Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Press Roundup on Assad's Paris visit

With expectations of a diplomatic breakthrough running high following Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s state visit to Paris, Andrew Butters hits the nail on the head with this part of his dispatch from Damascus.

“The Assad regime only wants a package deal, a grand bargain between Syria and Iran on the one hand, and America and Israel on the other, that would settle the cold war for the Middle East. This means that the United States would have to give up once and for all its project for a "new" Middle East, and its penchant for regime change. That might happen on its own in November if Barack Obama becomes president. But a package deal would also have to solve the Iranian nuclear issue, map out the future of post-American Iraq, solve the Syrian-Israeli conflict, the Lebanese-Israeli conflict, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict all in one go. Would any American president, or any world leader, be able to pull that off in two years?”

Beirut cool on Syria embrace
Nicholas Blanford, Foreign Correspondent

BEIRUT // Lebanon has generally welcomed the announcement that Beirut and Damascus will establish formal diplomatic relations for the first time, but many Lebanese yesterday remained sceptical that any raproachment will change the way Syria deals with its tiny neighbour.__The announcement by Lebanon’s President, Elia Suleiman, and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al Assad, after a landmark meeting on the sidelines of the Mediterranean summit in Paris on Sunday was greeted with scepticism that it will make any difference and questioning by others as to why two “sisterly” countries need diplomatic relations at all.
“It is not true that confidence has been established with the declaration of intentions to set up diplomatic ties,” said Fares Soaid, co-ordinator for the anti-Syrian March 14 parliamentary bloc. He said “correcting relations with Syria requires more than just setting up diplomatic ties”.__Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, is expected in Beirut soon to formally hand over an invitation to Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, to visit Damascus, an act that will help further cement the spirit of rapprochement between the two countries after years of tension.
But an exchange of embassies still leaves numerous other outstanding issues to be resolved. __The most pressing demand of anti-Syrian Lebanese politicians is the demarcation of Lebanon’s border with Syria. __The border was drawn up by French military geographers in 1920 and generally follows the peaks of the Anti-Lebanon mountain chain. But its path has never been clearly marked on the ground with border pillars, giving rise to numerous local disputes between Syrian and Lebanese landowners.
A report put out by an anti-Syrian advocacy group last year claimed that Syria still occupies at least 460sqkm of Lebanese territory along the border.__The remote border also is home to Hizbollah training areas and several bases belonging to pro-Damascus Palestinian groups. It is regarded as a major conduit for the flow of weapons and militants into Lebanon. __The United Nations has repeatedly called for the demarcation of the border, principally because it will help resolve the sovereignty of the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms, which lies along Lebanon’s south-east border with the Syrian Golan Heights.
Syria has said it is willing to demarcate the border, but insists that the process begin in the north near the Mediterranean coast, leaving the Shebaa Farms district until last.__A summit of French, Syrian, Lebanese and Qatari leaders in Paris on Saturday side-stepped the subject of border demarcation, apparently unwilling to dampen the glow of the announcement over a diplomatic exchange between Beirut and Damascus.
“This is a very big issue. The thing that holds the Syrian regime politically to Lebanon is the border issue because it involves Shebaa and thus the conflict with Israel,” said Andrew Tabler, a Beirut-based political analyst focusing on Syria.__The promised diplomatic exchange is a “step in the right direction”, Mr Tabler said, “but until the border issue is resolved, it will be hard to move on fully”.
Indeed, some analysts suspect that Syria’s agreeing to a diplomatic exchange with Lebanon is more related to currying favour with France and Europe and deflecting potential threats to the regime rather than changing the way it traditionally exerts influence in Lebanon.__Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze and a harsh critic of the Syrian regime, warned that diplomatic ties can not come at the expense of the international tribunal being established to judge the accused killers of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in Feb 2005. Syria is the chief suspect in the killing, although Damascus has denied involvement.“Normal relations between Lebanon and Syria can be established after the truth is revealed,” Mr Jumblatt said, referring to Hariri’s murder.
The tribunal has yet to begin operating, although the United Nations authorised its establishment more than a year ago. Some anti-Syrian Lebanese suspect that the tribunal is being used by the West as a bargaining chip, allowing it to be dropped or weakened if Syria moderates some of its regional stances.__Lebanon and Syria have never exchanged embassies even though both countries gained independence from France in the 1940s.
Syria traditionally has had difficulty in recognising Lebanon’s independence, believing that Lebanon is an integral part of the Syrian “motherland”. That view hardened with the rise to power in 1963 of the Baath Party, which proposes a Greater Syria that includes Lebanon as well as Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus. __Syria continues to exert strong influence in Lebanon through its extensive network of allies, ranging from traditional political bosses to powerful parties such as Hizbollah. But some in Lebanon believe that formal diplomatic ties are unnecessary between two nations so closely related.
“Is it not silly to have diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria?” said Sheikh Ahmad Qabalan, the Shiite mufti. “Since when do brothers need mediation to deal with each other? And who said that relatives need diplomatic relations?”_

