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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Books on Syria

Update No: 040 - (22/02/07)

Lebanon: The Microcosm of Regional Tensions
Like clockwork, on the eve of the anniversary of the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, a terrorist attack against two mini-buses in the village of 'Ain-Alaq, some 25 km. from Beirut and in an area considered to be the stronghold of the Gemayel Maronite political dynasty, has once again raised Lebanese and international accusations of Syrian involvement. Saad al-Hariri - son of Rafiq - described the attack as a terrorist act, while political rival, president and pro-Syria Emile Lahoud, described the attack as an attempt to interfere with opportunities to find a peaceful solution to the ongoing Lebanese internal political crisis. They could both be right! 
Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, who has become ever more anti-Syria and anti-Bashar al-Asad in particular, said the attack "served to terrorize the people who were getting ready to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri." In fact, this anniversary is becoming the rallying point for all anti-Syrian elements (gathering at Martyrs' Square); even while a UN court is still investigating the matter and evidence of Syrian involvement has been inconclusive. Since the end of national unity talks last December, when six Hezbollah and Amal ministers quit, there have been deadly confrontations between the opposition (the Syrian and Iranian backed Hezbollah and Amal, as well as Christians loyal to Gen. Michel Aoun) and the largely US and French backed government of Fouad Siniora. 

In the chaotic Lebanese political context, the attack and its timing have intensified the anti-Syrian climate in Lebanon, ripe with accusations that Bashar al-Asad and Syria are still interfering in Lebanese affairs. However, there is no evidence of Syrian involvement (there is also no evidence exempting Syria from accusations outright proof of innocence being notoriously elusive) even as proof of this would evidently play into the hands of international and regional players. As is often the case in Lebanon, particularly where the Hariri murder is concerned, it is best to focus attention on who would benefit from such an attack and from the resulting violence. Some have suggested that Syria prompted the attack to prevent the calling o an international trial against the alleged perpetrators of the Hariri murder in 2005, but why would it? Then again, why would Syria plan such an attack knowing that it would be suspected a priori (if not 'ad hominem'), such that the Asad regime would be forced to pay a political and diplomatic price? 
Alternatively, the role of Israel and the USA cannot be discounted. The government of Ehud Olmert is still suffering under the weight of the failure of last summer's war against Hezbollah, which failed to achieve any goals, least of all that of disarming the movement. 
It is probable, based on past experience, that evidence determining the murderers in this outrage will be as inconclusive as so many times in the past, which raises the question, that if no one can know for sure who did it, then what 'message' is it that is supposed to be being sent? It is of course very possible that in such a violent society as Lebanon is, that it is a local or clan matter, or historic dispute, or a part of the ongoing factional crisis. Again and given the significant timing, it is possible that the perpetrators sought to add to the chaos on the expectation that Syria would be blamed.
The international peacekeeping force UNIFIL is also entangled in scenarios to destabilize Lebanon, as it, the US and Israel expect, could well be expected to fight against Hezbollah to support the western backed Siniora government. There have also been suggestions that 'al-Qaeda' was responsible for the attack at 'Ain al-Alaq, through an extremist group based in the Ein al-Hilwe Palestinian refugee camp. While, the timing of the attack entails internal Lebanese matters, this hypothesis brings back the Palestinian refugee element back into the Lebanese civil war scenario. A Palestinian connection would surely provoke the same anti-Syrian camp to blame Palestinians for raising Lebanese tensions (as happened in the early 1980's) even as a group they have far less influence than in the pre-civil war (1975-19900 period. Adding to this, are the rising tensions between Teheran, which supports Hezbollah, and Washington and the latter's continued isolation efforts against Damascus inevitably suggest that a potential internal Lebanese conflict would have far reaching connotations. 

