Thursday, March 22, 2007

Michael Young: Engaging Syria

Syria's 'engagers' can't ignore Brammertz
By Michael Young
Daily Star staff
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why is it that in the matter of Syria, the Europeans are such gluttons for punishment? Last week, the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, traveled to Damascus to "engage" the regime of President Bashar Assad and deliver a message that the key to Syria's salvation was a change in its behavior toward Lebanon. The Syrian response came almost immediately: Nothing has changed or will change in Lebanon, whether with respect to the Hariri tribunal or Lebanese sovereignty.

The EU "dialogue" with Syria comes at a complicated moment. The Assad regime has felt a whiff of fresh oxygen through various recent foreign offers to talk. Last week the United States organized a conference in Baghdad on Iraq's future at which the Syrians were invited. The Arab summit is coming, and some optimists still think that they can reconcile the Syrian and Saudi leaders. And the EU, keen to do something, even something futile, recently decided to turn the page with Syria. However, when the French balked, the consensus was to send Solana as sole European representative - to preserve EU unity and prevent the kind of amateurishness that surrounded the Belgian foreign minister's visit to Damascus earlier this month, during which the Syrians denied they would hand suspects over to the Hariri tribunal. The minister, Karel de Gucht, expressed "disappointment" with the Syrian position - a word that will clutter the European lexicon on Syria in the months to come. Assad also told Solana he was not interested in concluding an association agreement with the EU, denying the Europeans more leverage over Damascus.

The Europeans, but also the Americans and Arabs, must be much clearer on where discussions with Syria are going, because the implications of engagement have just become much starker. In his latest report, the United Nations investigator Serge Brammertz all but confirmed that Syria was involved in Rafik Hariri's assassination. After explaining the political context affecting relations between Hariri on the one hand and Syria and its local allies on the other in the period leading up to the former prime minister's murder, investigators wrote, in paragraph 63 of their report: "[A] working hypothesis is that the initial decision to kill Hariri was taken before the later attempts at rapprochement [between him and Syria and other Lebanese officials] got underway and most likely before early January 2005. This leads to a possible situation in the last weeks before his murder in which two tracks, not necessarily linked, were running in parallel. On one track, Hariri was engaged in rapprochement initiatives and on the other, preparations for his assassination were underway."

Brammertz's caveats notwithstanding, what the investigator is saying is quite obvious: Despite efforts to bridge the differences between Hariri and the Syrians, the assassination plot remained on course; therefore the Syrians and their Lebanese allies continue to be prime suspects in Hariri's killing. Why would Brammertz bother to mention these two developments together if he didn't have a strong suspicion that they were linked - though he mentions the possibility that perhaps they were not? And even then, his wording can be read to mean other things: for example, that those planning Hariri's murder simply ignored the parallel reconciliation efforts; or perhaps that those engaged in such efforts were sincere, and were not trying to lull Hariri into a false sense of security in order to make his elimination easier. The latter point could be a significant one if we recall that in the weeks leading up to February 14, 2005, Hariri was meeting regularly with Hizbullah's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

The Syrians know the implications of the UN report, which is why the Assad regime seems to have taken a strategic decision to confront the international community, whatever the costs. Allowing the Hariri tribunal to go forward in any way, the Syrians plainly believe, will spell disaster. Better to reject everything and shift the tricky burden of creating the tribunal under Chapter VII of the UN Charter onto the Security Council's shoulders. That's what makes an Arab, European or American breakthrough with Syria unlikely; and it's why we should expect no progress in Lebanon until the tribunal issue is resolved. The dialogue between parliamentarian Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri was a charade designed to satisfy the Saudis before the Arab League summit and calm the Lebanese street. On Tuesday, Berri feigned outrage with the majority's behavior, partly to cover for the fact that neither Syria nor Hizbullah has given him any margin of maneuver to arrive at a mutually acceptable deal with Hariri. Nothing indicates we will soon emerge from the current crisis.

It is a good time to impose guiding principles for future European, American, and Arab engagement of Syria when it comes to Lebanon. The Bush administration in particular cannot afford to leave its Syria policy vague. The possibility of a strong electoral backlash against the administration's behavior in the Middle East in two years' time could mean that even the consensus on Lebanon in Washington will break down. Syria is hoping to outrun the international community, and the only way to avoid this is for the latter to unite around some basic tenets.

The first is a statement by the five permanent members of the Security Council affirming that the Hariri tribunal will be established, whatever the circumstances, even under Chapter VII if necessary. Failing to create the tribunal, the five must insist, would cast doubt on their own credibility. This line is generally accepted today, even if no state, including Lebanon, is eager to set up a tribunal under sole UN authority. But Syria is playing brinkmanship. A statement dashing Syrian hopes would help in this regard, and Russia is the best placed to deliver it.

A second guideline is to inform Syria that it can expect no serious exchanges on matters of concern to it until it meets several specific benchmarks. It must give its Lebanese allies the green light to vote in favor of the Hariri tribunal during the current session of Parliament; and it must offer guarantees that it will cease interfering in Lebanese affairs, arming Hizbullah, and using faux Al-Qaeda groups like Fatah al-Islam to advance its aims. These conditions are hardly onerous. After all, they are spelled out in Security Council resolutions starting with Resolution 1559, so concerned states would only be implementing international law.

A third guideline is to demand that Assad himself, or Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, unambiguously declare that Syria accepts the authority of the Hariri tribunal, supports its immediate establishment, and will agree to place any Syrian suspect at the tribunal's disposal. And fourth, the permanent five in particular must reaffirm that there can be no negotiations with Syria over Lebanon that would, in one way or another, contradict prior Security Council resolutions and undermine Lebanese sovereignty. Any deliberations with Syria involving Lebanon must be largely limited to implementing Security Council resolutions.

Until such principles are formalized by the Arab states, the EU, the US, and Russia in their dealings with the Assad regime, Syria will continue to hold Lebanon hostage. It makes no sense for states to back an investigation into Hariri's assassination while pretending that it's business as usual with a regime that, once again, has been fingered as the prime suspect in the crime. The Syrians have been more consistent on that front than those wanting to talk to them. At least they make no pretence of appearing innocent. Assad has shown he won't give anything up. Can the international community face down his challenge?