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Landis: Iraq War Sapping U.S. Influence in Lebanon

Interviewee: Joshua Landis, codirector, Center of Peace Studies, University of Oklahoma
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 3, 2006

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Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria and Lebanon, says the drawn-out Iraq conflict has fed an image of declining U.S. influence in Lebanon, and this has led Hezbollah to try to weaken, if not overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

U.S. power in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion enabled it to pry Lebanon away from Syria’s sphere of influence, Landis says. “But now as America’s authority starts to drain out of the region because of the Iraq debacle, Syria and its allies in Lebanon are trying to capitalize on a weakened America,” says Landis, who publishes a blog called “Syria Comment.” He says that eventually a deal will have to be struck with Syria.

The other day the United States government, seemingly out of nowhere, issued a statement saying that Syria and Iran were plotting with Hezbollah to topple the government of Lebanon. This takes place as [Hassan] Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, is campaigning to have more influence in the government of Lebanon. What’s really going on out there?

The United States is concerned because the anti-Siniora forces, led by an alliance of Hezbollah, other Shiites, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri as well as Michel Aoun, a Christian general, are hoping to force early elections in Lebanon. They believe that the United States is less popular than ever because of the war this summer. And they hope this will undermine the popularity of the pro-American Siniora-led government, and that this is the time for them to move and demand early elections.

When would elections normally be held?

In theory, they wouldn’t have to have parliamentary elections for many years, but they can be called at any time if there’s a vote of no confidence. What Nasrallah has said is that he doesn’t want new elections. What he wants is for Siniora to create a government of national unity. And to bring in four cabinet members that belong to Michel Aoun and to Hezbollah and related allies of Hezbollah. Of course, Siniora does not want to do that. And if his demands are not met, Nasrallah says he’s going to lead demonstrations, big demonstrations.

These would clog up Lebanon. And this is where America accused him of trying to do something illegal. Such demonstrations might force the government to perhaps shoot into the crowd, or put them down; it could turn into riots. And the United States sees this as a Syrian-Iranian plot to destabilize Lebanon. Nasrallah turned around and said, “Look, it’s a democratic right to demand a change of government through peaceful demonstrations.” He said, “Those who are currently in the government demonstrated in the streets last year during the Cedar revolution until they toppled the cabinet of Prime Minister Omar Karami. Why aren’t we allowed to do the same thing? Why do they call us rioters if we are going to do the demonstrations that they did a year ago?” What he’s suggesting is, “Look, we’re the popular ones now.” And that may be true, because of the inconclusive war this summer.

Is this really “a plot” to overthrow the Siniora government, aided by Iran and Syria?

It depends on how we define plot, I guess. Nasrallah has made it very clear he and his allies want more power in the government. And they’ve demanded the elections. They’ve also said that they’re willing to compromise and that’s to expand the cabinet that’s led by Siniora and that would mean putting more of them into the cabinet, giving them the ability to stop legislation. The Americans are saying this is an effort to save Syria, because Lebanon is now debating approving an international court that is going to try the killers of the past Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The United States says a broadened government would probably not go ahead with the trial and this would protect Syria and undo democratic Lebanon.

What is the status of this trial?

The Lebanese cabinet is supposed to be voting on okaying the international court and how it’s going to be made up. The bill is going through the Lebanese government and the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, is trying to block it. He is pro-Syrian, and he is saying, “This is an international treaty. And as the president of Lebanon I can veto any international treaty.” And the Siniora government is trying to say, “This is not an international treaty. It’s a cabinet decision.”

Now when the Siniora government took over, this was following these huge demonstrations after the assassination of Hariri. Has public opinion so shifted in Lebanon as to no longer care much about who killed Hariri?

I think that that’s partly it. It’s not that they don’t care. The anti-government forces are painting this government as a pro-American government which has allowed Lebanon to become an instrument in the hands of America to attack Syria, to bring down the Bashar al-Assad government. And there are many very intelligent Lebanese who claim this is not a role that Lebanon can undertake, that the United States is overloading this very weak state.

For our readers who are not that familiar, they’re saying that the United States  is hoping to use Lebanon through an international tribunal that would find the Assad government guilty of plotting the assassination of Hariri and hopefully that would bring about a change in regime in Syria, right?

Yes, or to change the regime’s behavior. America wants Syria to turn 180 degrees on its foreign policy. And Syria has been resistant to this, and has refused to do this without something in exchange. America’s main leverage on Syria has been this Hariri investigation, but the Europeans have refused to join the United States in imposing economic sanctions.

I see. So there are no sanctions right now on Syria?

Only American sanctions.

And these pre-date Hariri, right? Or are these new ones?

