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Raghida Dergham Headshot

Lebanon is a Good Example of Removing the Impression of Suspicious Deals from the Bush Administration

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The US Administration and European governments are stumbling as they seek the benefits of policies of isolation versus engagement with states and groups such as Iran, Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The advocates of dialogue and understanding with anyone, no matter who, are battling with the opponents of dialogue and seeing free rehabilitation offered as a reward. The war between the two camps is blazing in the ranks of academics and thinkers, the media, presidential campaigns and public opinion. The governments, for their part, are progressing here and flailing there, when it comes to ways to exit the difficult conditions; or as an examination of future possibilities. It's not clear whether the indications of the last two weeks of American movement toward Iran, French movement toward Syria, and British movement toward the Taliban, are just a coincidence, or whether there was prior coordination. It's clear that this orientation has been cracking, even in the initial phases with Syria. This is because those who rewarded it with the dismantling of isolation got their fingers burned, as they then discovered the depth of the complicated fundamental reasons that led to the isolation in the first place. Therefore, the language of French diplomacy changed from one of excessive temptation to moving away from its predicament and threatening to disclose what had happened if Damascus continued to obstruct things in Lebanon. As for what happened and what is happening between the US and Iran, this remains vague. There are contradictory interpretations and information, some of which confirms the suspicions that deals have been made; other information holds decisively that the talk of deals is sheer nonsense.

Things are different when they have to do with US policy toward Syria and Lebanon. In recent days, there has been a development that allows us to say that this relationship has changed compared to a few weeks ago. The White House has taken the reins of the initiative and its joint leadership with France concerning Lebanon, after having left it to France and worked on luring Syria to attend the Annapolis Conference. In the wake of the international donors' conference that was convened in France at the beginning of the week to help establish a Palestinian state, the main players realized that there was no need to play the Lebanese and Palestinian tracks off against each other. The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, did well to take the opportunity to chair an important meeting in Paris about Lebanon, which recovered some the momentum of the initiative and resulted in international support for efforts that are moving ahead with establishing an international court to try those involved in terrorist assassinations of political leaders, media figures and intellectuals in Lebanon.

There have been important steps taken toward establishing this court and seeing it become operational. This week, an agreement on the court's headquarters between the UN and Holland was completed; the money and necessary budgetary commitments have reached the court. The secretary general is about to complete the selection of judges after he tasked the head of the international investigation, Daniel Bellemare, who succeeded Serge Brammertz, with the duties of public prosecutor. The indications are that the court will be ready by February, according to what the UN's legal department told Zalmay Khalilzad, America's ambassador to the UN. Brammertz spoke with increasing confidence when he addressed the media a few weeks ago; after his last briefing of the Security Council. He said in effect that he knows who committed and organized the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and his comrades and other assassinations, which the investigation has found to be linked to the al-Hariri killing. Brammertz said that he turned over to his successor evidence and documents that will let him press charges in court. Brammertz didn't reveal the identity of those involved but said clearly that the assassinations were organized by groups with huge capabilities. He didn't directly accuse Syria, as did his predecessor Detlev Mehlis; who arrived at the conclusion that senior Syrian officials were behind the assassinations. However, Brammertz left the impression that he didn't arrive at conclusions that contradict those of the investigation under Mehlis.

This is all important, since aborting the international court is a key fundamental demand of Syria and its allies in Lebanon. This demand cannot be met, whether by the US, France, Israel or Ki-moon himself. The international court is now beyond the language of bilateral or multilateral deals, despite the belief by some that it can be a part of the give-and-take. The statement that was issued by the Paris meeting, chaired by Ki-moon, was important for several reasons. Most importantly, the states participating in the meeting mustered their support behind Ki-moon and his effort to establish the international court as quickly as possible, to try those responsible for the campaign of criminal political assassinations, "wherever they are." These states include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, along with France, Italy and Spain (the European troika concerned with Lebanon), the UK and the US, as well as the presidency of the European Union, the European Council and the European Commission. They told the UN secretary general: We are behind you as you lead the train of the international court to the station of informing those concerned that there will be no escape from punishment. Even Russia, which is becoming more intransigent in its positions in the Security Council to protect Syria. and hasn't liked the idea from the beginning, will be unable, no matter what it does, to eliminate the international court. It might not like the idea to begin with but even if it did, it won't be able to protect anyone from being held accountable for the terrorist crimes before the justice of the international court.

