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The Truth of "Distinguishing" Between Damascus and Tehran Regarding the Presidential Elections in Lebanon

10/13/2007 08:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conditions in Iraq require, at this historical juncture, a bilateral relationship with the US that takes the place of the Chapter 7 relationship between Iraq and the United Nations. Conditions in Lebanon require the international community to share in the consequences that will result if Lebanon slips into a political vacuum caused by the blocking of presidential elections; at the least because the chaos in Lebanon is a threat to the beefed-up UNIFIL forces in the south. At this stage of developments in Iraq, there is an interesting combination underway: we are seeing the new Iraq undergo a necessary divorce from international resolutions that have punished the country for the adventures of its former president, by invading Kuwait, while on the other hand, there is a desire to see a wedding "engagement" between today's Iraq and the UN, in the wake of re-defining and -regulating the bilateral relationship with the US. This is what the Iraqi government is thinking about; it's working to achieve a new Security Council resolution before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, developments in Lebanon are now forcing the UN to play a role in securing presidential elections that are free of foreign meddling. This is because political assassinations have turned Lebanon into an international project, by virtue of Article 7 of the UN Charter. Lebanon will experience one of its most difficult stages during the coming days and weeks; therefore, thinking has begun on a precedent, in the manner of the precedent of Resolution 1559, which caused an earthquake in Syria's relationship to Lebanon and brought Lebanon into a unique relationship with the UN. Such a resolution might not prevent other political assassinations to prevent the parliamentary majority from electing a president from the ranks of the 14 March group, which supports the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and the Lebanese Army. However, it will certainly increase the punishment. Today, several events are coinciding in Lebanon, from the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, which has produced confessions by individuals and Syrians about the role of leading influential figures in the Syrian regime with events in the camp, to reports by an international commission to investigate the political assassinations that had earlier linked some of these figures to the assassinations.

Today, the international tribunal to try those involved in these terrorist crimes has become a reality that cannot be reversed. Today, there is evidence about more than one person implicated in more than one operation, which means that it is practically impossible for states to ignore the matter. Today, the US administration and the Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, are serious about dealing with Lebanon and rejecting giving Syria any "ticket to a dialogue" so that it can avoid being held accountable. Today, there is a qualitative change in the American relationship and the Israeli relationship with Syria, for reasons having to do with the strategic balance after what was revealed by the recent Israeli strike against Syria. There is new American and European thinking about settling matters with Iran, even militarily. Lebanon and Iraq are a part of this, and they constitute truly key components of this at this juncture.

Regarding Iraq, those with knowledge of the US-Iraqi dialogue say that there is a bilateral "security partnership" agreement that will "reassure the public" in Iraq and send a message to neighboring countries, and particularly Syria and Iran. This security partnership will regulate the US-Iraqi relationship based on the needs of this bilateral relationship, instead of leaving it with multi-national force countries in terms of prerogatives and duration in the hands of the Security Council. Thus, the Iraqi government is working on lifting Chapter 7, through a new resolution, and is working toward a security agreement for many years, which will relieve the pressure of a timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq. This will affect US forces in Iraq and their mission, as well as the immunity enjoyed by companies like Blackwater, which provides security services to the troops. According to sources playing a direct role in drafting this relationship, "the Americans are staying, and they won't even make gradual withdrawals," since the security partnership "will regulate the relationship in precise fashion such that the military presence redeployed, whether in bases or camps, from the north to the south, east or west."

The US forces are now operating under Chapter 7, under a mandate from the Security Council, and this mandate should be renewed every six months. "This method no longer works," the source said, "and we need security arrangements with a strategic partnership and over the long run, because this is in Iraq's interest." At that time, US forces will be redeployed to cover their withdrawal from cities, whether by building, supporting or training the Iraqi military, and particularly the Air Force. The Iraqi government is now thinking about moving toward the issuing of a new Security Council resolution by the end of the year, so that the mandate of the multi-national troops is extended, for one ... and final time. The importance of the bilateral US-Iraqi security partnership strategy is clear on this score, among the most prominent elements being the strategy directed against Iraqi neighbors, led by Syria and Iran.

According to those familiar with the current thinking at high levels of the US administration, Lebanon has taken on an "organic relationship" with the thinking of the administration and the Congress about Syria and Iran, and Palestine as well. What's new in Congress is that many Democrats and Republicans have begun abandoning their enthusiasm about dialogue with Iran and Syria as a way to save the US from its predicament in Iraq. What's new is that Lebanon has become a part of US national security for this group. The equation doesn't involve the repercussions of preventing Syrian intervention, preserving the status quo and getting involved in dialogue in order to buy time or grant it to the other side. The choice today involves seeing a sovereign and independent Lebanon in which victory triumphs over extremism, versus seeing Lebanon turn into an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.

The discussion underway has a different tone, which has led one person to say: "The call for dialogue and getting involved with Syria has died." Preventing the fall of Lebanon into Iran's hands is not a demagogic threat; it has become a central item in the discussions between members of Congress and the White House, and the former includes those who had earlier taken contrary positions. Syria has now become, in the viewpoint of this group, a means of sabotage used by Iran, and it will not be permitted to do as it wishes. After the recent Israeli strike against positions in Syria, Israel has lifted the cover of complete protection that it had earlier insisted on providing to the Syrians, considering it "weak" and a "buffer zone" that would prevent the Muslim Brotherhood or others from reaching power. Damascus crossed the red lines, in the view of the US and Israeli military establishments, when it entered into a relationship of banned weapons with Iran and North Korea, and thus altered the strategic equation.

