Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati has finally managed to form a cabinet. Since Saad Hariri’s “national unity” government was toppled in January, due to disagreements over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) investigating the assassination of Hariri’s father Rafiq, it is hardly surprising that this cabinet is dominated by pro-Syrian figures eager to end Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL.
The Hariri-led March 14 coalition has wisely decided to stay out of the government and remain in the opposition, pushing its campaign against Hezbollah’s weapons. What’s most noteworthy about the formation of the government is that it includes only two ministers actually affiliated with Hezbollah—which is to say, the party doesn’t need to control the government itself in order to determine the direction of Lebanese politics. So much for advocates of the so-called “Lebanonization” thesis, like the White House’s counterterrorism czar John Brennan, who believe that giving Hezbollah more of a stake in the country’s political system will moderate the terrorist organization. Here’s concrete evidence that the reverse is true—the Party of God participates in state institutions only to enhance its extra-governmental power.
There were a number of issues that delayed the formation of the cabinet, like the demands of Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun for more seats, as well as the fact that Mikati’s Syrian patrons have been otherwise pre-occupied of late. But now that Damascus has exercised its will in Beirut, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is trying to give evidence that he has things under control in his own backyard—even as the Syrian opposition shows no signs of folding, in spite of the mounting death toll.
There seems to be a campaign under way to salvage Bashar’s image by ascribing the violence to his brother Maher, the real “knee-capper,” according to some experts. This narrative likens Bashar to his father Hafez, who was responsible for the 1982 massacre at Hama, and Maher to Hafez’s brother Rifaat, who was exiled. Accordingly, as long as the international community is willing to swallow the lie that someone else is really calling the shots, maybe Bashar can stick around.
Assad plans on delivering a speech tomorrow, which some analysts suspect will simply repeal the death penalty for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and an article of the constitution decreeing that the Baath party is in charge of the government and society. Of course that hardly constitutes the sort of reform that the Obama administration has demanded. But then it’s not clear what exactly the White House expects from the Syrian leader at this stage; nor does it know what instruments it has at its disposal. The administration fears it doesn’t have sufficient leverage on the regime.
However, as Tony Badran writes in Foreign Policy, “The evolution of the Syrian uprising has presented Washington with a unique opportunity to squeeze Assad. The United States has leverage; it has simply chosen not to use it.”
David Schenker and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute write that the U.S. has plenty of leverage. First, there’s economic pressure—target the energy sector and businesses associated with the regime. Then there’s diplomatic isolation—refer Assad to the International Criminal Court, and focus the International Atomic Energy Agency’s attention on the regime’s secret nuclear facility. Finally, they recommend hastening the unraveling of the Syrian military and publicly voicing their support for the Syrian people.
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.