The Daily Star
Friday 24 November 2006
By Michael Glackin
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a man in a hurry. He is desperate to tie up as many political loose ends as he can in the coming months, the tail end of his premiership, which will end by the summer of next year. On Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament that British troops might hand over all of southern Iraq, including Basra, to Iraqi forces by spring. Although the Foreign Office insisted this did not mean all troops would be leaving, it reflects a fresh determination by the government to extricate itself, sooner rather than later, from an ill-fated military adventure that cannot be won and which even Blair was forced to concede last week had been a disaster.
Ready or not, Blair is hoisting the exit signs in Iraq. Hence his desire to "reach out" to Syria to help in Iraq; or more accurately get it to tighten its border to make the departure of British soldiers easier, and then fill the vacuum left behind once the pullout begins in earnest. But if last Tuesday's Mafia-style hit on Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel proves anything, it is that the United Kingdom's desire to bring Damascus in from the cold - a desire shared by a number of former American officials, most prominently the one-time secretary of state, James Baker - is misguided, to say the least.
You do not have to be Hercule Poirot to realize that despite its denials, Damascus must be a prime suspect in this latest murder. Gemayel is the fourth anti-Syrian public figure to be murdered since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year. Syria has also worked hard to bring down the elected government of Lebanon through Hizbullah, freshly emboldened by its resistance in the war against Israel last year. The result of the ballot box in Lebanon is increasingly under threat of being overturned by the bullet and the bomb. But talk in Britain and America this week of defending Lebanese democracy - just months after the West's failure to intervene more actively during Israel's deadly bombardment - sounds hollow and sits ill with attempts to court a Syrian regime that continues to undermine that very democracy. Blair's office insisted on Wednesday that Syria's conduct in Lebanon "was one of the criteria by which we would judge whether they were playing a constructive role or not in the Middle East as a whole." Well maybe. But in reality few believe it will stop Blair from pursuing an understanding with Damascus as the prime minister embarks on what many in Britain now see as a "unite and quit" strategy in Iraq.
Blair's desperation to extricate himself from the Iraqi labyrinth was most recently seen in his decision to dispatch his chief foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus to sound out President Bashar Assad on helping with Iraq as well as on resuscitating whatever is still breathing of the all-but-dead Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The idea of course is to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran with the carrot of a friendlier Western policy toward Damascus. It is understood that the US was also considering sending Ambassador Margaret Scobie back to Damascus next month, a move that is unlikely to take place now. But Western attempts to openly court Syria, and indeed to a lesser extent Iran (one-third of Washington's axis of evil), are wrongheaded for a raft of reasons.
Despite Syria's halfhearted approach to border security and Iran's backing of various Iraqi Shiite militias, it is highly questionable whether either country has any real influence over what has now become a full-blown civil war in Iraq. Second, Syria and Iran both have their own interests in Iraq and in the wider region, and unless I've missed it, so far those interests have not coincided with those of the US or Britain.
While issues like the return of the Golan Heights and a fresh Palestinian-Israeli peace process can be fudged into another of those meaningless face-saving formulas the Middle East is so familiar with, other issues cannot be so easily dealt with. Tehran is determined to join the nuclear club, while Damascus wants to restore its hegemony over Lebanon. Assad also wants to thwart the mixed Lebanese-international tribunal put forward by the United Nations to try suspects in the Hariri assassination and thus avoid seeing senior officials from his regime in the dock. Is Blair, and perhaps Washington too, really prepared to pay for engaging Syria and Iran by compromising on all those issues?
One hopes the answer is no. But there is of course a horrible sense of deja vu in all this. Less than 16 years ago the fathers of the current presidents of the US and Syria came to an agreement over Iraq: In exchange for joining the international coalition forming to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait, Syrian President Hafez Assad was granted leeway to impose his control over all of Lebanon.
It was all about the "bigger picture" then, and still is today. But not so long ago, officials from the US and the UK were insisting that Lebanon was integral to their wider vision for the Middle East, even a catalyst for change in the region, not a bargaining chip. The brave new world which those who support engagement with Syria want to usher in in the Middle East is starting to look increasingly like the same old one.
Michael Glackin is a freelance journalist and former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.