Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Forward or back?

The very large demonstrations in support of Syria sponsored by Hezbollah, whether forced or not, can be interpreted as the end of the "Cedar Revolution". There is certainly enough genuine nationalistic support for Syria within Syria itself. Syria Comment (Joshua Landis) says:

Family members called me from Latakia to ask me what I though and to tell me how proud they were and what a great man Nasrallah is. I was out doing errands much of the day and all the shops had the TV on. Store owners and errand boys alike were leaning over their counters watching the demonstration with amazement and gratification. “This was the true Lebanon,” they insisted. “People from every part and every religion,” they intoned, repeating the line that the Lebanese opposition has been using for the last two weeks to insist that it expresses the true Lebanon. “George Bush asked for democracy. This is the true democracy," I was told repeatedly.

Today, Syrians will demonstrate. Many have told me they will go. The school in which my wife teaches has closed for the day because it is in Mezze, the section of town where the demonstration is to begin; the director fears that the kids will not be able to get home because of the crowds. The UN offices are only opening for half the day. It would seem that all of central Damascus will be closing early today. This is the first demonstration of its kind that most Syrians can remember and they are excited.

Having stemmed the tide and survived the scare pro-Syrian forces have moved to reassert control. The Associated Press reports:

Lebanese legislators ignored the popular anti-government protests and decided to re-install the pro-Syrian premier who was forced to step down last week, a move ensuring Damascus' continued dominance but raising opposition denunciation. ... Outgoing Prime Minister Omar Karami was virtually assured nomination after 71 of 78 legislators put forward his name during consultations with President Emile Lahoud, according to announcements by the legislators as they left the presidential palace. ... The pro-Syrian parliament members apparently were emboldened in their choice by a thundering protest in Beirut the day before that showed loyalty to Syria, countering weeks of anti-government and anti-Syrian demonstrations.

Some would dismiss President Bush's call for a Syrian withdrawal by May as mere posturing or tilting at windmills.

President Bush demanded that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon before parliamentary elections in May. ... "All Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel must withdraw before the Lebanese elections for those elections to be free and fair," he said. ... He said that freedom will prevail in Lebanon and sided with anti-Syrian protesters in recent weeks, who have demanded that Syria remove its 14,000 troops, following the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. In what he called a message to the Lebanese people, Mr. Bush said the world is witnessing a great movement of conscience.

In fact, Juan Cole believes the whole thing is set to blow up in President Bush's face, noting that anti-Syrian Jumblatt was recently anti-Wolfowitz.

The main exhibit for the relevance of Iraq to Lebanon is Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt's statement to the Washington Post: "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." It is highly unlikely that Jumblatt is sincere in this statement. He has seen Lebanese vote for parliament several times, and has campaigned, and Iraq was nothing new to his experience (like Lebanon, it is occupied by a foreign military power even during its elections).

I guess now that Jumblatt sees a way of getting the Syrians out of Lebanon by allying with Bush, all of a sudden America is no longer an imperialist cause of chaos. People who want to believe that remind me of PT Barnum's dictum that one is born every minute.

Nor is he alone in that appreciation. Richard Fairbanks, a former U.S. negotiator for Middle East peace and counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. said:

"One, if it's seen as the West wants Syria out, that would not be helpful to swaying the minds of the Shia and perhaps some others in Lebanon. Second, these calls by the Europeans and Americans are not self-executing and there is not another counterforce on the ground. So as much as the majority of the people want this to happen it's not going to be so simple," he said. Political analysts also argue that Middle East reforms have been announced in the past, only to fizzle out before fundamental change took root.

My own nonspecialist opinion is that despite their apparent strength Syria is holding a losing hand. The train of reasoning begins with the observation that no country has ever been able to maintain occupation over another using secret services alone. Secret services must ultimately operate behind a shield provided by a secure border or conventional forces; otherwise their headquarters, safehouses and files will be vulnerable to the first foe that shows up with a tank. By sending those conventional forces back to the border while reinstalling Karami, Syria is attempting to restore the status quo ante under weakened circumstances. Can they do it?

One wonders what the Syrians will do if the Lebanese opposition simply refuses to cooperate with a new Karami government. It would then fall to the Mukhabarat to break passive resistance. With the Syrian Army moved back the contest comes down to a secret service war where the party with the most money usually wins. And if -- and even Juan Cole doesn't wholly deny this -- a majority want Syria out, what would prevent the US from providing the money to make it happen? One can imagine a scenario where the opposition calls a protest boycott; maybe people get money not to work. It would be a sight to watch the Mukhabarat collect garbage or force people to.To rule requires a lot more resources than to disrupt. Therein lies the Syrian strategic weakness.

It isn't necessary and probably unwise to send conventional forces into Lebanon to chase the Syrians out. It would be sufficient to gum the Mukhabarat up; to run interference for the opposition and provide them with technical support to achieve a decisive result because it is unlikely that Syria can maintain control of Lebanon unless the Lebanese want them to, whatever Juan Cole thinks. The problem with dictatorships is entropy; a lot of energy is needed to keep people in line against their will and that task is frankly impossible. So dictators cheat and create the illusion of omnipotence and a climate of fear to hustle people along. Dictatorships depend, as Cole says though he probably didn't mean it that way, on "PT Barnum's dictum that one is born every minute". If the Syrian conventional troops are moved out of Lebanon, its hold will depend utterly on smoke and mirrors.