, then vice-president Abd Halim Khaddam told the people that nothing could change as long as Israel controlled the Golan Heights. But actually getting back this land would be disastrous for the regime since making peace with Israel would dissolve that excuse, but also because it would open massive demands by its own citizens for democracy, prosperity, and reform.
Bashar has even declared a new doctrine he calls “Resistance,” which combines Arab nationalism and Islamism. The West’s goal, he claims, is to enslave the Arabs. The mistake made by other Arabs was to abandon war. “The world will not be concerned with us and our interests, feelings, and rights unless we are powerful,” and victory requires “adventure and recklessness.” Any who disagree are mere “political mercenaries” and “parasites.”
This mandatory radicalism ensures that Syria interprets western concessions and confidence-building measures as acts of surrender, proving its strategy is working. Years of dialogue and numerous visits by secretaries of state could not even get Syria to close the terrorist offices in Damascus, much less make any policy changes.
Anwar al-Bunni, a democratic dissident, explained in 2003 that the only thing that held back the regime was fear of America. It was only due to “the fright it gave our rulers, that we reformers stand a chance here.”
But once U.S. members of Congress flocked to Damascus, offering words of praise and advocating detente, Bunni was proven right. He was sentenced on trumped-up charges to five years’ imprisonment.
Being nice to Syria will lead nowhere because the regime thrives on conflict and its demands — including a recolonized Lebanon — are too contrary to western interests to meet. U.S. and Canadian policy should treat Syria’s regime as a determined adversary whose interests are diametrically opposed to their own because that regime leaves them no real choice.
Barry Rubin is author of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), director of the Global Research in International Affairs (Gloria) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (Meria).
National Post (Canada), Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Last week, the Lebanese army attacked a squalid Palestinian refugee camp that’s become infested with Islamist suicide terrorists and guerilla fighters. On May 20, government troops surrounded the camp, with tanks and artillery pieces shelling it at close range. Army snipers gunned down anything that moved. At least 18 civilians were killed, and dozens more injured. Water and electricity were cut off. By week’s end, much of the camp had been turned into deserted rubble. Thousands of terrified residents fleeing the camp reported harrowing stories of famished, parched families trapped in their basements.
How did the rest of the world react? The Arab League quickly condemned “the criminal and terrorist acts carried out by the terrorist group known as Fatah al-Islam,” and vowed to “give its full support to the efforts of the army and the Lebanese government.” EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also condemned Fatah al-Islam, and declared Europe’s “support” for Lebanon. And the UN Security Council called the actions of Fatah al-Islam “an unacceptable attack” on Lebanon’s sovereignty. As for the Western media, most outlets ignored the story following the first flurry of news reports.
At this point, please indulge me by re-reading the first paragraph of this column — except this time, substitute the world “Israeli” for “Lebanese” in the first sentence. Let’s imagine what the world’s reaction would be if the ongoing siege were taking place in Gaza or the West Bank instead of the Nahr al Bared refugee camp on the outskirts of Tripoli, Lebanon.
First of all, a flood of foreign journalists would descend on the camp to document Israel’s cruelty and barbarism, and the story would remain front page news to this day. Al-Jazeera would be a 24/7 montage of grieving mothers swearing revenge on the Zionist butchers, and rumours would swirl of mass graves and poison gas. The Arab League, EU and United Nations would condemn Israeli aggression — as would the editorial board of The New York Times. The Independent would dispatch Robert Fisk to embed with Fatah al-Islam. And the newspaper’s cartoonist, Dave Brown, would produce another award-winning rendition of his signature theme: Jews eating Palestinian babies.
Actually, we don’t need to speculate: What I have just written is exactly what happened when the Israeli army invaded the Jenin refugee camp to root out terrorists in April, 2002, a battle that was similar in scale to this month’s siege at Nahr al Bared. (At Jenin, 52 refugee camp residents were killed — most of them gunmen, according to Human Rights Watch. At Nahr al Bared, the figure is 45 and climbing.) The main difference between the two sieges is that Israel’s army put its troops at far greater risk by invading Jenin with infantry — whereas the less humane Lebanese army has simply pummelled Nahr al Bared with explosives from a distance. Jews apparently care a lot more about saving Palestinian civilians than do Lebanese soldiers.
For years, we have been told that Palestinian suffering and “humiliation” is at the root of the Middle East conflict, as well as the Western-Muslim clash of civilizations more generally. This is nonsense: The 200,000-plus Palestinian refugees who live in Lebanese camps are treated worse than dogs — with no access to decent schools or good jobs — and no one in the Arab world cares a whit. In fact, many Arabs seem to embrace the same blind anti-Palestinian hatred of which Israel is typically accused. When Lebanese armoured personnel carriers rolled through Tripoli on May 20, they got a standing ovation from local residents. “We wish the government would destroy the whole camp and the rest of the camps,” one local told The New York Times. “Nothing good comes out of the Palestinians.”