'Survival Techniques'
Nevertheless, the Syrian leadership has managed to survive the period after the Hariri murder well. The investigations by judges' Mehlis and then Brammertz have yielded few concrete results, despite affirmations of guilt by, unreliable witnesses and pressure from the United States. The Syrian regime has actually enjoyed something of an upper hand lately, emboldened by Israel's failure to make any inroads against Hezbollah last summer and the United States' disastrous occupation of Iraq. President Bush and his minions, meanwhile, have been unable to transform Bashar Asad into a sufficiently 'evil' figure to draw much interest from the general American public. In fact, in early February popular American morning news program (good Morning America with Diane Sawyer) ran a series of special reports and interviews from Damascus showing Syrians to be a very secular and friendly people, while president Bashar al-Asad and his wife Asma were portrayed in a decisively positive light. The president was even charming as he talked about his 'I-Pod' music preferences and his wife Asma - even as he was given an opportunity to blame Bush for Syria's isolation. Buoyed by Israel's humiliation in Lebanon, an emboldened Syria has yet again launched a peace initiative to Israel, frustrating Olmert's already shaky coalition government, as some elements have started to consider the deal on offer of giving up the Syrian Golan to achieve peace with Syria. 

There is still room for improvement. While Syria can feel relatively secure, the Syrian regime could be feeling more confident now, had Bush given into suggestions from the Iraq Study group to include it as fundamental partner in a plan to extricate the US from Iraq while helping to curb violence in that country. Apart from the diplomatic prestige this would have given Syria, involvement in American plans would have given president Asad some assurance that the US would not interfere in its affairs by sponsoring Syrian opposition groups internally and further upsetting Syrian interests in Lebanon. Accordingly, there is a lingering threat that Bashar al-Asad himself could be called to testify at the international tribunal to investigate the Hariri murder. Rumours from legal circles suggest the draft agreement for the creation of the tribunal does not mention presidential immunity and implies that anyone involved, regardless of rank, could be prosecuted. These issues are at the heart of the parliamentary crisis in Lebanon between the Hezbollah led opposition and the Western backed Siniora government. Of course, should Asad face trial, his authority in the eyes of Syrians would erode, raising questions about his chances of survival. Therefore, establishing closer relations with Washington would be important for that reason alone, apart from other considerations.

The Iraq Study Group, which also suggested including Iran in regional talks, would also have given Syria more room to pursue a wider range of regional diplomatic options, as there would have been less need for both Iran and Syria to rely on each other as has often been the case in recent years. Washington's isolation has pushed Syria closer to Iran for military and diplomatic support. Indeed, even as Syria's entanglements with the Hariri case worsened its relations with Saudi Arabia, there have been clear signs that Syria is interested in revamping the relationship with the oil rich kingdom and even with the United States. For its part Saudi Arabia has held talks with Syria's ally, Iran, over the Lebanese situation. Saudi Arabia sent Prince Bandar to Teheran to study efforts to ease tensions in Iraq and Lebanon. The Iranian nuclear power negotiator Ali Larijani visited Saudi Arabia, to seek the Saudi monarch's help in easing tension between his country and the United States over Tehran's nuclear program.

The government of Mahmoud Abbas acknowledged Syria's role in the Mecca accord to support reconciliation among Fatah and Hamas through the formation of a national unity government in Palestine. While Syria would have gained more had the Hamas - Fatah deal been signed in Damascus, as it appeared in the latter part of 2006 when Fatah leaders held talks with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus, the national unity government suggests that both Hamas and Fatah risk isolation from the United States, closing opportunities for an isolated Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. This gives added impetus to supporting a comprehensive peace deal that would include Syria, or one that focuses on the Golan, which Israeli officials have been forced to consider because of al-Asad's overtures.

Moreover, the United States has authorized the US embassy in Damascus to discuss the Iraqi refugee situation with Syrian officials. About 800,000 of the 3.7 million Iraqis that have fled their country since the start of the US occupation have gone to Syria. This gives Syria an opportunity to make itself useful to the United States, even while Iraq has blamed Syria for allowing terrorists to infiltrate the border, ordering it to be closed for three days. Syria would also like to explore for oil and gas in Iraq, near their mutual border, as part of agreements signed with the government of Saddam Hussein. Syria hopes to win some oil concessions under the controversial federal hydrocarbons law in Iraq that opens the market to foreign interests.

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