Wednesday, February 16, 2005

The Curtain Rises

The US has recalled its ambassador to Syria to indicate its anger at Damascus over the assasination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. CNN reports:

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States has "made it clear" it wants Syria, which maintains some 16,000 troops in Lebanon, to use its influence to prevent such attacks. ... "I have been very careful to say we really don't know who committed this murder at this point, but we do know what effect the Syrian presence in Lebanon has," Boucher said. "And we do know that it doesn't bring security for Lebanese." Ambassador Margaret Scobey was returning to Washington for "urgent consultations," Boucher said, because of "deep concern, as well as our profound outrage, over this heinous act of terrorism."

The diplo-blog New Sisyphus explains the convention behind the diplomatic signal of 'recalling the ambassador'.

In a move that traditionally signals extreme displeasure with the host nation, the U.S. today recalled its ambassador to Syria to Washington for urgent consultations. ... This development is significant in two respects. First, it is a sign that worsening relations between Syria and the United States have left the "behind-the-scenes" stage and have moved squarely into the "active confrontation" stage. Second, it appears to us that USG believes that Syria was directly involved in the bombing, either as actor or facilitator.

The Great Ophthalmologist has been gambling for months that he can bleed the U.S. in Iraq at little cost. To date, that gamble has paid off. With the Bush Administration facing domestic and international opposition to the Iraq War, Syria's government has apparently drawn the not entirely unreasonable conclusion that the U.S. either cannot or will not make Syria pay a cost for its more or less open support for terrorism in Iraq or for its occupation of Lebanon. (Note to the Left: there is an unjust, illegal "occupation" of land in the Middle East, and the name of that land is Lebanon).

We trust that the patience of President Bush is running to an end. No other act, except maybe for strikes on Iran, would signal our seriousness at changing the chess board in the Middle East than military strikes aimed at Syria's command and control infrastructure. The illusion of Syrian invulnerability must be broken if Syria is ever to have incentive to change its ways.

If as the New Sisyphus argues, Assad has been "gambling for months that he can bleed the U.S. in Iraq at little cost" and that it has been waging "war more-or-less openly on the U.S. in Iraq", the question is what has changed? It is hard to imagine how the assasination of a Lebanese politician could provoke a more drastic response than months of Syrian-supported attacks on US troops in Iraq and harder still to imagine how Washington could have taken the ultimate diplomatic step without implicitly being prepared to go further. Yet it has. Unless Washington is playing a hollow hand, where the conclusion has changed the premises must be re-examined -- the principal one being that America was too hamstrung by Iraq to take anything else on -- not Syria, Iran or North Korea.

The aggressive posture taken by America against North Korea, Iran and now Syria suggests the bonds that held it down in Iraq, if ever they did, may be loosening. Dan Darling's survey of the Iraqi election results at Winds of Change may provide a clue to what is happening. It discusses whether the recently concluded election has delivered Iraq into the hands of Teheran. He concludes that it has not, at least, not obviously.

I suspect that much of the regional assumptions about the new Iraqi government being an Iranian pawn have to do with fears, even fears held by reasonable people like King Abdullah of Jordan, that the Iraqi Shi'ites will try and support their co-religionists in other parts of the Arab world, destabilizing the existing post-colonial order and plunging a number of neighboring states into chaos. I don't think that this fear is all that plausible because it conceives of Shi'ites as a monolithic force throughout the region based in large part on what happened to them in Lebanon and led to the formation of Hezbollah during the 1980s.

The underlying reason is straightforward: a unitary Iraq, the only context in which the elections have legitimacy, cannot be totally dominated by any single group without precipitating civil war. In short, the reason Iraq cannot be delivered in a ribboned box to Teheran -- even assuming some Shi'ite candidates wanted to -- is because of the Kurds, and ironically enough, the Sunnis. Hence, having engineered a Mexican standoff at worst and a functioning democracy at best in Iraq, it may be possible that the Iraqi campaign is strategically over. If this proves true it may have been inherent in conception. Whether consciously or not, the choice of Iraq as a beachead into the mainland of Middle Eastern terror was a blow directed at a faultline in the Islamic world, just as generals of the previous century directed attacks at the command boundaries of enemy armies. If that strategy proved profitable, so would its sequel: Lebanon lies along another such faultline.

If this speculation is true, the evidence will not be long in coming. The indicators will be a gradual quieting of Iraq as a military theater and a corresponding shift of emphasis onto Iran and perhaps, Lebanon. Assuming the confirming developments are observed, the question will be 'to what end'. There have been rumors about a 'second front' against Syria for some time. In January, 2004 Janes reported a plan to use US Special Forces in the Bekaa Valley.

According to JID's intelligence sources, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is considering plans to expand the global war on terrorism with multi-pronged attacks against suspected militant bases in countries such as Lebanon and Somalia. In a week in which Israel launched airstrikes against Hizbullah positions, our regional correspondent reports from Beirut. ... However, sending US special forces into Lebanon - and in particular an area like the Bekaa Valey (which is virtually Syrian territory) and where the bulk of Damascus' military forces in Lebanon are deployed - would be an entirely different matter. Deployment of US forces in the area would almost certainly involve a confrontation with Syrian troops. ... The US administration has long considered Damascus as a prime candidate for 'regime-change' (along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and possibly even Saudi Arabia). Syria, once a powerhouse of Arab radicalism that could not be ignored, has been seriously weakened, both militarily and politically. Washington may feel that the time is coming to oust Bashir Al-Assad and the ruling generals. Targeting Syria via Lebanon, the only concrete political influence Damascus has to show following decades of radical diplomacy, could prove to be a means to that end.

The same information snippet was reported in a Washington Post article of about the same date in the context of a supposed debate on the employment of Special Forces in the GWOT. Such plans, perhaps one of thousands of planning contingencies in what has become a global war, may have been put on hold pending developments. It is early days yet. All that can be done is to lay down a few analytical markers against which to measure the march of events.