Thus, Ki-moon should be complimented for taking the reins of the initiative in Paris at a very critical moment for Lebanon, which is stumbling amid the fears that a deal has been made at its expense, and that international support is dwindling for it, and international resolutions that have been issued about Lebanon. The meeting affirmed to the Lebanese that the international community will not abandon it. This stance is working to correct the consequences of the lack of attention and is based on an introduction to the statement, which began with: "We are meeting here to reaffirm our strong, non-negotiable support for Lebanon and its people," and ended by stressing the necessity of "fully implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1680, 1701, and all Council resolutions connected to Lebanon." These resolutions stipulate the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon and its liberation from Syrian hegemony. A few days prior to the Paris meeting, France was confident about the fantasy of its request that Syria get involved in quasi-deals that French diplomacy felt would be beneficial to Lebanon. Prominent figures in the Bush administration spoke with a lack of concern or interest about Lebanon, believing that it was insignificant when it came to the larger strategic formulas.

After the bilateral and multilateral meetings in Paris, there was an important development in the various stances and policies. Most importantly, the US has become interested once again in a leading role regarding Lebanon, while French confidence in the Syrian regime has dissipated, as the regime caused considerable embarrassment and an affront to France. Sources familiar with the thinking of the US administration at the highest levels attributed the dissipating US interest in Lebanon to a focus on convincing Syria to take part in the Annapolis Conference, which brought together Israel and the Palestinian Authority, key Arab and Muslim states, the secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the secretary general of the Arab League and the presidency of the Arab Summit, as represented by Saudi Arabia.

The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, erred when she thought that the Annapolis Conference deserved to put the Lebanese issue "to sleep," to appease Syria. It would have been better for her to think strategically, about more than one topic at a time, and weigh the meaning of leaving the impression of US abandonment of Lebanon in the midst of its hugely important battle over its future. At the least, Rice - and her Arab friends - should have postponed the Annapolis Conference until after Lebanon's presidential election. This doesn't mean at all that Annapolis wasn't important. However, the problem was apparent - as if Palestine required abandoning Lebanon. The two issues are interconnected on more than one level; such as the influence and intervention by Syria and Iran on both fronts. It's now being said that Rice has realized her mistake and after achieving her goals at the Annapolis Conference by bringing Syria to the meeting, she is now focusing on the Syrian role in Lebanon and confronting this issue.

Those familiar with the highest levels of the Bush administration say that the climate within the White House - after Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's repeated obstruction of the Lebanese presidential election and prevention of Parliament from convening - is now about blaming al-Asad and hostility to the Syrian regime. These individuals affirm that the same climate is prevailing in French diplomacy, "which is only centimeters away from the hostility to Syria under former President Jacques Chirac." They say that even French Foreign Minister Bernand Kouchner - who is impossible to read, along with his coming actions - is very angry at what has been done to him and France by the wise men in Damascus who "took advantage of him."

The new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wanted to give Damascus a fresh opportunity to exit the isolation imposed by Chirac, after testing its intentions regarding dialogue and engagement (the isolation was begun by Chirac after Hariri's assassination). Sarkozy now believes, based on his statement that he "gambled" with Bashar al-Asad, "while no one was talking to him," that he has "reached the end of the path with (al-Asad), and now, words are not enough. I want action, and the final chance falls on Saturday" (the latest session of the Lebanese Parliament to elect a president of the Republic). If Syria facilitates the Lebanese election, France will give it what has been promised in the way of an opening-up in relations, a dismantlement of Syria's isolation, and European rehabilitation, which will signal the beginning of a new chapter in relations. If Syria continues to obstruct things, it will lose the possible benefits of these "good intentions," which in the view of some involves political stupidity and ignorance of Syria's priorities.

