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Leverage and Legitimacy in Lebanon and Syria

12:14 PM, Jun 16, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Another key, as Badran argues, is to target the regime’s self-image. As this columnist in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat explains, the Syrian regime obtained legitimacy by getting world and regional powers to “recognize its role.” Since the time of Hafez, the U.S. has given the Syrians a role in the Palestinian arena, as well as in Lebanon’s; and the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group recommended that the Syrians have a say in Iraq, too, though the Bush administration wisely ignored that initiative.

In reality, Syria is a relatively small Arab state of about 22 million people, with limited natural resources and a small amount of oil. The country is run by a minority Alawite regime that is able to project power only insofar as it serves its ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Through Hezbollah, Hamas, and other Palestinian rejectionist groups, it is squared off not only against Israel, but also the Sunni powers, especially Saudi Arabia.

Syria’s real role is playing attack dog, threatening and employing violence against its rivals. It is only the timidity and indifference of the U.S., and the rest of the international community, that have granted this state sponsor of terror a legitimate role in political affairs of their neighbors, like Lebanon.

The Obama administration has balked at calling Assad illegitimate because it effectively legitimized the regime in the eyes of the rest of the world when, against the wishes of Congress, the White House sent an ambassador back to Damascus after the Bush administration effectively isolated the Syrians.

The first step then, as Badran writes, is to withdraw Robert Ford from Damascus. The administration is letting on that Ford is meeting with opposition folks and members of the military, but as Washington-based Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem tweeted, Ford hasn’t even met with the foreign minister or his deputy in some time now.

If the administration wants leverage and options, it should withdraw Ford, send Syrian ambassador Imad Mustafa back home, and declare Assad illegitimate. This will send a message to anyone in the military or elsewhere in the regime that the path is now open to challenge Bashar. The U.S. won’t need an ambassador in place to sort through petitioners and contenders, they all know how to reach the White House with an offer. 

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