March 05, 2005

Will Bashar Prevail?

The White House, with crucial help from France, Saudi Arabia, and even Russia, is pressuring Syria to get out of Lebanon. So today Syrian president Bashar Assad proposes a half-ass "phased withdrawal" that ignores UN Resolution 1959 and does little about the real problem, namely Syrian intelligence services in Lebanon. In short, this is a big ol' middle finger aimed squarely at the West. With a smirk on his face, of course.

So what is the West going to do about it? Huh? Huh? The U.S. has already blasted Bashar for half-assing it, but Britain, Russia, and the EU all quietly praised the announcement. The only leverage Bush really has against Syria, remember, is the threat of European sanctions, and it's not clear that Europe is actually ready to go that far. Especially if, say, France thinks that it could get dragged by the U.S. into a more hard-line position against Syria than it prefers. So it's largely out of Bush's hands. Meanwhile, Josh Landis puts his ear to the ground in Damascus and thinks Bashar is steadily regaining control of the situation:
Most importantly, Bashar's government is much stronger than many think. There has been great speculation abroad -- and in Syria -- that the wheels are about to go flying off the regime, that the President is not really in charge, or even more darkly, that a shadowy subterranean power-struggle is taking place within the top ranks of the government, presaging a coup or possible collapseā€¦. Nevertheless, the pressure has been much relieved in the last two days. Bashar is back at the helm, giving interviews and taking a positive line on Lebanon.
So now it's time to see how well this multilateralism thing works. It's worth noting that Bashar has managed to piss off every single one of his friends. Even Saudi Arabia! Few countries have ever isolated themselves as thoroughly as Syria has, and if the transatlantic alliance can't even knock down little ol' Bashar when he's quite obviously on his heels, then what good is the "international system" anyway?

UPDATE: See also this on why a Syrian withdrawal could mean the end of "Arab nationalism" as an ideology. Interesting... I do wonder what Bashar thinks his optimal position is now. It seems he wants to withdraw from Lebanon in a way that doesn't make him look "weak" and sparks protests at home. But if Landis is right, he seems to be on his way to succeeding on that front anyway.
-- Brad Plumer 10:39 PM || ||