An exit strategy for Syria

THE first time I interviewed Rafik Hariri he was still prime minister. The 20 minutes originally allocated had turned into an hour-and-a-half, and still Hariri gave no indication that he wanted to end the discussion. Hariri was talking economics, his favourite subject.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Thu 24 Feb 2005, 9:10 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:12 PM

Eventually he ended the interview with these words: "This country is the least risky country among all the countries in the Middle East. With no exception." Alas, last week’s events proved him wrong.

The tragic death of the former Lebanese prime minister has triggered an unexpected reaction among the Lebanese who have taken to the streets, en masse, calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from their country. One week after explosion that killed the prominent Lebanese leader, uniting Lebanese of all religions and all walks of life, renewed pressure is growing on Syria. Anti-Syrian protests have been massive — and peaceful — but there is always the danger that violence can erupt.

Hariri’s assassination, followed by the announcement two days later that Syria and Iran were forming a common front to counter US pressures, has raised the ante between Washington and Damascus. On Monday, the first day of his European tour, President Bush made a point of stressing that Syria should leave Lebanon. Unlike Iraq, Bush’s stance on Syria will fall on sympathetic ears in Europe where the European Union, and particularly France, has been actively calling for an end to Syria’s military role in Lebanon. Hariri’s assassins — whoever they are — might never have expected the death of the former prime minister to generate that kind of response — both in Lebanon and around the world.

Although the Bush administration was careful not to point accusing fingers at Damascus, Washington did recall its ambassador from Damascus for consultations. It was a thinly veiled accusation and Washington’s way of showing its strong displeasure with Bashar Assad’s regime, which Washington continues to accuse of supporting terrorism. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed up Syrian-American relations as "worsening."

Indeed, there are good chances that relations between Washington and Damascus will continue to worsen unless immediate steps are taken to avoid escalating the crisis. Washington and Paris are insisting for the implementation of United Nations Resolution 1559, that calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon. France’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jean-Marc de La Sablière, said that "Resolution 1559 is a very important resolution, and it is important that this resolution is implemented."

All indications in Washington point that the Bush administration will not alleviate its pressure on Syria, in fact, the administration will most likely increase it by enforcing the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act of 2003, and by imposing greater economic sanctions on Damascus.

Pressure on Syria from France and the United States will continue to mount, as will pressure from the Lebanese opposition. If the protests that unfolded in Beirut a week after Hariri’s death is any indication, the Lebanese popular movement will only grow stronger. As will the risks of a confrontation. These new developments place Syria in a delicate position. Damascus cannot be seen to fold to pressure from the United States, France, or from the Lebanese populist movement calling for the removal of its 14,000 troops. Such a move would be perceived as a sign of weakness by Assad’s opponents at home, and could create internal strife in Syria.

An honourable and face-saving solution for Bashar Assad would be to declare Syria’s military mission in Lebanon a success, and repatriate the troops. Lebanon’s internal security is already the responsibility of the Lebanese army and the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. Given that Syria remains involved and concerned by Lebanon’s political future and stability, Damascus should then announce the establishment of an embassy in Beirut, something Damascus has always been reluctant to do — and appoint a prominent Syrian diplomat to represent/protect its interests in Lebanon.

Such a move would accomplish the following: it would meet the requirements of UN Resolution 1559, granting Lebanon its territorial integrity, thus placating the international community, and would avoid escalating the crisis. It would reassure the Lebanese that Syria has no designs on Lebanon and would quell the growing resentment of Syria in Lebanon.

Finally, it would offer Syria a face-saving exit strategy from Lebanon averting a confrontation with the US. It would have the benefit of changing the nature of the crisis, turning it from an adversarial standoff where all sides stand to lose into a political and diplomatic dialogue where ideas can be exchanged. The result would be an immediate abatement of tension in the area, making Lebanon once again one of the "least risky countries" in the Middle East. If that were to happen, Hariri’s death would have not been in vain.

Claude Salhani is foreign editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington

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