Well, they both pre-date Hariri and are newer ones. Now America’s been trying to ratchet this up, but they can’t do it alone. And [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice has constantly been appealing to the Europeans to join America in stiffer sanctions. That’s where the trial comes in and is crucial. Because if this trial can prove that Syria is complicit in the Hariri assassination, then Europe would be forced to go along with sanctions. Three days ago Britain sent a high-level envoy to Syria. There is mounting pressure, not only on the part of Europeans, but also on the part of some Americans in the administration to abandon the policy that we’ve been following and to engage Syria.

This was particularly acute at the time of the Lebanon war this summer because the feeling was Syria still had great influence in Lebanon on Hezbollah.

Hezbollah was much more powerful than anybody had really understood. And Syria was its main arms provider. Most of the arms are coming from Iran, but they have to go through Syria.

You’ve spent many years in Syria. What’s your own personal view right now? Is Syria open to doing anything that would at all meet what the United States is looking for if the United States opened a dialogue?

That’s the big, million-dollar question here. And that’s where a lot of people around Bush are skeptical. They can’t see how to get anything out of Syria. Syria wants the entire Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, returned. The United States wants influence in Lebanon. Now, Syria could assist in encouraging Hezbollah to make the shift from a military militia to a purely political party in Lebanon. That would get it out of the business of terrorism. And this would bring security to Israel’s northern border. That’s what Syria can offer. But, of course, that’s going to require a bunch of things in exchange, which America is not going to want to give and may not be able to give. First, Syria wants to reopen negotiations with Israel in order to get back the Golan.

When Ehud Barak was prime minister, Clinton thought he could broker a deal between Barak and Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. But Barak pulled back, right at the last minute, didn’t he?

They were very close. And the difference was that Syria wanted everything up to the borders of 1967. And Israel wanted to give less than that. The Israelis wanted to keep land on the other side of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, to guarantee that the Syrians would never be able to get near the water. For Syria, it was crucial that Assad get back all of the land. Egypt got back all of the land [taken by Israel in 1967 as part of the 1979 peace treaty], Jordan satisfied itself on its land issues. For Syria it was, “We have to get it all back. We’re not going to do less than Egypt.”

And there’s no sign that Syria will ease its conditions, right?

No. There is no sign. Syria says they want to resume negotiations where they left off in 2000. A number of Israelis have stepped forward and said, “Look, if we talk to Syria we have to give up the whole Golan. We have to be prepared for that.” And that’s the sticking point.

Well, let’s go back to Hezbollah. In the aftermath of the war, now several months have gone by. Who gets blamed? Just Israel and the United States, or Hezbollah as well?

It’s both. The hardline Christians from the north, who hate Hezbollah, are convinced that Hezbollah is the downfall of Lebanon and their dislike of Hezbollah has hardened. They claim it’s an Iranian agent, that these are not really Lebanese. But there’s a middle ground. There’s this little shifting middle ground, which are the Sunni Lebanese who helped form the Siniora government. That government was powered by the shift of Sunni Lebanese who abandoned Arabism and went to Lebanonism and rebuilt their coalition with the Christians, because of the death of Hariri. They switched sides.

And then what happened?

What happened? The war. America’s intimate ally, Israel, bombs the hell out of Lebanon in order to destroy Hezbollah once and for all.

But the war was started by Hezbollah, right?

Hezbollah believed that they could nip across the border and grab two Israelis and bargain for these prisoners and that they would get away with it. And of course it worked completely in the opposite direction and they were taken by surprise. It started this war. And unfortunately, the war didn’t work out for the United States and Israel the way it was supposed to. What happened is, in essence, Israel destroyed the entire legacy of Hariri, which was to rebuild Lebanon. And Israel blew up all these bridges, and all this fancy infrastructure that Hariri had spent the last decade building. The Lebanese were furious.

So next week, what are we faced with? Are there going to be street riots or what?

I think Hezbollah’s going to move forward with demonstrations. And it’s threatening the government, threatening Siniora, saying “You have to give us more authority.” That’s what they’ve asked for. More cabinet ministers.

This challenge by Hezbollah-Aoun, is a natural challenge. They’re trying to take advantage of America’s failure in order to gain more power in the government. Following the invasion of Iraq, America’s power had increased immensely. And it was able to pry Lebanon away from Syria because Lebanon had traditionally been a sphere of influence of Syria. But now as America’s authority starts to drain out of the region because of the Iraq debacle, Syria and its allies in Lebanon are trying to capitalize on a weakened America. America tried to stick its finger in the dike this summer by supporting this Israeli air war to try to destroy Hezbollah and to keep Lebanon securely within America’s sphere of influence. But they failed. And so Syria’s back on the march and the Shiites and Aoun are re-invigorated. And they’re making another assault on this pro-America government.

American power is diminishing in the region. And even if the United States can hold this government together for the time being, the Americans cannot win the battle right now. I think that Lebanon is going to have to make some kind of compromise. Unless if falls apart, it’s got to find some modus vivendi with Syria. Syria’s too powerful right now.

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