Observers of the details of the Iranian and Syrian positions vis-à-vis Lebanon are talking about "distinguishing" between the two regarding the upcoming Lebanese presidential elections. They say that "Syria wants a vacuum and chaos; it wants to burn the country," while the Iranians don't see any interest for themselves or Hizbullah in such a scenario. One observer quoted a high-level Arab diplomat who said he had heard the Iranian leadership acknowledge the following about the Iranian-Syrian relationship in Lebanon: We will not be an obstacle in the face of Syria's vital interests in Lebanon, but we won't let Syria damage our vital interests in Lebanon.

Tehran has begun to sense the determination by the US and Europe to use military strikes to destroy the regime's infrastructure, while Damascus has begun to sense the important change in its own position; it was coddled by senior figures in the US and Israel and is now feeling that it is also a candidate to see its regime's fingers clipped. Both Syria and Iran are anxious, although they pretend to be unafraid and unconcerned. Some believe that Iran and Syria have decided to allow the election of a Lebanese president in order to bypass this losing battle for them and their allies. In parallel, they and their allies are preparing themselves for a counter-strategy of buying time to escape the pressure and punishment that will befall them if they continue with a confrontation over the presidential election issue at this time.

On the other hand, some believe that it is useful today to distinguish between the Iranian and Syrian positions, in order to generate Arab and international pressure to the utmost, to prevent Syrian intervention in the election. They want the international community to notify Damascus that it is being monitored and will be subject to measures if it continues to block the election. This group wants to see all deterrent measures taken to prevent additional assassinations of members of Parliament. Among these measures is preparing a Security Council resolution that, in practical terms, warns of the consequences if it continues to violate Resolution 1701, which required states to prevent smuggling weapons to any Lebanese party; this group wants the UN to shoulder its responsibilities regarding the presidential elections.

The Lebanese government has prepared a report for the Arab League and the UN in which it lists Syria's violations of 1701, from exporting weapons across the Syrian-Lebanese border to financing and arming training camps and fighters. In addition, the confessions of those involved in acts of sabotage in Lebanon have said the orders were given by Syrian officials. There is "evidence" that can be added to what the international investigation committee already has regarding political assassinations. There are many indications that Syria has been determined to strike at Lebanon's stability and see a vacuum, by blocking presidential elections.

The chaos scenario in Lebanon is dangerous not only for Lebanon, but also for the multinational forces in the south. Losing the Lebanese Army will be dangerous, if conditions lead to two governments and two presidents, a result of the failure to hold the presidential election on time and in accordance with the Constitution. Therefore, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the Security Council are obliged to think, based on the concept of partnership with the Lebanese state, about preventing a slide into chaos. This is because this chaos will be very costly for them as well, and because the presidential election is at the forefront of developments, as the UN finds itself forced to deal with these elections as if they are not a purely domestic issue - international troops have become part of the balance of domestic developments in Lebanon. In other words, the UN doesn't have the option of an immediate withdrawal of these troops, if chaos and instability prevail, since these forces are an indivisible part of the "cessation of conflict" between Lebanon and Israel, according to 1701.

This resolution, adopted by the Security Council under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, talks about states being committed to not sending arms to Lebanese groups, and means that Security Council members cannot be silent about violations, since these violations form a threat to UN troops in the south. The UN, and particularly the Security Council, might be forced to think about deploying international forces on the Lebanese-Syrian border to prevent the flow of fighters and weapons that are threatening the Lebanese state, the Lebanese Army and international troops in the south.

The UN forces won't hide in the face of the strategy to target them, whether directly or indirectly. They are obliged to preserve the "cessation of conflicts" and the UN as a whole is obliged to think about how to protect them, through deterrence, preventative action, punishment or sanctions. States, and perhaps the UN's Secretariat General, have begun to think about ending the policy of bargaining and deals, after they experienced Damascus' stalling in implementing commitments. If Damascus is serious and honest about following through on its promises and the messages it sends, it should immediately begin to do what it promised to Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, in its cryptic letter about the Shebaa Farms, and present documents to the UN to support its position that the farms are Lebanese; it should inform the UN immediately, and not through a third party, of its support for putting these farms under UN custodianship if sovereignty over them cannot be settled, and until the matter is settled, one way or another.

Perhaps Moratinos and other European foreign ministers, and the general coordinator of European foreign policy, Javier Solana, might play a very useful role if they truly pressure Israel, using the available means, to agree to place Shebaa, which it occupies, under UN custodianship as a transitional phase. Thus, the pretext of resistance by Hizbullah and its partners in Damascus and Tehran would be removed. Through such a step, the European Union would be assisting the south Lebanon-based UN force, to which a number of European countries provide troops. The battle in Lebanon is not just one among Lebanese. It is a battle to prevent Lebanon from becoming an Iranian base, and slipping into chaos, which will serve Syria's interest.

It is the battle of all Arabs, especially regarding the Arab-Iranian equation, and it is also a battle of the west, since Lebanon is a test case for democracy. Therefore, there must be a single voice - Arab and international - that says: We are here and we are determined. There is no other course but firm, clear and decisive pressure on both Syria and Iran. The tactic of separating between them, in a battle here, or a policy there, might serve a specific objective, but it will remain a mere transitory tactic before the cohesive relationship of the two regimes' strategy.

The Syrian-Iranian duo and their partners in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, are no longer in a position that lets them ignore their coming punishment for policies that are no longer acceptable regionally and internationally. They are hearing their own heartbeats, along with the heartbeats of their partners Hizbullah, Hamas and Iraqi militias and terror factions, with which they have a suspicious relationship. The duo is under the microscope, not just because of its actions, but also because of what the two countries are carrying out via allies and mercenaries. Their anxiety will grow even more, after the policy of cozying up to them has ended.