Just as Lebanon’s stew of eternally warring Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Hezbollah terrorists and militarized clans serves as a Mediterranean microcosm for the political dysfunction of the Arab world, this month’s events capture perfectly the utter cynicism of the Islamic world’s trumped up vilification of Israel, and the West as a whole. As with the Muslim- on-Muslim slaughter in Darfur, Iraq, Pakistan, Gaza and a dozen other hot spots, the siege at Nahr al Bared shows that what inflames “the Muslim street” (for lack of a better cliche) isn’t Muslim suffering, but the relatively tiny fraction thereof that jihadi propagandists and their Western apologists can lay at the feet of Jews and Christians.
Muslim blood apparently comes cheap — but only when it’s drawn by other Muslims.
© National Post 2007
Matthew Levitt and Michael Jacobson
New Republic Online, May 28, 2007
The United States and Europe have long disagreed on how to categorize Hezbollah. While the U.S. government designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization a decade ago, the European Union has not. Doing so would require the consensus of all 27 member states, and several countries have been opposed, including Spain, Belgium, and, in particular, France. The French have cited a number of reasons for their resistance, including Hezbollah’s role as a political party in Lebanon and the fear of upsetting Lebanon’s tenuous domestic political balance. In the words of a former French foreign minister, “Hezbollah has a parliamentary and political dimension in Lebanon. They have members of parliament who are participating in parliamentary life. Political life in Lebanon is difficult and fragile.”
But pressure has been building for the EU to add Hezbollah to its terrorist list. Senior Bush administration officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have raised the issue with the EU and key member states, and the House of Representatives passed a resolution in March 2005 urging the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Several days prior, the EU Parliament passed a non-binding resolution noting that “clear evidence exists of terrorist activities by Hizbollah. The [EU] should take all necessary steps to curtail them.” Now, the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s new president may represent the best chance yet for Europe to reconsider its position.
Sarkozy appears to see Hezbollah in a different light than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac. In a September 2006 closed-door session with Jewish leaders in the United States, for example, Sarkozy reportedly referred to Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”–a sentiment unlikely to be stated by Chirac. During last summer’s war between Hezbollah and Israel, Sarkozy defended Israel’s right to defend itself against an organization he described as the “one aggressor” in the conflict. He also stated that France should have committed troops to Lebanon more quickly during the war.
During the presidential campaign, Sarkozy also expressed concern about Iran’s close ties to Hezbollah, saying that “there are more than suspicions about the links between Hezbollah and Iran,” and he emphasized that he would support aggressive sanctions against Tehran should he win. His new prime minister, Francois Fillon, also criticized Socialist candidate Segolene Royal during the campaign for meeting with a Hezbollah representative and failing to condemn his criticism of the United States and Israel. “Accepting to speak with a member of Hezbollah, which advocates the destruction of Israel, was already a mistake,” Fillon said. “Letting him insult France’s allies–whether they are the United States or Israel–without reacting, is another serious mistake.”
More broadly, Sarkozy’s record to date also indicates a willingness to take aggressive and at times controversial counterterrorism positions. In 2005, while serving as France’s interior minister, Sarkozy successfully pushed through tough new counterterrorism laws, increasing the government’s access to private sector information, imposing longer prison sentences for those convicted of terrorism offenses, and extending the length of time suspects can be held without charge. That same year, Sarkozy also deported twelve Islamic extremist imams from the country, insisting that France has to “act against radical preachers.” Finally, Sarkozy ran for president on a pro-U.S. platform and might be more responsive to U.S. prodding on this issue than Chirac was.
Designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is important because, while Hezbollah has not conducted terrorist attacks in Europe for many years, it is still active in the region, using Europe primarily as a fund-raising and recruiting ground. An annual German intelligence assessment estimates that 900 Lebanese Hezbollah members live in that country alone. Hezbollah has also used Europe as a launching pad from which to infiltrate operatives into Israel to conduct surveillance and carry out attacks.
A ban would significantly constrain Hezbollah’s European activities, especially its ability to raise funds there. Once designated, all EU member states would be required to freeze any Hezbollah-controlled assets within their jurisdiction. Hezbollah related financial transactions would be prohibited as well. It’s no surprise, then, that Hezbollah itself fears such an EU designation. According to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, this action would “destroy” the organization as “[t]he sources of our funding will dry up and the sources of moral, political and material support will be destroyed.”
Even with French support, however, a European designation of Hezbollah is by no means guaranteed. A complicating factor is the presence of European military forces in Southern Lebanon as part of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, which is charged with monitoring the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah in the wake of last summer’s war. France, Spain, Belgium, and other European nations which have deployed troops might be concerned that a designation could destabilize the country further, putting their own military forces at increased risk.
Since other EU member states have followed France’s lead on the issue of Hezbollah’s status to this point, however, it’s possible they may continue to do so after a French reversal. Despite the uncertainty, therefore, given the stakes and the potential opportunity, the United States should engage the new French president on this issue as soon as possible. Sarkozy is uniquely positioned to make Nasrallah’s fear a reality.
Matthew Levitt directs the Stein Program in Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and is a former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for intelligence and analysis. Michael Jacobson is a senior fellow in the Stein Program and a former senior advisor in Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.