MUSLIMS all over the world are so angry about a series of cartoons poking fun at the Messenger of God that by now pretty much every Danish and Norwegian flag in the Muslim world has met its fiery end. And yet only in Damascus and Beirut have institutions--embassies or consulates--representing Denmark and Norway been attacked. Are Lebanese and Syrian Muslims angrier than other Muslims? Or, what's going on here?
First of all, it's important to remember that Syria is an authoritarian state where nothing happens on the street unless the regime permits it to happen. Actually, that's something of an understatement--the government almost always determines and drives public actions. So, many of the Damascus protestors venting their pious outrage likely either work for Syrian security services or are rent-a-mobs being paid to riot.
In Lebanon, it is only slightly different. It appears that the Internal Security Forces were incapable or unwilling to protect the Danish consulate from protestors, many of whom were apparently shipped in from Syria and Lebanese Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon (where Syrian influence and arms are extensive). Indeed, Damascus' Lebanese intelligence networks are still active, even after Syrian troops left the country last April in compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. And of course Syria has lots of Lebanese allies, including Islamist groups such as the Al-Ahbash and Hezbollah, whose General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah asked--maybe not so rhetorically--if someone blowing themselves up in the middle of Denmark constituted "an expression of freedom."
IT WOULD BE INTERESTING to know precisely the level of involvement of the Syrian mukhabarat, but President Bashar al-Asad does not want to be held accountable for what is practically an act of war. For that matter, neither Denmark nor Norway would want to know the answer and then be forced with having to respond as such. Americans might enjoy some schadenfreude in watching flags other than theirs getting torched, but why is Syria so hostile to a Europe that is by comparison much more accommodating? There are at least three possible reasons: (1) To prevent the international community from bringing down Syria's ruling regime; (2) To raise money for Hamas; (3) To warn against interfering with the Iranian nuclear program.
(1) Syria has been under the international spotlight now for nearly a year, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. In a remarkable show of multilateral concord, the United States and European Union have been working together to put pressure on the regime in Damascus. In fact, it is France that has led the way.
Even before the murder of Hariri, Jacques Chirac suggested to George Bush at the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion that this was a project they might work on together. The White House was cross with Syria for supporting the insurgency in Iraq and Chirac was angry because, among many other reasons, Syria had handed out oil contracts to non-French firms and squandered money the French president had raised at the Paris II talks in November 2002 earmarked for political and economic reform in Lebanon.
Bush and Chirac used Lebanon as a platform to fight Syria, and the regime in Damascus has been fighting back in every way possible, including the continued destabilization of Lebanon and attempts to block the U.N. investigation into the Hariri murder. The Muhammad cartoons provided yet another opportunity for Syria to scare away meddlers. After the Danish consulate was burned, protestors started to stone a Maronite church, a gesture that comports nicely with a series of bombings in Christian areas and assassinations of Christian figures designed to incite sectarian violence in Lebanon.
(2) For years, Syria has served as center of operations for a number of Palestinian rejectionist groups, including Hamas. For instance, Hamas political and military chief Khaled Mashaal makes his home just a quick cab ride away from the presidential palace in Damascus. The United States and the European Union have explained that they are not going to give any more money to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority until it recognizes Israel's right to exist and disowns violence. However, like many political bodies in the Arab world, Hamas only knows how to express itself through violence. But Hamas has a problem: the battleground that they typically availed themselves of in the past is much less accessible now that Israel has built a fence and has stopped an overwhelming percentage of suicide bombers. So, what are Hamas' options?