March 01, 2005

Puzzling Out Syria (And Lebanon!)

Steven Cook has an interesting take on Syrian "support" for the Iraqi insurgency:
Q: A side question: If Syria so disliked Saddam Hussein, and Syria even went to war on the U.S. side in 1991, why have the Syrians been helping the insurgents in Iraq?

[Cook:] Well, that's a very, very interesting question, and it's one of the things that I'm not sure we have a real handle on. It doesn't make sense for the Syrians to be supporting a largely Sunni, Baathist-based insurgency in Iraq. And I'm not quite sure that the Syrian government is directly involved in supporting the insurgency. I think what's happening is that there's a certain amount of benign neglect. They are not policing their borders; they are allowing people who would join the insurgency to come across the borders. They're allowing money to come across the borders to help fund the insurgency, and along with the money, there are also weapons, explosives, and things along those lines--the payoffs. But there's no love lost between the Baathists of Iraq and the Baathists of Syria, that's clear.
Very interesting. Josh Landis had a post awhile back about how even if Bashar Assad wanted to crack down on the Iraqi Baathists inside Syria, he might not be able to due to corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, incompetence, etc. etc. Now it seems with the latest capture of a high-ranking Iraqi insurgent—one of Saddam's half-brothers—by Syrian intelligence, this might change. On the one hand, the dude was captured in Beirut, where Syrian intelligence seems really quite good, so it's no guarantee that the Damascus government can continue to crack down on Iraqis. And on the other other hand, perhaps this is all a shrewd move by Syria to get the U.S. off its back. ("We'll capture you some nice juicy Iraqi Baathists, you let us wander around in Lebanon for a bit longer, eh?") Hard to say.

While I'm still trying to catch up on all things Syria (yes, yes, expect "insta-expert" postings starting in a day or two, but for now I actually have to admit my ignorance and stuff), this Josh Landis post makes a lot of sense to me. The U.S. needs Europe to place sanctions on Syria in order to get any mileage—since most of Damascus' trade is with Europe—but Europe doesn't want to get caught in a permanent state of sanctions, from which the U.S. will never let them leave. And the Bush administration will never relent, presumably, until Bashar's regime collapses.

The Bashar regime, meanwhile, is trying to "add[] up local support." Seems they're really counting on Muslim loyalists from within Lebanon—Tony Badran sees some signs of that happening, but it's still very unclear whether the Sunnis will rally to the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon. So, as Josh says, "eyes are on the Shiites and Hizballah to help lead Syria out of its morass." And Iranian support. Hizbullah, I would imagine, is dead set against anyone enforcing UN resolution 1559, which gets Syria out of Lebanon, mainly because 1559 requires Hizbullah to disband. So the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon may try to negotiate some other form of Syrian withdrawal in order to get Hizbullah's support. I'm not sure what.

At any rate, it's hardly a sure thing that the Syrian regime will lose out here, from what I can tell. Perhaps Bashar's regime will suddenly and magically start finding more and more Iraqi Baathists within Syrian borders. In that case, the U.S. could strike a deal—after all, the Iraqi insurgency is a far greater threat to American interests than the Syrian occupation in Lebanon—but I don't know exactly how this would work. Maybe it won't be enough to appease the White House.

Meanwhile, there's the longstanding question of whether Lebanon will implode or not. This fellow says: "look for Syria to sow chaos, then make the standard claim that only they can keep Lebanon peaceful." Meanwhile, As'ad Abu Khalil has three posts suggesting that unrest in Lebanon will lead to chaos. Read all of his posts—he has a very dour tone, but he knows a hell of a lot. He says the Shi'ites—who perhaps comprise a majority in Lebanon—still support Syria, and that party includes Hizbullah. The Sunni opposition, meanwhile, is hardly united. And a revolt seems to be brewing within the Lebanese Army. If Syria leaves, says As'ad, "[the world] will soon discover that the divisions among the Lebanese are real and deep."

UPDATE: Ah, Matt Yglesias provides a pithier take, suitably skeptical. At the moment I can't say whether the Lebanon "revolution" is A Very Good Thing or A Very Bad Thing. I'm just trying to figure out what the f— is going on!
-- Brad Plumer 3:57 AM || ||