With whom will Syria make peace?
By Haaretz Editorial

The peace between Israel and Syria has in the past few days seemed closer and farther away than at any other time. Each side has passed messages to the other that bear witness to the seriousness of their intentions, the teams have been in contact for several months through Turkish mediation, and in Paris this week, Syrian and Lebanese journalists spoke with Israeli journalists almost without any interference. At the same time, Ehud Olmert was striving for personal contact with Bashar Assad, but to no avail - because the Syrian president considers Olmert a weak prime minister, and he does not sell his gestures on the cheap.

The Paris summit convened by the French president this week perhaps did not strengthen the Olmert government, but it definitely allowed the Syrian president to enter Europe by the front door. That is what Assad said in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, and it seems that his assessment was not incorrect.

The isolated Assad arrived in Paris like a hero, even though he had not changed anything substantive in his diplomatic conduct. The disdainful attitude shown by Israel with regard to Assad's leadership ability, at the inspiration of the Americans, apparently came to an end, along with the conclusion of George W. Bush's term.

Assad demonstrated control of the situation, and with perfect timing brought about the establishment of a unity government in Lebanon a few days before he was invited to attend the Bastille Day military parade. In the eyes of the Europeans, he is perceived today as a leader who can mediate between them and Iran, who can make decisions and put them into effect. The aim is to get him to lead Syria in a direction that fits both his own interests and those of the West.

Syria's serious attitude toward peace talks with Israel found expression in Paris this week in Assad's public declarations of peace, in the indirect talks that are continuing through Turkey, and in the fact that the Israeli attack on nuclear facilities in Syria and the assassination of Imad Mughniyah did not make Assad change direction. Syria has apparently decided that it is in its interest to join the West, and peace talks with Israel are one of many means of doing so.

More than at any other time in the past, it seems the ball is in Israel's court - but this court is covered in thick political mud. In actual fact, there is no government right now in Israel. The government in Jerusalem is a transition government with which it is possible to hold talks, but difficult to reach arrangements. The talks with Syria through the offices of the Turks are being conducted by the prime minister's bureau. Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turgeman are Olmert's personal confidants, who will be replaced in two months by the personal aides of the next prime minister. This unfortunate fact is also known to the Syrian president.

All one can demand now is that all those who aspire to be elected prime minister of Israel - whether in Kadima, the Labor Party or Likud - should reveal publicly what their current position is on the continuation of talks with Syria. It is worthwhile reminding them that it is forbidden to miss chances for peace, and that the price for peace with Syria is clear.

The price for not having peace with Syria became clear in the Second Lebanon War, and it is likely to become clear in the third and fourth war in the region. An improvement in relations with any of the Arab countries contributes to Israel's security more than any reservoir of weapons that Israel has at its disposal.