What France has done, despite its good intentions, is give Syria the "legitimacy of recovering its role in Lebanon, with French and European appreciation and acknowledgment." This is a critical mistake, since the entire battle with Syria sprung from UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which France backed and which angered the Syrian regime and caused it to make serious errors, which resulted in the forced exit of Syrian troops from Lebanon. French diplomacy gambled by trying to dismantle international resolutions and hint to Syria that it could see these resolutions become inoperable, if it cooperated with the French initiative. It erred in doing this as well, as it left the impression that the international court could become the subject of a deal. Paris in effect hinted that it was ready to forgive the Syrian regime, turn the page and allow it to escape punishment. It did all of this, without succeeding, because it misread the Syrian demands concerning Lebanon. Damascus might decide to offer a surprise by facilitating tomorrow's presidential election in Lebanon, although this is unlikely. If it does, the first thing that France should do is reveal the price that it has offered Syria, in terms of Lebanon, the region and Europe. If France has sold out Lebanon to Syria, even if this is "for the sake of Lebanon," the international community must stop this deal.

Most likely, none of these scenarios will come to pass. Damascus is likely, along with Iran and its allies in Lebanon, to stall and buy time. The Syrians do not want a Lebanese president who is not their pawn; like Emile Lahoud was for Syria and its allies. The commander of the Lebanese Army, Michel Suleiman, is a candidate for president, but has been rejected by Syria, Iran and the Lebanese opposition after he became their supposed candidate. The reason for this is that he exhibited some independence and a determination to respect the position of President of the Republic. Damascus prefers that the president be subject to its control. It is acting as if it's the winner with the current presidential vacuum after it succeeded in obstructing Parliament, thanks to its ally; Speaker Nabih Berri. Syria also hoped to see the fragmentation of the Lebanese Army. However, in fact, at present any presidential vacuum for the state, the government, the parliamentary majority and pro-government groups is much better than the situation during the era of Lahoud; when he submitted to the orders of Damascus and Tehran. It is better for these groups to not have someone as president who is dominated by Syria and Iran. Therefore, the majority is in a better position than that wished for by Damascus and the Lebanese opposition.

Iran has been relatively silent since it is busy digesting the signals from Washington; these include the fact that the US National Intelligence Estimate's revelation that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003 "was a big, unintentional mistake," as one source put it. This camp, which insists that "no deals" have been made, says that the military option is not off the table, and that Israeli intelligence has information that confirms what US intelligence has arrived at; that the report in itself is more dangerous than its conclusion; and that Iran's moving ahead with enriching uranium and manufacturing weapons and missiles will subject it to military action. This opinion by a single camp is not necessarily correct; there is confusion within the US administration and America's academic and policy circles. No one truly knows what will happen after the surprise of the NIE. The camp that believes Iraq has imposed a US-Iranian strategic understanding insists on its point of view, namely that there are several benefits from engaging and dialoguing with Iran to begin a new chapter, whatever Iran has done in the past; and regardless of earlier disputes between the US and the Islamic Republic. This camp doesn't care if dialogue is a reward for the status quo of the regime in Iran or if Iran's regional objectives involve turning Lebanon into a base for the regime. In the opinion of this group, the US interest involves exiting Iraq, at any price.

This debate over dialogue and engagement with Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas or the Taliban in Afghanistan will continue for a period of time, despite the appearance of initial indications that using dialogue and engagement in a policy of appeasement, forgiveness and allowing an escape from punishment, has failed. In order for the White House to avoid a repeat of its recent mistakes, the first thing it should do is learn what it should focus on simultaneously: Palestine and Lebanon.

Since US President George W Bush is preparing for an important visit (to the region) regarding the Palestinian track at the beginning of 2008, it's in his interest to recover the momentum of his interest in Lebanon, to correct the errors and impressions that have hurt the model of democracy, the reputation of the US, and Bush himself. Lebanon is still a way for him to remove the label of lame duck, so that he can create peace in Palestine.