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SYRIA: THE CLOCK IS TICKING
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
January 13, 2006

January 13, 2006 -- 'CRISIS? What crisis?" This was Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa's recent answer when a reporter asked him to comment on the crisis in his country.

It is generally accepted that diplomats may, on occasion, be economical with the truth provided they are not immediately exposed. But what about a diplomat who tries to deny what everyone else knows to be true? In the wake of the assassination of Lebanon's Rafik Hariri — with evidence of Syrian involvement — any taxi driver in Damascus or shopkeeper in Homs will tell you that the country is, indeed, in the midst of its deepest crisis since the breakup of its ill-fated unity with Egypt in the early 1960s.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has described the situation in Syria as "preoccupying"; his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, sees it as "dangerous."

The crisis has three interlinked dimensions.

The first is international.

Syria is now more isolated than ever in its history. In fact, leaving aside the Islamic Republic of Iran, hardly any other country is prepared to unroll the red carpet for senior Syrian officials.

Syria's relations with all major powers, including the United States, the European Union and Russia, are now frozen. With this has come the suspension of much of the aid that Syria used to receive from the EU while talks on a new deal with the union have been kicked into the tall grass. Even Britain, which had expressed high hopes about President Bashar al-Assad and given him a red carpet welcome in London, is expressing "deep disappointment," in the words of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Syria is also isolated within the Arab League, where not a single state is prepared to buy its side of the story. And it is fast working its way towards a direct confrontation with the United Nations — thus becoming the second country, after Iraq under Saddam Hussein, to be in that unenviable position.

The second dimension of the Syrian crisis is institutional.

The key institutions of the state are plainly paralyzed by self-doubt and confusion. The best that the Damascus establishment has been able to come up with so far is a campaign of denigration against Detlev Mehlis, the German judge who presided over the first part of the investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's former prime minister. The attempt at blaming the "old guard" for all that has gone wrong has also failed. And we now know that the so-called "old guard" was as horrified by Hariri's murder as anyone else.

The Syrian state at the highest level stands publicly accused of implication in a political murder, a charge that will not simply fade away. So far, however, the leadership in Damascus has tried to deal with this dangerous situation with nothing but old Stalinist tricks of propaganda, intimidation and violence.

Many Syrians might wonder whether it is fit for their nation to be transformed into a vehicle for Tehran in its quixotic attempt at reshaping the Middle East after a Khomeinist pattern. Is becoming an Iranian protectorate the best that Syrian leaders can imagine for their country in the 21st century?

The third — and possibly the most important — dimension of the Syrian crisis is moral.

Patriotism may lead most Syrians to still believe in the innocence of their leaders. But even then they would like that innocence to be established beyond a reasonable doubt and by an independent authority.

Some Syrians might resent the fact that this crisis may be used as a pretext for bringing about the regime change that Damascus has been targeted for since at least 2002. But, as Saddam Hussein's experience has shown, for regime change to succeed the targeted leadership must first lose the trust of its own people.

And, despite the regime's heavy-handed, Soviet-style propaganda, Syria's Ba'athists may well be losing that trust. Syrians may be prepared to fight for their country, but might not be as enthusiastic if they are asked to sacrifice themselves to protect a handful of shady operators from facing justice.

How could this crisis be resolved? Foreign Minister Sharaa, as always echoing his master's voice, may continue in his feigned state of denial. But more serious people in Damascus may have the good sense to look for the least-bad solution available.

This least-bad solution could start with the suspension from office of those facing charges in connection with the Hariri murder. It is also important for Lebanon's "extended" President Emil Lahoud to do the decent thing by reconsidering his position. But the centerpiece of the solution should be the formation of a caretaker government with full powers to do just two things: Cooperate with the international investigation, and, within a reasonable time limit, organize free multiparty elections.

That Syria needs a new direction is a fact that not even the entourage of President al-Assad can deny. The question is whether such a new direction is possible with the same people in charge?

The answer must be: No.

The current administration has reached the limits both of its audacity and its imagination. It may continue with the same policy of denial and intimidation in both Syria and Lebanon, but for how long? The only sure thing is that the clock is ticking against Syria and that the crisis denied by Sharaa could, within months, assume the dimensions of an historic catastrophe for the Syrian nation as a whole.

As things stand now, there is still a chance for a smooth transition in Damascus. A substantial segment of the establishment has broken away, or is prepared to do so in the context of the least-bad solution mentioned above. The European Union and at least three major Arab countries are encouraging that solution with behind-the-scenes diplomatic and political action. If that solution begins to look like a realistic option, there is little doubt that the United States will also lend its support.

Regardless of what anyone thought of his policies and style, the late President Hafez al-Assad had an asset of inestimable value: If he gave his word, he could be trusted to keep it. That made Syria an element of stability in an unstable region. Syria has now lost that asset; even its former friends are no longer prepared to trust it. Thus, it has become an element of instability at a time that the region needs to shape a new balance of power.

Obviously, Hafez al-Assad cannot return. But what can and must return is the minimum of trust that any state must inspire not only in its own people but also in the outside world.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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