The War Between the Wars
Who says we can only face our enemies in one place at a time?
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, July 14, 2008, at 11:07 AM ET

If there is one element of moral and political certainty that cements the liberal consensus more than any other, it is the complacent view that while Iraq is "a war of choice," it is really and only Afghanistan that is a war of necessity. The ritualistic solidity of this view is impressive. It survives all arguments and all evidence. Just in the last month, as the Iraqi-based jihadists began to beat a retreat and even (according to some reports) to attempt to relocate to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it still seemed to many commentators that this proved that no U.S. forces should have been wasted on Iraq in the first place. This simplistic view ignores, at a minimum, the following points:
0. Many of the al-Qaida forces—most notably the horrific but now deceased Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—made their way to Iraq in the first place only after being forcibly evicted from Afghanistan. Thus, if one did not want to be confronting Bin Laden fans in Mesopotamia, it was surely a mistake to invade Afghanistan rather than Iraq.
0. The American presence in Afghanistan is not at all "unilateral"; it meets every liberal criterion of being formally underwritten and endorsed and armed and reinforced by our NATO and U.N. allies. Indeed, the commander of the anti-Taliban forces is usually not even an American. Yet it is in these circumstances that more American casualties—and not just American ones—are being experienced than are being suffered in Iraq. If this is so, the reason cannot simply be that our resources are being deployed elsewhere.
0. Many of the most successful drives against the Taliban have been conducted by American forces redeployed from Iraq, in particular from Anbar province. But these military victories are the result of counterinsurgent tactics and strategies that were learned in Iraq and that have been applied triumphantly in Afghanistan.
In other words, any attempt to play off the two wars against each other is little more than a small-minded and zero-sum exercise. And consider the implications. Most people appear now to believe that it is quite wrong to mention Saddam Hussein even in the same breath as either a) weapons of mass destruction or b) state-sponsored terrorism. I happen to disagree, but just for an experiment, let us imagine that some regime did exist or did arise that posed such a combination of threats. (Actually, so feverish is my imagination that I can even think of one whose name also begins with I.) Would we be bound to say, in public and in advance, that the Western alliance couldn't get around to confronting such a threat until it had Afghanistan well under control? This would be rather like the equivalent fallacy that nothing can be done in the region until there is a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute. Not only does this mean that every rogue in the region can reset his timeline until one of the world's oldest and most intractable quarrels is settled, it also means that every rogue has an incentive to make certain that no such settlement can ever occur. (Which is, of course, why Saddam threw, and now the Iranians throw, their support to the suicide-murderers.)
It would also be very nice to accept another soft-centered corollary of the Iraq vs. Afghanistan trade-off and to believe that the problem of Afghanistan is a problem only of the shortage of troops. Strangely, this is not the view of the Afghan government or of any of the NATO forces on the ground. The continued and, indeed, increasing insolence of the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies is the consequence of one thing and one thing only. These theocratic terrorists know that they have a reliable backer in the higher echelons of the Pakistani state and of its military-intelligence complex and that while this relationship persists, they are assured of a hinterland across the border and a regular supply of arms and recruits.
So, the question for Sen. Barack Obama and his glib supporters is this: Would they solve this problem by removing the American forces from Iraq and putting the thereby-enhanced contingent there to patrol a frontier where one of our main "allies" is continually engaged in stabbing them in the back? (At one point last year, Obama himself appeared to accept the illogic of his own position and spoke hotly of the possibility of following the Taliban onto Pakistani soil. We haven't heard much of that lately. Did he mean to say that, come to think of it, we had enough troops to occupy three countries instead of the stipulated and solitary one? Or would he just exchange Iraq for Pakistan? At least we do know for sure that Pakistan has nuclear weapons acquired mainly by piracy and is the host and patron of the Taliban and al-Qaida.)
Another consideration obtrudes itself. If it is true, as yesterday's three-decker front-page headline in the New York Times had it, that "U.S. Considering Stepping Up Pace of Iraq Pullout/ Fall in Violence Cited/ More Troops Could Be Freed for Operations in Afghanistan," then this can only be because al-Qaida in Iraq has been subjected to a battlefield defeat at our hands—a military defeat accompanied by a political humiliation in which its fanatics have been angrily repudiated by the very people they falsely claimed to be fighting for. If we had left Iraq according to the timetable of the anti-war movement, the situation would be the precise reverse: The Iraqi people would now be excruciatingly tyrannized by the gloating sadists of al-Qaida, who could further boast of having inflicted a battlefield defeat on the United States. I dare say the word of that would have spread to Afghanistan fast enough and, indeed, to other places where the enemy operates. Bear this in mind next time you hear any easy talk about "the hunt for the real enemy" or any loose babble that suggests that we can only confront our foes in one place at a time.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair.

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