All observers are having to accomodate the obvious reality of a change in the wind in the Middle East: free elections in Palestine and Iraq, the Egyptian president pledged to hold competitive elections soon, a popular uprising against Syria’s occupation of Lebanon forced Beirut’s puppet government to resign, and Syria itself now is in the bull’s eye — literally without a friend in the world — on the verge of quitting Lebanon with its tail between its legs. The writing on the wall, as in the Berlin Wall, is beginning to have the appearance of inevitability, and the appearance of inevitability can inexorably make it so: it’s all about contagion and the Big Mo.
But how is it possible that this momentum has developed so quickly, particularly in Lebanon, where just weeks ago Syria still seemed invulnerable? Habib Malik, professor of history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University, explains it starkly and well:
- in just a matter of months Syria has managed to do everything possible to replace Saddam Hussein’s late regime in the “axis of evil.” The regime of Bashar al-Asad has wreaked violence and mischief on virtually every front, from its harboring of Iraqi insurgents, to its support for anti-Israel terrorists, to its ham-handed extension of Emile Lahoud’s presidency in Lebanon, to its transparent attempt to destroy the budding anti-Syrian protest movement by targeting leading Lebanese Druze politician Marwan Hamadeh. Three developments in quick succession—the Hariri assassination, which was widely attributed to Syria; subsequent threats by Damascus that “negative consequences for the Lebanese” would follow any widespread calls for Syrian withdrawal; and the announcement of a deepening Iran-Syria strategic partnership—only served to galvanize local, regional, and international outrage at Syrian behavior and raise questions about the underlying thinking of the country’s leadership.
Clearly, this is a different Asad—the late Hafiz would never have pursued such a series of rash acts, which have only invited international condemnation and intervention. Bashar seems bent on compounding errors, not deflecting negative attention. He seems to lack any appreciation of the momentous impact of the September 11 attacks on Washington’s strategic thinking, any sense of U.S. commitment to persevering in Iraq, and any sense that the Bush administration might be serious in its pursuit of democracy and reform in Arab societies. Unlike autocratic Arab leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere, who have taken steps to accommodate and perhaps reorient U.S. policy, Bashar’s regime more closely resembles a Middle Eastern version of totalitarian Brezhnevism, mired as it is in old thinking, tired ideologies, and brutality as national strategy. [Washington Institute for Near East Policy]
The Washington Post had similar thoughts yesterday:
- AS THE MIDDLE East changes all around him, Syrian President Bashar Assad still tries to play by the old rules. He figured he could sponsor terrorism in Iraq and Israel and thereby block progress toward democracy and peace. He calculated that the car bomb that killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri — whether or not it was planted by his agents — would stop the gathering Lebanese independence movement. He was wrong: In each case, such tactics have been defeated by an emerging Arab movement of people power.
….There is no sign that the crude and callow tyrant gets the message. His response to the turmoil set off by his own criminal policies has been to adopt the standard formula of beleaguered Middle Eastern autocrats: appease the superpowers, blame Israel and appeal for “Arab unity.”
….The unlikely but potent U.S.-French alliance can bring extraordinary pressure to bear on Damascus if it chooses: The freezing of a European Union economic agreement and U.N. sanctions are among the available tools. The West can also support monitors or peacekeepers in Lebanon to fill any gap left by a Syrian withdrawal. The potential payoff is a big one: another free election in the Arab world this spring, an independent Lebanon and, just possibly, a change in Syria. The old, corrupt order in Beirut, as in Baghdad, is crumbling. Whether Mr. Assad survives its passing may depend on whether he adapts in time.
Adapt or perish, and at this point I wouldn’t rule out “perish” for this rash, insular despot.
As the winds blow ever more forcefully, even fiercely anti-Bush, EU sphincter-sniffers like Timothy Garton Ash have been forced into acknowledgment:
- What is happening on the streets of Beirut is not a result of the invasion of Iraq, nor does it retrospectively justify that invasion. But it does, obviously, have something to do with American policy. The truth is that, starting with the shock of 9/11, Washington has groped its way, by a process of trial and error, to a strategic position that is entirely possible for democrats in Europe and the Arab world to engage with, if we choose to. A key part of that groping was the realization in Iraq that, although the United States could win any war on its own, it could not build democracy overnight, out of the barrel of a gun.
….Now a remarkable thing is happening on the road to Damascus: The U.S. and France are walking down it arm in arm.
….And the France of Jacques Chirac — that friend of dictators from Baghdad to Beijing — has responded by putting in a word for freedom. One Lebanese opposition leader, Camille Chamoun of the National Liberation Party, commented: “The free world is really helping Lebanon restore its sovereignty.” The free world! When was the last time you heard that phrase from someone in the Arab world?
….whatever happens in Lebanon and Syria, the fact that France and the U.S. have lined up together in the cause of freedom is a hopeful sign. What we have now is an imperative for Europe to come up with its own proposals for enlarging liberty in the Middle East. It’s not enough to say Iraq was the wrong way; we must go on to suggest the right one. This is an agenda for the whole of the European Union. [LA Times]
Lest the EU, too, be left behind by history – better late than never, I say.
And speaking of even more unlikely supporters battered into line by the gale now blowing: Russia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have now called for Syria to drag its dead ass out of plucky little Lebanon:
- Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, went Thursday to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, hoping to secure Saudi support before a coming Arab summit meeting. But Saudi officials told Reuters and The Associated Press that Crown Prince Abdullah had delivered an unusually blunt rebuff. Egypt, the other key Arab player, has also called for the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon.
“The Arabs have taken a stand and the international community have taken a stand,” said Joseph Samaha, editor in chief of As Safir, a Lebanese daily. “This means there is no ally left for Syria.”
….Saudi Arabia’s rebuke follows a similar stand by Russia on Wednesday. “Syria should withdraw from Lebanon,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the BBC late Wednesday. “But we all have to make sure that this withdrawal does not violate the very fragile balance which we still have in Lebanon, which is a very difficult country ethnically.”
….Russia’s announcement was in effect a message to Syria that Moscow would not exercise its veto against sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, he added. [NY Times]
Momentum has clearly taken on a life of its own and that is how it works best, but let us not forget the hand that pulled the starter cord.
Bush keeps up the pressure in a NY Post interview:
- “The subject that is most on my mind right now is getting Syria out of Lebanon, and I don’t mean just the troops out of Lebanon, I mean all of them out of Lebanon, particularly the secret service out of Lebanon — the intelligence services,” he said.
“This is non-negotiable. It is time to get out . . . I think we’ve got a good chance to achieve that objective and to make sure that the May elections [in Lebanon] are fair. I don’t think you can have fair elections with Syrian troops there,” the president said in a wide-ranging Oval Office interview with The Post’s editorial board.
Asked if there is a threat of military action as an “or else” if they don’t, Bush replied, “No. The ‘or else’ is further isolation from the world. You know, the president should never take any options off the table, [but] my last choice is military.”
….”When the United States says something, it must mean it. That’s what I meant when I said, ‘Remove all your troops,’ not remove 94 percent of them,” the president said.
“Totally out of Lebanon — and that’s very important for [Syrian] President Assad to hear. And it’s more than just troops. I keep emphasizing this, but it’s important for the world to understand that a Lebanon that is able to express itself freely at the ballot box needs to have no Syrian secret service.”