Pressure on Syria designed to force change of policy, not to threaten the Assad regime

Developing Just Leadership

M.S. Ahmed

Ramadan 18, 1425 2004-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by M.S. Ahmed (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 9, Ramadan, 1425)

The stage now appears to be set for the growing US and European pressure on Syria to come to fruit. Applied directly but also through the UN, the EU and Arab leaders such as president Husni Mubarak of Egypt, the pressure is intended to enlist Damascus in the service of Western and Israeli interests in the region, but not to remove from office president Bashar al-Asad, who, as a dynastic ruler, is believed to be vulnerable to indirect Western control. The UN security council has now approved a procedure for the implementation of its Resolution 1559 on Lebanon, and the EU has initialled an association agreement with Syria that, among other things, deals with weapons of mass destruction that Damascus must not try to obtain.

The resolution, sponsored by the US and France and passed on September 2, called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon, free elections in November, and the disarmament of all militias. Syria was not actually named in the resolution, but it has 15,000 troops in Lebanon; the reference to militias was also clearly to Hizbullah, which Syria is said to support. The reference to elections also directly concerned Damascus, which has been accused of being involved in and supporting the amendment of the Lebanese constitution that enabled president Emile Lahoud to continue in office beyond the end of his term on November 24. Once the resolution was passed Washington put enormous pressure on Damascus to comply, sending in its Middle East envoys, and asking president Mubarak to meet Asad and persuade him.

William J. Burns, US envoy to the Middle East, arrived in Damascus for a two-day visit on September 10 to urge Syrian officials to cooperate with the government of Iraq and seal its border with Iraq, thereby preventing “non-Iraqi jihadists” from crossing it to fight against occupation troops in Iraq. He also urged them to comply with the requirements of the Security Council resolution stressing the need for Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon and for Damascus to end support for organisations regarded by Washington as “promoting terrorism”. Burns – who was accompanied by a large delegation, including Peter W. Rodman, deputy secretary of defence for international security affairs – met both the president and foreign minister Farouq al-Shara’a. Five days later he was followed by president Mubarak, who, during a two-hour meeting, discussed with Asad the two issues raised by Burns: resolution 1559 and Iraq. In particular, they discussed the necessity of Syria’s dealing with the issues raised with “realism and practicality”.

Other direct US pressure on Damascus included the unanimous adoption by the House of Representatives of a resolution expressing concern about human rights in Syria. The House approved a text reading that Syria was governed by “an authoritarian regime, which continues to commit serious human rights abuses, including the use of torture and arbitrary arrests.” In contrast to this, Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo agreed on September 14 to avoid taking a position on the UN resolution. The Arab League resolution they passed did not mention Resolution 1559 or any of the issues raised by it, mainly because Syria and Jordan disagreed over what approach to take. The ministers’ extraordinary behaviour was explained by an Arab diplomat thus: “The UN resolution posed an impossible choice for ministers,” he said; “they cannot endorse the resolution because they oppose US and French interference in inter-Arab affairs, but they cannot reject it because their case in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute rests on other UN Security Council Resolutions.”

The explanation is, of course, even more extraordinary than the ministers’ behaviour. Syria knows that Palestine has been abandoned both by the Arab regimes and by the so-called international community, particularly as represented by the UN. Syria also knows that it itself poses no threat to Israel, having allowed it to continue to occupy its own territory, the Golan Heights, since the Israel-Arab war (June 1967). And although Damascus has been pleading secretly with successive Israeli regimes for negotiations, to no avail, it knows that it cannot openly express hostility to Hizbullah without risking instability in the country or in Lebanon, or serious opposition to the Asad regime. This explains its reluctance to implement Resolution 1559 with the required speed, although it has pulled out a small number of troops to show “good will”.

Syria’s reluctance to carry out the orders issued in the resolution gave Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, the opportunity to take it to task, demonstrating in the process that he continues to be on the side of the US and Israel on this issue, as indeed on others. In a 17-page report delivered to the security council on October 1, he wrote: “I cannot certify that these requirements have been met. The Syrian military and intelligence apparatus in Lebanon has not been withdrawn as of September 30.”

The security council, having studied the report, took its time to reach a decision about what its response should be. One of the matters that caused disagreement among its members was whether to mention Syria by name in any new instructions, but on October 19 council members issued a unanimous statement calling on “all the parties concerned” to implement Resolution 1559 completely and without fail. The new order requested the UN secretary general to report to the council on the progress of implementation every six months. The draft statement called for three-month reports, but Pakistan and Algeria, which are members of the council at the moment, insisted on six-monthly instead of three-monthly reports. Both countries, however, fully backed the order on Syria to comply, clearly to avoid offending the “only superpower” in the world. Only a day before the vote, a US envoy issued a public statement calling on Damascus to implement Resolution 1559 in full or face serious consequences.

Farouk Shara’a, who was visiting Europe at the time, issued a statement saying that Syria’s attitude to the resolution was consistent and that Damascus believed it to be an “illegal interference in Syrian-Lebanese relations”. In Beirut Muhammad Issa, the chief secretary of the Lebanese foreign office, described it as illegal interference by the UN in the affairs of a member-state. But both Damascus and Beirut know that the Americans are determined to see the strategic aims of the resolution carried out, that they share some of those aims, such as the elimination of Islamic activism in the Middle East, and that the extension of the three-month period for reports to six months does not mean any relaxation of pressure to act. They also realise that both Egypt and Jordan, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, want them to reach an eventual accommodation with Israel, as do other Arab allies of the US.

But in addition to this new pressure on Syria, the EU is also seeking to force Damascus to give up its presumed possession of WMD. On October 19, the same day as the security council issued its new order, the EU and Syria initialled an association agreement that would give Damascus greater access to EU markets but which also includes controls on WMD. This is part of the wider programme being pushed by the US and Europe – using their UN tools – to deny all Muslim countries access to weapons technology, to ensure that they remain defenceless.

Unfortunately it is only a matter of time before Syria crumbles under the pressure of the West, exerted both directly and using the UN and Arab – indeed Muslim – allies.

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