Talisman Gate

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Schoolyard Bully

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

February 24, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1518 words

HEADLINE: Schoolyard Bully

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Those devious Syrian rascals got away with murder, literally and yet again. Some German security company is about to go insolvent. Should you own any stock in this particular enterprise then my advice to you is to sell, sell, and sell. Their little niche of the security market was armoring the SUVs and luxury cars favored by world leaders, drug lords, and neurotic pop stars around the world's trouble spots. The former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, was mega-rich and could afford this German product. His charred corpse was pulled from the wreckage of his expensive motorcade two weeks ago. Whoever planted the bomb that killed him, along with 17 others, calibrated the assassination against the best security money could buy.

I'll tell you who did it: It was Hezbollah acting on Syrian orders. Yes, yes, I know: There is no evidence of a smoking gun. But that, in itself, is a smoking gun.

I woke up that morning and heard the news and I thought, "Could the Syrians be that stupid?" Then after some caffeine found its way into my system, I asked, "Could the Syrians be that smart?" But the nicotine infusion brought about the most pertinent question yet, "Could the Syrians be that desperate and lucky?"

Usually, the "need-to-know" list of persons involved in this kind of operation would not exceed 10 individuals. The Syrian leadership, being tyrannical and thus paranoid, would not trust its own heavily infiltrated security services. So they outsourced to the only terrorist network they knew could pull off the job successfully and secretively: Hezbollah. Few Lebanese members of Hezbollah would have known about this project; after all, it is an outfit managed by a shadowy and exuberantly fanatical branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, spent much covert operational capital and effort trying to figure out what these guys were up to, and Hezbollah still managed to perform the seemingly impossible task of blowing up an Israeli Merkava tank - the sturdiest in the world - in Gaza some years ago.

Politically, Hezbollah is beholden to both Syria and Iran. The "Party of God" exists because of a tacit agreement, running into its third decade, between the Shia Iranian mullahs and the nonmainstream Alawite minority that rules Syria. The armed bands of Hezbollah are proxies in a war against Israel and, alternatively, they are bargaining chips for their masters in the event of an eventual peace with the Jewish state. They remain the only armed militia in a battered country that was trying to move beyond a bloody past where foreign meddling fostered communal militias that tore the country apart during a 15-year civil war. Hezbollah, a relic of this past, is still useful for those with sinister strategic interests in the biblical land of the cedar trees, Lebanon.

The Alawite rulers of Syria have two nonnegotiable strategic interests for the next four years. The first one is internal, and it is shared by regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran: to stay in power and weather the democratic gale gathering force under President Bush's vision for the new Middle East. The second pertains to their involvement in Lebanon since 1976: to maintain political and security influence in that dynamic country and use it as an economic lung for Syria through which the fresh air of cash is breathed into its own stag nant Soviet-style economy.

Alawite rule is threatened by two things: an American-led all-out war to drive them from power, and a gradual undermining of their authority. The Alawites learned the necessary lessons from Saddam's obstinate folly and are not about to give the Americans a clear-cut justification to invade. Judging by the international fallout over the Iraq war and the fiery blaze of an Iraqi insurgency they are helping to fan, the Syrians have deduced that American tanks are not heading their way. So their sole remaining task is not to give their people the feeling that the tyrants on top have gone soft, and at the same time not embarking on massive human rights violations that President Bush can point to as a casus belli.

Their strategy now is to nip all challenges in the bud. Hariri was killed as part of this plan.

The challenge posed by Hariri's newfound opposition to Syria's military presence and influence in Lebanon was a serious one for Damascus. Here was a Sunni Arab, with pan-Middle Eastern connections, standing up to them as the leader of one of the few Lebanese communities that had rarely given them grief. He had crossed over to Lebanon's destiny too early: Hariri was modeling himself as a national Lebanese leader rather than a factional chieftain. This was uncharted territory for how the Syrians understood the world around them, and they saw it as a manifestation of the democratic changes occurring all over the Middle East whereby fictional states, created by imperialist Western bureaucrats in the last century, turn into vibrant and confident nation states.

The tragedy of Lebanon was that it was ill-conceived by the French as the anti-melting pot. France's clients, the Christian Maronites, were refashioned as the overlords of a densely populated strip of land full of densely entwined contradictions. Lebanon was a small fishbowl full of barracuda, baby sharks, and feisty samurai fish. The inflammatory spices of contradictory 20th century ideologies were also added to the mix. It turned out to be quite a mess, and so goes the unhappy story of Lebanon. The frenzied melee became an international spectator sport, and several decades and hundreds of civil war casualties later, we are still at square one.

The Syrian leadership can control the Lebanese through these chaotic contradictions. The Druze and the Maronites may incessantly clamor for independence, but that would not faze the Alawites if the other two principal communal groups, the Sunnis and the Shias, are collaborative, or in the very least quiescent about Syrian hegemony.

The Maronites and Druze leaders, longtime adversaries, derive their stature from the clannish and warlike social network of their mountain redoubts. But these two communities do not make a pan-Lebanese majority. They would need the Muslims of the land, and the non-Maronite Christians, to tip the national balance. The Sunnis, port-city merchants and artisans, produced a bookish and mercantile leadership that is not by nature zealously inclined or revolutionary. The Shia leadership, with bitter memories of destitution and alienation, has been hijacked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Syrians are calculating that even if free elections are held next May as scheduled, they will still see a Sunni-Shia majority in Parliament that is not confrontational or decidedly against Syrian puppeteering.

The Syrians seem to have gotten away with it once again. They killed Hariri, but in such a way that no one will ever link them to it directly. They stalled the process by which the Lebanese would bond across communal divides in calling for Syria Out. They caught the Bush administration off guard and denied it the golden opportunity of regime change through a gradual undermining of Alawite authority via the Sunni Lebanese. The Sunnis of Damascus are on notice that it may be okay for marginal minority leaders to speak out, but when it comes to a Sunni challenging the Alawi superstructure, well, bombs have a way of going off. The student-led demonstrations in downtown Beirut, modeled a la the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, will fizzle out in time; to the Syrians it is just a bit of steam being let loose and, pretty soon, business will return to usual.

At this point, a Syrian troop withdrawal would be a moot point; the intimidating specter of army checkpoints would be substituted with roving assassination squads. Hariri - alive and kicking - was the catalyst of a newfound Lebanese identity, but in his death no more than a lamented national martyr with no one of his stature and daring to carry his mantle. Syria thus remains in control.

So the Syrians must be congratulating themselves on a job well done. Their strategic interests at home and in Lebanon have been preserved, and they played the bully game of Middle Eastern power politics with finesse and flair. The American headmaster is way out of his league on this one; so what of some detention time? Sanctions here and withdrawing ambassadors there? What is important for the Syrians is preserving the aura of bullyhood.

Yes, it was a masterful prank of the old-school way of doing things in a rough neighborhood: desperate, yet smart and pulled off with no obvious foul-ups.

But, as is the contradictory nature of changing times, their stunt was incredibly stupid, too. A new street-smart vigilante has moved in. He does not like bullies, and had been bullied before. He looks around the schoolyard and sees all the other terrified students. But this one is pumping up at the gym, and has a vision of uniting the multitudes of the meek against the handful of bullies. His name: Democratic Iraq. Keep an eye on him, for he and his kind shall inherit the Middle East.